Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My Adventures in Literary Theory and Criticism

Today, I spent some time in my office, grading papers. Out of the blue, and for no apparent reason, I pulled out from my shelves some books of literary theory and criticism, arranged them on the floor, and photographed them. I thought I would just feature them on my blog even though I did not quite know what to say about them. Knowing, however, that it would be awkward to not say anything, I chose to say a few words.

I have enjoyed literary theory and criticism ever since my undergraduate days at the University of Dar es Salaam. I studied Theory of Literature under the late Mr. Mofolo Bulane of Lesotho. We focused on Marxist Literary theory.

That grounding in Marxist Literary theory came in handy for me when, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Madison, I took a theory of poetry course--which was Marxist oriented--taught by the late Professor Lawrence Dembo in the English Department. In the Department of Comparative Literature, I encountered Formalism, Structuralism, New Criticism, Semiotics, and Deconstruction.

I read essays that made a lasting impression on me and continue to inform my teaching. Two of these are by Cleanth Brooks: "The Language of Paradox" and "The Heresy of Paraphrase." The other is "The Intentional Fallacy" by William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley. Roland Barthes's S/Z greatly influenced my understanding of the reading process, as did Reader-response and Reception theories.

I was fascinated by the concept of literary evolution, intertextuality, and the interface between orality and literacy as articulated especially by Walter Ong. I became interested in psychoanalysis, especially in the context of my study of Folklore. Alan Dundes, one of the world's foremost psychoanalytic folklorists, came to Madison and gave lectures which compounded my interest in the psychoanalytic approach.

In the more than twenty years I have been teaching at St. Olaf College, I have developed a keen interest in Post-colonial Theory and Feminism, and have been following debates around issues of language and decolonizing the mind.

I find reading literary theory and criticism fascinating despite the challenge posed by an ever-increasing diversification of trends. Fortunately, the books I buy, such as the few featured in the photo above, embrace most of the key theorists, especially of the twentieth century and this early part of the twenty first.

No comments: