The Long Latin Line

Latin Literature: A History

by Gian Biagio Conte, translated by Joseph B. Solodow and revised by Don Fowler and Glenn W. Most
Johns Hopkins University Press, 827 pp., $65.00

Histories of literature are a curious form of history. When we consider most histories we have no difficulty distinguishing them from their subject matter. On the one hand there are clothes and shoes and jewelry; on the other, histories of fashion. On the one hand there are armies, equipment, and battles; on the other, histories of warfare. A history of an entire literature is different, for here an extensive book describes and categorizes the contents of other books. Professor Conte, of the University of Pisa, remarks in the introduction to his long Latin Literature: A History that in the case of late and little-read authors “in this field textbooks often take the place of a direct meeting with the texts.” Not only in that case, alas; for many students writing papers, for many teachers and writers in search of a quick recourse, Conte’s history will be a substitute for the texts it describes. It may even, sometimes, be in competition with them for the reader’s attention.

A history of literature that limits itself to the factual is a jejune creation, but any book with such a title must contain “the facts”: an illusory term, when so much darkness and doubt surround even the simplest biographical and chronological points about many Latin authors and publications. Problems of more complex kinds attend any attempt to decide which are the really important connections:which writer’s influence on another is to be seen as decisive, or what is the relation between the creation of a work of literature and events in the political and social history of the time. Conte gives the sort of biographical and historical information that might be expected in a book of this type but with a more sophisticated awareness of the fragility of much of it than one finds in many other text books. He also gives an unfailingly intelligent and interesting account of the works themselves.

In his thoughtful introduction, Conte begins by saying that for previous generations, “the organization of the study of literature” was “inherited from the culture of Romanticism.” Literary history thus “came to concentrate above all on individual works and on the contingent conditions that brought them into being.” Now, by contrast, historicism has yielded to attack from various different quarters, including

…phenomenology, formalism, stylistic criticism, thematic and symbolic criticism, the New Criticism, and also the more recent developments in structuralism and its successors. This new critical approach focuses upon the individual works as manifestations of a specifically literary language:literariness, understood as the feature that is relevant and distinctive of texts, has become the center of attention…every work is formed and finds meaning in relation to other literary works, every text is viewed as conditioned by other texts, through similarity or differentiation. Thus modern literary historical investigation has increasingly directed its attention to intertextuality, to precisely those relations that, like a network of signification, connect one text to another within the body of literature.

Conte’s own work, subtle and influential, has centered…

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