[Chapter 1, note 4, of the author's Carlyle and the Search for Authority, which the Ohio State University Press published in 1991. It appears in the Victorian web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright. indicates a link to material not in the original print version. GPL]

The word literature itself only came to designate artistic texts in the course of the nineteenth century (see Todorov; Williams, Keywords, 183-88; Kernan, 7, 259-64; and Parrinder, 20-21). René Wellek adds a corrective by insisting that there are important precedents for the modern usage, but his argument ultimately demonstrates that the word literature did not come to designate a body of imaginative texts until the late eighteenth century ("What Is Literature?" 16-23).

In Gissing's New Grub Street (1891), Alfred Yule notes the evolution of the term: "And apropos of that, when was the word 'literature' first used in our modern sense to signify a body of writing? In Johnson's day it was pretty much the equivalent of our 'culture.'. . . His dictionary, I believe, defines the word as 'learning, skill in letters'-nothing else" (434)


Contents last modified 5 October 2001