In a milestone for my English Literature Mooc, I’ve just filed my first essay, a new historicist approach to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.
The principal difference between this and my first, conventional History degree, is that the work is optional.
It’s probably the first time in my life that I’ve written an essay that will not be read or reviewed by anyone else.
And because of the semi-optional nature of a piece of work that will not be reviewed, I’m surprised to find that I not only wrote a page that the course demanded, I wrote 3. It took about six hours.
The other major difference shows my age. I wrote my essays long-hand at University (1995-9), but I was probably the last generation to do so. And the internet was not very useful to my essay work then.
Today, the internet really is useful. What’s brilliant is being able to find so many historical and literary texts online. I could read The Cask online in its entirety. And I could find several critiques of The Cask to compare with my own.
But it doesn’t have everything.
In some ways, I feel my sense of scholarship is undermined. I could not find the tale online that, according to Wikipedia, The Cask answers, or the journal which discusses it. And that doesn’t feel quite safe – after all, anyone could have doctored that entry.
However, I was able to check the dates of other works I felt Poe’s story derives from or is influenced by, and in many cases read them; and I could check my imperfect recollections of 19th century history.
As for the decision to take a New Historicist approach, – well, it was very influenced by my historical training. A punchy Marxist approach could have limited the essay to a page (the two central characters appeared to be the same class). A psychoanalytical approach would have worked, but would have to rely on conjecture. Besides, both would have been a-historical, in the sense that the tale was written before Das Kapital and before Freud.
So the question remains, have I learned much, or am I leaning too heavily on my existing knowledge of history and of literature, and viewing what I read through that prism?
I suspect the latter – so as I get into the next Unit of my MOOC (Poetics) I am going to read some more literary theory.