The study of cross-cultural and trans-historical patterns is a crucial part of understanding what it means to be human. Isolating, articulating, and explaining such universal patterns is, however, no simple task. This is perhaps especially true in literary study, where the very idea of universals is widely misunderstood. Any investigation of universals requires the cooperation of many scholars in different fields contributing to a research program, through both cooperation and contestation.
The purposes of the Literary Universals Project (LitUP) are to provide, first, a basic resource for people seeking to understand the nature and varieties of literary universals and, second, a forum for advancing research in the area. As to the first purpose, the website includes a series of overview essays written by researchers in the field. As to the second purpose, the editors will consider submissions of short suggestions for literary universals (usually about 500 to 1,000 words in length), short criticisms of proposed universals (roughly 250 to 500 words), somewhat longer examinations of individual literary works in relation to universals (perhaps 2,500 words), and surveys of research programs on literary universals (approximately 3,000 words or so). All submissions will be refereed by members of the editorial board or outside experts. In order to foster dialogue on specific topics, we will regularly publish comments on essays. The comments may be made by referees, editorial board members, or readers. The comments are subjected to review by the editors. In each case, the author of the original article will be allowed to respond to the comment. Commentators will be limited to one post per article.
In addition to a general introduction and a bibliography of works bearing on literary universals, as well as a list of all articles on the site, the website organizes contributions into eight further categories. The articles in “Categorizing Literary Universals” address the theoretical issue of what varieties of universals we may wish to distinguish. For example, there is an important difference between normative and descriptive universals, universals that prescribe literary practices and universals that state what literary practices there are. The section on “Describing Literary Universals” comprises essays that propose candidates for literary universality. “Explaining Literary Universals” considers the different ways in which we might account for cross-cultural literary patterns, for example by invoking working memory to understand poetic line length or political economy to make sense of patterns in realism or stylization. (The latter would probably fall into the category of typological or implicational universals, where a particular property, such as the growth of realism, is cross-culturally associated with another property, such as the development of mercantile economy, as suggested by Arnold Hauser.)
“Extending Literary Universals” takes up some of the literary universals treated in other sections and considers what implications they may have outside literary study. For example, universal story genres may have consequences for the ways in which we think about history, ethics, or politics. “Challenging Literary Universals” gathers essays treating objections to the study of universals. “Studying Literary Universals” overviews research traditions treating universals. “Literary Works and Authors” considers the ideas and practices of creative writers in relation to literary universals and presents illustrative cases of literary interpretations based on universals. Finally, the “Interviews” section presents discussions on literary universals and related topics.
The preceding categories are not mutually exclusive. They do not present hard and fast divisions in the study of literary universals. In consequence, some contributions will fall into more than one category. The point of the categories is simply to suggest the range of possible endeavors that are part of the Literary Universals Project. This range should help readers to keep in mind the diversity of such study, the variety of ideas and practices it involves. That diversity should contribute not only to understanding the different forms of research presented on the site, but also to encouraging readers to undertake research themselves. In connection with this, the articles conclude with a section on “future research,” recommending areas that readers may wish to explore and develop as part of the collaborative work that is necessary for any study of universals.
Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut
The Literary Universals Project is enabled by a generous grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research at the University of Connecticut and by the support of the University of Connecticut English Department (with special thanks to Professor Robert Hasenfratz). The website was designed by Musa Jatkowski and Kelly Cosgrove of the University of Connecticut Web Development Lab. The artwork on the slideshow is taken from photographs by Lalita Pandit Hogan.
Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art (Volume I): Prehistoric, Ancient-Oriental, Greece and Rome, Middle Ages. Trans. Stanley Godman. New York: Vintage Books, 1957.