by Sandra M. Gustafson
Derived from the Latin littera, or “letter,” “literature” for many centuries referred to a personal quality (“having literature”) that meant possessing polite learning through reading. To call someone “illiterate” in the seventeenth century did not mean that the person could not read; it meant that the individual was not possessed of learning, notably knowledge of the classics. Any formal written work—for instance, a scientific treatise, a sermon text, a work of philosophy, or an ethnographic narrative—counted as “literature.” Then around 1750, the historical associations of literature with literacy and polite learning began to change. Literacy rates rose, printing presses became more common, and the products of the presses became increasingly varied. Reading styles slowly shifted from intensive reading of a few works to wide reading of many works, authorship emerged as a distinct profession, and printed works were increasingly treated as intellectual property. All these factors undermined the association of literacy with polite learning and affected the definition of literature, until eventually it was restricted primarily to works of imaginative literature, notably poetry, drama, and fiction (Kernan 1990; Amory and Hall 2000; McGill 2003).