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ScienceShot: Literature Runs From Its Past

30 April 2012 3:08 pm
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E.O. Hoppé

"Make it new!" declared Ezra Pound (shown), demanding that writers shrug off the literary influence of the past. Indeed, an analysis published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that Pound and his Modernist peers obeyed the dictum to a degree never before seen in English literature. Scientists examined the statistical patterns of words in 7733 English-language works in the Project Gutenberg database, starting in 1550 and spanning 4 centuries. This analysis differed from previous works in its large scale and its focus on how authors used 307 "content-free words" such as prepositions, articles, forms of "to be," and pronouns. Researchers discovered that most authors wrote in a similar style to those immediately preceding them, and that this influence diminished steadily over time—which is not surprising, but it bolsters the largely subjective idea of a distinct style for each era. The scientists also found that not all eras treated the past equally. Overall, writers showed the most stylistic similarity to those who preceded them by about a quarter century, but authors between 1907 and 1952—which included the heyday of Modernism—showed the most stylistic differences to their immediate predecessors. Researchers attribute this early 20th century "revulsion" partly to the make-it-new ethos, and partly to the increasing number of books published in modern times, which left writers less time to ruminate on scribes who came before.

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