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ENGL 500: Research and Critical Writing

Background and Context

One key practice in reading literature involves understanding and clarifying the historical context of a piece of literature. Reading about the political and social context at the time a piece was written can help you to understand allusions within the text in new ways.

Literary biography can be an important first step in researching a particular text. Literary biography explores not only the lives of authors, but how their lives might be reflected in their works, and commentary and criticism of their works, both during their lives and after. 

Many literary biographies can be found online through Literature Online, but the library also has many volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography to explore as well. Some that might be useful for your class are listed below. 

There are also some great encyclopedias related to particular literary movements that you may find useful.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original documents and objects, providing first-hand information about a time period, topic, or text. They include things like letters, diaries, photographs, original manuscripts of texts, newspapers and pamphlets, and more. 

Primary source materials can give unique insight into a work of literature by revealing what was going on in author's life when the piece was being written, what was happening socially and politically in the world around her, and sometimes even revealing the author's thoughts about the piece itself. 

There are many digitized collections of primary source materials available in the library. You can see our full list of primary source databases online. Below are just a few examples that might be useful. 

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is the analysis and interpretation of literary works. When you write your final paper in this class, you’ll be writing literary criticism. Most criticism is in the form of essays, and these are often published in scholarly journals or gathered together into a single topical volume. Sometimes a work of criticism will be long and detailed enough to be published as its own book.

There are many journals that publish literary criticism. Some examples are American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography, American Literary History, and Thoreau Journal Quarterly. Journals can be very specific or very broad in their subject matter. 

You may not cite any literary criticism in your paper. You may find that no one else has written about your particular idea in relation to the text you're reading. You may also find that others have written about your ideas. You can use their analyses to support your own, or you may refute their analyses if your interpretation of the text leads you to a different conclusion. When searching for criticism, you're not necessarily looking for an article or book that supports you're idea. You're looking to see if anyone else has already written about your idea. 

Words and Language

Another key to analyzing and interpreting a piece of literature is to look closely at the word and language choice in the piece. Literary dictionaries can give you excellent information about certain techniques and stylistic choices made by the author. Knowing these terms will help you discuss a text and learn why the author makes the choices she or he does in writing. Resources like the Oxford English Dictionary can tell you about the history and evolution of particular words.