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This review is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.

WHAT BOOKS DO Ronald Taylor, Literature & Society in Germany 1918-1945 (Harvester Press) £22.00

As Professor Taylor is well aware, there is something intrinsically awkward about treating literature as history. 'To study literature in this ". . . and society" mode has two particular consequences', he writes in the Preface:

The first is that the material to which one turns is often of the second rank, in which there is little of interest left to discuss after one has considered what binds it to its historical and social setting. Indeed, it is by nature the less-than-great works of any age which are swallowed up in the concerns of that age, and which acquire the epithets 'typical' and 'characteristic'. What is contemptibly typical and characteristic of the literature of National Socialism, moreover, while manifest, is beyond comment. This is part of the price one pays for studying such an age.

A related difficulty is that the historical approach to national literatures is a product of nineteenth-century positivism, determinism and historicism. As such, it tends to lose sight of the degree to which all good art, however 'committed', remains autonomous. (Preoccupied though he was with the usefulness of literature, even Brecht conceded this essential autonomy of art.) What makes the bulk of National Socialist literature 'contemptible' is the loss of the autonomy; and much the same is true of the great mass of literature whose autonomy has been curtailed not by political but by commercial considerations. Also, we know much more about the effect of social and ...

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