Drout, Tradition and Influence

My review of Michael D. C. Drout, Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literature: An Evolutionary, Cognitivist Approach (New York: Palgrave, 2013), appears in Speculum. Here’s the opening of the review:

This book introduces a meme-based theory of literary tradition and influence. Through a combination of data visualization, analogies to evolutionary biology, and case studies in Old English literature, Michael Drout explores the processes behind the composition, transmission, and reception of literary works in cultural history. In its theoretical approach and its literary focus, the book is a direct extension of Drout’s first monograph, How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century (Tempe, 2006).

The book is structured around a sequence of theoretical issues of increasing abstraction. Chapter 1 defines tradition as “a particular kind of influence in which the entities that are influenced persist in a chain of similar forms” and introduces a general theory of tradition and influence based on Richard Dawkins’s concept of the meme, which “is [sic] small unit of culture that reproduces in minds” (11). Chapter 2 integrates this theory of tradition and influence with lexomics, a computational method for measuring affiliations between chunks of text, using various long Old English poems as examples. Chapter 3 applies the meme-based theory of tradition to aesthetics and poetic genre, using the Old English Fortunes of Men, Gifts of Men, and Precepts as examples. Chapter 4 takes up the biological metaphor of the adaptive landscape to conceptualize the developmental trajectories of memes in evolutionary time, and chapter 5 uses this metaphor to interpret generic features in a group of Old English poems from the Exeter Book. Chapter 6 applies the meme-based theory of tradition to the problem of authorship, using the Old English Homiletic Fragment II as an example; the chapter concludes with a memetic exegesis of three literary-critical concepts of authorship and the six “revisionary ratios” of poetic influence posited in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence.

Despite its title, then, this is not primarily a book about medieval English literature. […]

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