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Genetic Engineering: Genetic Criticism

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Genetic Criticism

Source study is a unique approach to a work of literature because it seems to have little to do with the completed work itself. Source study, or genetic criticism, has as its focus all of those things that influenced, or may have influenced, a literary work. By this branch of criticism, Wilfred Guerin explains, "... we mean the growth and development of a work as seen through a study of the author's manuscripts during the stages of composition of the work, of notebooks, of sources and analogues, and of various other influences (not necessarily sociological or psychological) that lie in the background of the work" (292). A genetic critic hopes to find clues as to the author's intention by noting and examining the choices an author has made during the production of a work. One of the assumptions made by these critics, Guerin adds, is that such research will lead to "a richer, more accurate appreciation of the work" (292). In practice, the light of appreciation, accumulated from such research, shines most brightly on the artist, while the work itself fades into the background.

Perhaps this focus on the writer is not such a bad thing. Chauncey Sanders writes that the study of a writer's sources leads to a clearer understanding of an artist's originality or lack of the same (165). While it may be useful to spot literary robbery, Sanders believes that genetic criticism has a more important role: "It should not be confined to the discovery of such plagiarisms . . . but rather it should involve the analyzing of a piece of literature with a view to discovering whence came the inspiration, the material, and the technique whereby the work came into being" (162). Again, though, it is the artist who is the main subject of this type of research. "We must learn and study the sources of a Chaucer or a Shakespeare," writes Sanders, "in order to appreciate the nature and extent of his originality" (364-365). Any greater understanding of the work would result only indirectly from this approach to literature, an approach which seems especially susceptible to becoming a mere celebration of the artist.

John Holmes' analysis of Robert Frost's composition of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" illustrates how genetic criticism tends to reveal more about the poet than the poem.
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