Literary research in the library can take many forms besides
looking for criticism. It may include looking for background
information on an author's life and times, or the historical
setting of a novel or poem; finding out the meaning of a literary
allusion; or something as mundane as looking up a word in
the dictionary. This short guide is intended to lead you to
some of the most useful and interesting literary reference
sources in Kresge Library.
THE AUTHOR'S WORDS
Language is the medium in which the author works. Therefore
the essential reference book for literary research is the
dictionary. Here's a short list of some of the best we have:
The Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition. Ref..
PE 1625 .O87 1989
Known as the OED, this is the most complete historico-lexical
study of any language in the world. It covers 616,500 word
forms in English, providing complete etymological, morphological
and historical information, including 2,400,000 quotations
illustrating usage. To know what sense a word had during the
era when an author used it, this is your source.
Dictionary of American English. Ref. PE 2835 .C72
This DAE was conceived as one of several supplements
to the OED; it covers specifically American usages
and meanings, and is historical in scope.
Dictionary of American Regional English. Ref.
PE 2843 .D52 1985
The DARE is a new project which aims to survey the
full range of regional word use and meaning in the United
States; two volumes have been published thus far. The best
resource for words from regional or local dialects.
Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Ref.
PE 3721 .P322
Covering primarily British slang this perennial favorite
by the late Eric Partridge has gone through many editions,
and is commonly referred to by his surname.
Dictionary of American Slang. Ref. PE 2846 .W4 1975
Does for America what Partridge does for England.
If, on the other hand, your question is not what did a particular
word mean to the author, but rather, where does this word
occur in the work, concordances exist for most major
authors that will enable you to find it. Two extremely significant
concordances for literature in English are:
Strong, James. Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.
Ref. BS 425 .S8 1963
Spevack, Marvin. The Harvard Concordance to
Shakespeare. Ref. PR 2892 .S62
To search for concordances in the library's online catalog,
Voyager, search the author's name as a subject and then look
for the subheading "concordances."
THE AUTHORS' LIVES
Biographical information about an author serves many uses
not the least of which is simple curiosity. Knowing about
the writer's life and times may help put his or her works
in context. One way to find biographies is to look under the
author's name as a subject in the library catalog (e.g., subject
search: marvell andrew). For more concise information the
following sources will help:
British Writers. Ref. PR 85 .B688
American Writers. Ref. PS 129 .A55
European Writers. Ref. PN 501 .E9 1983
Each of these gives a thorough account of important writers
of the geographical area covered, including information on
the life, discussion of the works, and a bibliography.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Various call numbers
This series is like the previous ones in covering authors'
lives and works, with bibliographies, while including less
famous figures, genre writers, and writers from specific ethnic
and cultural groups. To find the entries in this series, search
it as a title in Voyager.
Contemporary Authors. Ref. CT 104 .A1 C58-65
An exhaustive guide, international in scope, to writers currently
living or recently deceased, including many who are not particularly
literary in their aims or works. It gives summary biographical
information and a list of works.
THE CRITIC'S WORDS
Often when reading literary criticism or history, we may
come across terminology that is foreign to us. Just what is
"synecdoche?" What was "Romanticism?" The following handbooks
are good places to find the meaning of critical terminology:
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms.
Ref. PN 41 .A184
The latest edition includes an added section defining "modern
theories of literature and criticism," as well as the main
section defining important terms. For the student.
Cuddon, J. A. A Dictionary of Literary Terms.
Ref. PN 41 .C83 1998
Much longer and more extensive in scope than Abrams, Cuddon
includes specific terms from different national literatures,
rhetorical figures, verse forms, genres, etc.
Harris, Wendell V. Dictionary of Concepts
in Literary Criticism and Theory. Ref. PN 41 .H36 1992
A detailed and scholarly guide to concepts of importance
to current literary criticism; instead of a variety of terms,
Harris concentrates on in-depth discussion of 70 concepts
of special importance, each accompanied by a selective bibliography.
Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Ref. CB 5 .D52
This interdisciplinary guide to the history of thought is
an excellent resource for particular ideas which may not be
literary in nature but are involved in the discussion of literature.
Many sources exist to give quick, summary information about
authors, famous works, forms, genres, characters and other
items useful to the reader of literature. All of the following
handbooks have strengths and weaknesses and it is a good idea
to try several if you have difficulty finding what you're
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia. Ref. PN 41 .B4 1996
A fine handbook to world literature listing authors, works,
characters, national literatures, classical allusions and
other useful information.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Ref. PR
19 .D73 1998
The Oxford Companion to American Literature. Ref.
PS 21 .H3 1995
Both of these works identify authors, works, characters and
publications important to the respective national literatures.
Cyclopedia of Literary Characters. Ref. PN 44 .M3
As the title implies, chiefly a guide to characters, arranged
by literary work, indexed by author and character name.
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Ref. PN 43
A decidedly idiosyncratic and frequently delightful hodge-podge
of characters, allusions, phrases, idiomatic expressions and
The following sources give detailed, authoritative and thoroughly
indexed access to literary figures, movements, and works produced
during a particular period:
Cambridge History of English Literature. Ref. PR 83
Literary History of the United States. Ref. PS 88
SOURCES ON PARTICULAR AUTHORS
Many authors, particularly the most famous, have reference
books devoted to them. Bibliographies will list their writings
and writings about them. Sometimes whole encyclopedias may
be devoted to a single author as in A Milton Encyclopedia
(Ref. PR 3580 .M5) or The Spenser Encyclopedia
(Ref. PR 2362 .A6 S69 1990). And extremely specific handbooks
may exist as well; for a dictionary of sexual language in
Shakespeare, see Shakespeare's Bawdy (Ref. PR
2892 .P27 1961a). To find these, as with bibliographies and
concordances, search the Library Catalog by subject using the author's
name, and look for the appropriate subheading, e.g., choose
Subject search, type in milton john and look for "dictionaries,
indexes, etc." or austen jane and look for "bibliography."
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