Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Walter Benjamin is something of an anomaly in an era of literary criticism when every significant critic is the author of some major work and seems to “belong” to some unified theoretical school or another. Benjamin, a German-Jewish intellectual who committed suicide during the Nazi persecution, is primarily known as the author only of a number of essay-length studies which have been edited since his death. Moreover, although he did some writing in the late 1930’s in connection with the so-called Frankfurt School, established in Germany for the study of Marxism, it is not easy to pigeonhole him or his views as belonging to a rigid theoretical framework. His best-known literary essays are “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner Reproduzierbarkeit” (1936; “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936), “Franz Kafka” (1934; English translation, 1968), and the 1936 essay on Nikolai Leskov as storyteller, which were unknown by most English readers until they appeared in Illuminations (1968), a collection of Benjamin’s essays translated by Hannah Arendt.

Although the subtitle of the storytelling essay, one of Walter Benjamin’s most famous pieces, indicates that its focus is on the fiction of the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, what Benjamin actually develops in the essay is a definition of the nature of storytelling—an art which he laments is coming to an end for various sociological reasons. The essay lists what...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Eagleton, Terry. Walter Benjamin: Or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, 1981.

Jennings, Michael W. Dialectal Images: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Literary Criticism, 1987.

Roberts, Julian. Walter Benjamin, 1982.

Sontag, Susan. “Under the Sign of Saturn,” in Under the Sign of Saturn, 1980.

Wellek, Rene. “Walter Benjamin’s Literary Criticism in His Marxist Phase,” in The Personality of the Critic, 1973. Edited by Joseph P. Strelka.