A recent study has found, Jane Austen, author of “Pride and Prejudice, “ and Sir Walter Scott, the creator of “Ivanhoe,” had the greatest effect on other authors, in terms of writing style and themes.
These two were “the literary equivalent of Homo erectus, or, if you prefer, Adam and Eve,” Matthew L. Jockers wrote in research published last year. He based his conclusion on an analysis of 3,592 works published from 1780 to 1900. It was a lot of digging, and a computer did it.
This kind of literary macro-history is fascinating, because it takes advantage of a wider lens than we have yet been able to wield. Of course, any attempts at quantifying the slippery concept of literary influence are subject to limitations; but scientists understand this, and make clear that such empiricized measures rely on assumptions that may prove to be false. Thus the measures themselves have to be tested and tweaked. The problem is that scientists understand this better than many literary scholars do. Literary scholars often assume that their methods are accurate measures of what they are trying to gauge. The concept of literary influence is one such (often) unexamined assumption.