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Ian Watt (March 9, 1917 – December 13, 1999) was a literary critic, literary historian and professor of English at Stanford University. His Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957) is an important work in the history of the genre. Although published in 1957, The Rise of the Novel is still considered by many contemporary literary scholars as the seminal work on the origins of the novel, and an important study of literary realism. The book traces the rise of the modern novel to philosophical, economic and social trends and conditions that become prominent in the early 18th century.
Watt joined the British Army at the age of 22 and served with distinction in World War II as an infantry lieutenant from 1939 to 1946. He was wounded in the Battle of Singapore in February 1942 and listed as "missing, presumed killed in action."
In fact, he had been taken prisoner by the Japanese and remained a prisoner of war at the Changi Prison until 1945, working on the construction of the Burma Railway which crossed Thailand, a feat that inspired the Pierre Boulle book 'Bridge Over the River Kwai', and the film adaptation by David Lean. He criticized both the book and the film for the liberties they took with the historical details of his imprisonment and, more subtly, their refusal to acknowledge the moral complexities of the situation.
More than 12,000 prisoners died during the building of the railroad, most of them from disease, and Watt was critically ill from malnutrition for several years.
"There was a period when I expected to die," Watt told the San Francisco Examiner in a 1979 interview. "But I didn't know how sick I was until they gave me some of the vitamin pills that had just come into the camp. I remember being very surprised that I was considered sick enough to receive vitamins."
Professor Watt died in Menlo Park, California, USA.
A key element Watt explores is the decline in importance of the philosophy of classical antiquities, with its various strains of idealistic thought that viewed human experience as composed of universal Platonic "forms" with an innate perfection. Such a view of life and philosophy dominated writers from ancient times through the Renaissance, resulting in classical poetic forms and genres with essentially flat plots and characters (Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has written that such literature can literally be read front to back, or back to front, with no significant difference in effect). These philosophical beliefs began to be replaced perhaps in the later Renaissance, into the Enlightenment, and, most importantly, in the early 18th century. The importance of rationalist philosophers such as John Locke, Descartes, Spinoza and many others who followed them, and the scientific, social and economic developments of this period began to have ever greater impact, and in place of the older classical idealism, a more realistic, pragmatic, empirical understanding of life and human behavior, which recognized human individuality and conscious experience, began to emerge. This was reflected in the novels of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, who in important ways began to write of unique individual lives and experiences lived in realistic, intersubjective (the term is Husserl's, who did not come along until the 20th century) environments. Watt wrote that the novel form's "primary criterion was truth to individual experience" (13). It is this focus on individual experience that characterizes the novel in Wattian terms. Prose works of a certain length could not necessarily be classified as novels—lengthy prose works had existed since ancient times, but many of these works dealt in the types characteristic of ancient literature. The picaresque novel is an example of such a genre.
A second major trend that Watt studies is the "rise of the reading public" and the growth of professional publishing during this period. Publishers at this time “occupied a strategic position between author and printer, and between both of these and the public” (52-3). The growth of profit concerns impelled publishers to reach out to wider reading publics. In addition the specialization of professions, which narrowed the everyday experiences of this new reading public, created a market for portrayals of a greater array of different classes, peoples, ages, sexes, etc. (writing aimed at, and soon written by, women writers is an important trend of 18th century literature) Such detailed writings of the experiences of different people can be seen in the novels Watt examines, and had rarely been seen before. Watt presents many statistical details in this section of the book in support of his argument, especially since he spent some time.
Works by Watt
- Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe
- Essays on Conrad
- Conrad's "Secret Agent" (Casebook)
- Conrad in the Nineteenth Century
- Jane Austen (20th Century Views)
- The humanities on the River Kwai (The Grace A. Tanner Lecture in human values)
- Conrad criticism and The nigger of the 'Narcissus'"
Editor and with others
- Introduction to The Secret Sharer: An Episode from the Coast by Joseph Conrad
- The Literal Imagination: Selected Essays by Ian P. Watt, edited by Bruce Thompson
- The Consequences of Literacy (with Jack Goody)
- Editor: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
- "Literary critic Ian Watt dies after a long illness". 17 December 1999. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
- "Stanford University obituary". Retrieved 6 September 2012.
- Stanford University obituary
- The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding; University of California Press (June 4, 2001); ISBN 0-520-23069-8