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  • Introduction:Promoting the Study of Modern Literatures Worldwide: The MLA and Its Conventions
  • John Burt Foster Jr. (bio)

Over the past two decades, renewed interest in world literature along with the rise of translation studies, especially with its insights into how meanings shift from source to target cultures, have broadened still further comparative literature's wide array of concerns. These developments have enriched our responsiveness to verbal arts in and among many more cultures, both in the courses we teach and in our research. This forum, on studying modern literatures worldwide, considers whether and in what ways this research might get a better hearing at our professional meetings. Wider geocultural perspectives have clearly revitalized the American Comparative Literature Association, as seen in conferences with titles like "Trans, Pan, Inter: Cultures in Contact" (2007), "Global Languages, Local Cultures" (2009), and "World Literature/Comparative Literature" (2011). Scholars have responded quite impressively, as shown both by the increased number of participants at these conferences and by the variety of seminars that bridge manifold differences of language, academic discipline, and geocultural region.

However, the conventions of the Modern Language Association, which are the largest and best-known meetings of literature scholars in North America and which have the added pull of job interviews and book exhibits, have been slower to embrace these new areas of inquiry. This is so despite the association's professed aims of being international and even global in its reach. Thus the MLA publishes a widely used International Bibliography, has launched book series with titles like Approaches to Teaching World Literature and World Literatures Reimagined, and has added a more pronounced comparative slant to the recent third edition of its Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures.1 But so far these ambitions have had [End Page 191] no major impact on the conventions, which despite some encouraging modifications are still dominated by a division structure weighted toward a "North Atlantic" linguistic region made up of Western Europe, North America, and their former empires. Even several of the MLA's six comparative divisions (out of a total of eighty-seven) bear names like "Comparative Studies in Renaissance and Baroque Literature" or "European Literary Relations," which reflect the same exclusive attention to this region. Meanwhile, the five divisions assigned to large areas outside the North Atlantic, on the order of East Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe, betoken a breadth of coverage that in fact has moved over to (or, more accurately, has been able to develop and flourish in) the conferences of region-based organizations like the South Asian Literature Association, the African Literature Association, or the American Association for Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. In view of this situation, someone with a language scholar's vested interest in accurate names might be tempted to emulate a wake-up call addressed fifty years ago to comparative literature as a field, with a similar goal of enlarging its scope of research, and suggest that the MLA consider calling itself the North Atlantic Language Association.2

Given this situation, how might the MLA's annual conventions become a more attractive venue for comparatists committed to furthering the study of world literature? Or, more broadly, what might these conventions offer specialists in the literatures of any single language who wish to bring broader transnational or interregional perspectives to their research? This is especially relevant for those who work in literatures from outside the North Atlantic region, as Christopher Lupke argues with special pertinence in one of the pieces that follow. The six articles in this forum, written by scholars who study traditions placed at one or another edge of the North Atlantic mainstream or from geocultural regions outside it entirely, discuss a range of viewpoints on these questions. The papers enlarge on the presentations that were given at a lively, well-attended round table at the MLA's 2012 convention in Seattle, organized by another of the MLA's comparative units, the Division on Comparative Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature. The panelists were asked to reflect on the effectiveness of the MLA's conventions in promoting research that engaged in some way with the project of comparing modern literatures worldwide while...


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pp. 191-198
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