restricted access Comparing Modern Literatures Worldwide: The Transamerican View
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Comparing Modern Literatures Worldwide:
The Transamerican View

In the 2011 issue of the MLA's Profession, David Porter notes that, following Goethe's call for a new age of Weltliteratur in the early nineteenth century, since the mid-1990s the notion of "world literature" has reemerged "as the most promising rubric for imagining a major paradigm shift in the study and teaching of literature and for thinking beyond the dead ends of traditional comparative study."1

While no consensus has been reached on what it might mean, this recent reemergence of the notion of world literature has become a focus for debate over new possibilities implicit in the idea of global literatures. Porter cites in particular three noteworthy avenues for critical discussion: David Damrosch's What Is World Literature?, Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters, and Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees. Like other contributors to this forum, I find these three works particularly suggestive of the current state of thinking concerning comparative literary studies.

In What is World Literature?, Damrosch develops a framework for world literature that is cosmopolitan in terms of a multiplicity not of origins but of trajectories. That is, world literatures are literatures that circulate beyond their cultures of origin and in doing so have an effect on other cultures beyond the linguistic and institutional borders circumscribed by overtly national literatures.2

Casanova offers in The World Republic of Letters a sociological account of the world of literature as a rule-bound, hierarchical formation. The "world republic of letters," she argues, is not the open, liberal, democratic marketplace of ideas but a "rigidly stratified social structure where access to broad markets is tightly controlled by a powerful caste of critics, publishers, and translators, whose authority is legitimized through their association [End Page 199] with recognized literary centers such as Paris or New York."3 This caste of gatekeepers functions across political and linguistic lines and helps create a body of literary works that share metropolitan features, even when they come from outside French or English, the traditional sites of "world literature."

In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti also takes literary circulation and transformation as his starting point but offers a set of more radical methodological alternatives—drawing as models for literary analysis "graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary theory"—in proposing that literary scholars rethink their dependence on close reading.4 "Distant reading," distance being understood as "a specific form of knowledge," reveals what close reading cannot.5 As Porter rightly notes, this attention to the macroscopic patterns and processes that shape the literary landscape works on scales beyond individual texts and authors, and its most obvious benefit is that it includes the 99 percent of literary production typically excluded by any canon from visibility and relevance.6

Porter concludes from his survey of the return of "world literature" that what Damrosch, Casanova, and Moretti share is a concept of world literature that "stresses the mobility of texts and the permeability of traditions."7 Each makes clear that world literature is not the sum of national literatures "but rather a dynamic model of . . . a constantly shifting field of circulation, transmutation, and contestation."8 This conclusion is of central concern: what might a field of comparative studies that was not based on national literatures, or even singular canonic examples, look like? How would such a field be organized? And is the MLA structure, indeed any institutional structure, adequate to the study of transnational literary formations?

As a scholar who has learned from and adapted these observations to my own main area of comparative study, the hemispheric Americas, I think that the work of this group of literary historians helps us reconsider what Porter identifies as the "relation between the processes of differentiation and diffusion that govern the spread and regeneration of literary forms in a global literary space."9 In that context, probably the first observation worth making is that a new vocabulary for naming, studying, and comparing the hemispheric Americas and their literatures has emerged over the past twenty years, representing a battery of interesting alternatives to be considered. With the emergence of other approaches...