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Toward a History of World Literature

From: New Literary History
Volume 39, Number 3, Summer 2008
pp. 481-495 | 10.1353/nlh.0.0045

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The challenges entailed in writing a global literary history are threefold, involving problems of definition, design, and purpose. Can the field of inquiry be defined in such a way that a meaningful history can be conceived at all? If so, could an effective organization and a manageable plan of work be devised to give concrete shape to a project of global scope? Finally, and hardest of all, could a history of world literature be written that anyone would actually want to read? In the following pages, I will seek to reach affirmative answers to these questions.

Definition

Our globalizing age makes this either the easiest or the hardest time to write a history of world literature. Until recently, the practice of literary history was so heavily dominated by national paradigms that the very idea of a global literary history would have appeared implausible and even—worse yet—uninteresting. It seemed perfectly reasonable for Ian Watt to call his study of several British novelists The Rise of the Novel rather than The Rise of the British Novel.1 A few reviewers noted that remarkably novel-like entities had been written elsewhere by such influential figures as Cervantes and Madame de Lafayette, but it was generally accepted that the British novel had a distinctive national history that could well be studied—or could even best be studied—on its own, independent of developments in France or Spain. Still less did it seem necessary to go back to Heliodorus and Apuleius, or northward to Njals Saga and eastward to The Tale of Genji. Even if one had found a way to finesse the differences between the novel, the ancient romance, the saga, and the monogatari, perhaps under the rubric of “prose fiction,” it would have been hard to imagine that such disconnected times and places could yield anything resembling a common history, or at least any history in the linear, teleological mode implied by a phrase such as “the rise of.”

The situation was similar for institutional as well as literary history. Gerald Graff’s pathbreaking study thus bears the title Professing Literature rather than, say, Professing English and American Literature in the United States.2 Graff does include the early history of classical studies in America, and he acknowledges that other modern literatures have long been taught in this country; yet the national specificity of his study could go without saying in his title and is assumed from the outset in the body of his book. Indeed, had Graff written a global history of the study of all literatures in all countries, Professing Literature would likely have found far fewer readers than it did, and most people would only have looked at the chapter or two most relevant to their field of study. The nation was the natural frame for an institutional history, just as the conjoined national literatures of England and America seemed the logical focus within the American setting.

When people did look beyond the boundaries of a single nation, they usually stayed within a particular region, as in Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages or Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.3 Even within their announced focus on Europe and on Western literature, Curtius and Auerbach concentrated largely on the literatures of just a few countries. So often praised for its remarkable range across Western literature, indeed, Mimesis might just as well have been subtitled The Representation of Reality in Italy and France—home to fifteen of the book’s twenty central texts.

Survey courses, too, constructed tacit literary histories with a national or at best regional scope. For most of the twentieth century, the typical American “Intro to Lit” course drew entirely on Western (and mostly English and American) materials. World literature courses, and the anthologies that served them, saw no incongruity in defining “the world” purely in terms of Western Europe and its classical and biblical antecedents, sometimes with a few Russian or American writers thrown in for good measure. This situation has changed dramatically since the mid-1990s, beginning with Caws and Prendergast’s HarperCollins World Reader that included some 475 authors from all over the...



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