- World Literature Today: From the Old World to the Whole World
No shift in literary studies over the past generation has been greater than the opening up of the canon from a focus on a relatively restricted core of masterpieces to the expansive multicultural landscape so evident today. The tremendous widening of our literary horizons, in turn, is nowhere more evident than in the field of world literature, which until recently usually meant “Western European” literature, but which now seems to encompass everything from the earliest Sumerian poetry to the most recent fictional experiments of the Tibetan postmodernists Zhaxi Dawa and Jamyang Norbu. Wholly laudable in principle, this rapid expansion poses exceptional difficulties in practice. Just how is this great wealth of material to be made accessible to readers? What classic texts will have to be dropped in order to make room for the new arrivals within the physical and temporal boundaries of courses and anthologies? What cultural context needs to be provided—and what cultural context can feasibly be provided—for non-specialists to have meaningful encounters with African orature, Japanese renga, and Mozarabic kharjas? How are all these works to be read alongside Petrarch and Wallace Stevens, always assuming that both of these latter authors still remain on the syllabus?
The fact is that these questions have yet to be answered in any satisfactory way, as a look at several recent world literature anthologies will show. These problems are not actually new: the expansion of the canon only brings into sharp relief a number of tensions that have long existed within the idea of “world literature” as it has been formulated over the course of the past century. We won’t do better in presenting the newly expansive world of world literature until we do a better job of clarifying just what we mean to accomplish by presenting “the literature” of “the world” for a contemporary American audience. I will begin, then, by discussing some earlier efforts to create anthologies of [End Page 7] world literature, in order to show some of the fundamental issues anthologists had to face even when the scope of “the world” was chiefly European and North American, as these early anthologies raise issues that persist today.
I begin with a pair of ambitious multi-volume anthologies that were prepared in the first decade of the twentieth century: The Best of the World’s Classics, in ten volumes, published in 1909 by Funk & Wagnalls under the editorship of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge; and the still more ambitious fifty-volume series The Harvard Classics, published just a year later by P. F. Collier and Son, under the general editorship of Harvard’s president Charles W. Eliot. In many ways, these anthologies are similar in intent: both are designed for a general-interest market and appear to have been projects developed by their publishers, who then sought out a prominent figure to serve as the—fairly nominal—overall editor, with the actual work in each case done by a subordinate Associate Editor. Both anthologies reflect the shift of higher education away from classical studies toward modern culture and the rapid expansion in the system then under way. The publishers clearly saw an opportunity to market the works now being taught on campuses to a wider public, who had heard of these changes but had not had the opportunity to experience them: the romance of higher education was taking hold in America, yet few people could afford to go to college. As Eliot put it, Colliers invited him “to make such a selection as any intellectually ambitious American family might use to advantage, even if their early opportunities of education had been scanty” (50:1). Similarly, Henry Cabot Lodge affirms that his series will offer his readers both intellectual and moral benefits:
To that larger public whose lives are not spent among books and libraries, and for whose delectation such a collection as this is primarily intended, these volumes rightly read at odd times, in idle moments, in out-of-the-way places, on the ship or the train, offer much. They will bring the reader in contact with many of the greatest intellects...