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Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 168-172

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What is World Literature? By David Damrosch. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. xiii + 324 pp. Cloth $65.00, paper $19.95.

"He has taken all culture for his province," Randall Jarrell wrote of Ezra Pound, "and is naturally a little provincial about it." It is a good joke, and will bear some analysis. How could Pound, an American who was interested in the old and new literatures of Europe as well as those of ancient China and more recent Japan, be provincial? If Pound was provincial, who wasn't? The implied answer, of course, lies in the approach. Pound wasn't provincial about the works he chose to read, only about the way he chose to read them.

Something of the same suspicion of provinciality attaches itself, for many of us, to the idea of world literature. We fall in love, in David Damrosch's phrase, "with a body of work from another time and place" (158), and we keep falling in love with different works and bodies of work. We love the literature of the world (love much of what we have managed to read of it, in its first language or in translation), but we are not sure world literature is the same thing. We ask the questions that David Damrosch invites us to ask, and that he himself poses on his first page: "Which literature, whose world?" (1) And we ask a further, more suspicious question, to which Damrosch's book provides an admirable set of answers: What's wrong with literature tout court, what have we added when we have added the world?

"Weltliteratur," for Goethe and then again for Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, all three cited early in Damrosch's book, meant the end of national literatures, the globalization of what the latter called 'the intellectual creations of individual nations'. From the beginning of the twentieth century until fairly recently, 'world literature' was all the imaginative work from foreign parts it was assumed a polite and educated American ought to know, and the foreign parts all turned out to be Europe. Somewhere lurking in both conceptions, although not identical with them, is a [End Page 168] judgement of value, an idea about classics and masterpieces and international reach. In this frame of mind you say, with T S Eliot, that Dante is a classic but Shakespeare is not; or that Walter Scott belongs to world literature but Jane Austen doesn't. But what do we do when both globalization and nationalism are rampant? When we have happily lost the universal in the particular, only to discover we need some kinds of universal after all? When we care less about classics and more about cultural representation, but cling to a few old favourites all the same?

I think the term 'literature', without qualification, will still do quite a lot of work for us. It is both less and more than a 'blanket term' for 'the sum total of the world's literatures', as Damrosch puts it (4). It reflects a human activity and names a result, and it doesn't have to be totalized. It can be fragmentary and various and is interesting precisely because of its shifting borders—and because it can be seen historically. It was only yesterday, that is, around 1800, that 'literature' came to be 'specialized', as Raymond Williams puts it, into meaning 'mainly poems and plays and novels' (Keywords 185-186). There is plenty of range within that specialization, of course, and I can read Proust and Murasaki, Achebe and Dostoyevsky, Austen and Machado de Assis without much recourse to a general notion of literature, and without any recourse to a notion of a 'world'. What world would that be?

But to say that the term 'literature' has some unused conceptual life is not to say it is enough. We need to know how texts travel, and I can't read Murasaki or Dostoyevsky unless someone translates them for me. Why would anyone do that? "Literature" alone is not going to answer that question...


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