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  • Introduction: Goethe, Worlds, and Literatures
  • Stefan H. Uhlig and Chunjie Zhang

Arguably the most prominent national writer of German literature, Johann Wolfgang Goethe is central to the theorization of world literature in the age of postmodern globalization. The linkage between Goethe and world literature is so robust in current criticism that it may well foreclose alternative perspectives on the writer, other worlds, and heterogeneous literatures. This special issue therefore seeks to complicate and to rethink the ties between a multiplicity of literary and cultural worlds and the imposing figure of a writer who has been used to shape our understanding of these categories. Our contributors enrich the argument around these key terms for post-national literary and cultural studies without routinizing their conjunction. We aim to recapture the present moment of world literature and reorient existing assumptions toward multiple pasts, multiple worlds, multiple literatures, and multiple Goethes. It is remarkable that observations made in the provincial Weimar of the 1820s still inspire global theorizing in the present.

This collection understands Goethe as a literary, intellectual, and historical persona that inflects a broad set of continuing debates. Indeed, the effort of connecting Goethe to world literature also belongs to the longue durée of the making of different Goethes from the early 1800s to date. In the ensuing pages, we will first offer an overview of Goethe’s relationship to world literature from the early nineteenth to the twentieth century. Then, we will briefly discuss the reception or the making of Goethe in the nineteenth century, the Nazi period, and the postwar era. These two parts supplement each other in that they allow us to see how the entanglements between Goethe and world literature are part of the reception and the making of Goethe in the last two centuries and, at the same time, how the making of Goethe has transformed the discourse of Goethe and world literature. The mutuality between these two areas multiplies worlds and literatures, only a small fraction of which we can address in this issue.

Goethe and the Theory of World Literature

Our tendency to tie debates about transnational phenomena back to comments Goethe offered in the 1820s is, in some ways, all too understandable. Goethe’s well-anthologized remarks to Eckermann, in Kunst und Altertum, or in his letters were concise, unsettled, and conceptually suggestive. Little wonder, then, that [End Page 121] the conceptual fortunes of Weltliteratur—a phrase and focus for ideas that after all preceded Goethe—surged once it received the imprimatur of this paradoxically epoch-making figure. Over his long, productive life, Goethe both shaped the period he lived through and, despite this influence, defied the teleologies implied by classicism as contrasted with Romanticism, or the confident modernity of Newton’s optics (see Koselleck; Uhlig 315–18). Especially once Eckermann, in 1836, published his Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, their contemporaries began to work with Goethe’s dual category of literature merged with a world beyond the fraught relations between German politics and the vernacular. Thomas Carlyle enthusiastically supported “what I have named World-Literature, after you” (220), whereas progressive leaders of the Junges Deutschland stressed, by turns, the promise and the tenuousness of Goethean world literature. Ludolf Wienbarg hoped that a transnational standard could supply young German writers with a normative “Gesetz” of composition (1). At the same time, Karl Gutzkow predicted that patriotic interests would reject even “das Prinzip” of a transcultural world literature (87). Beyond these ideological concerns, Goethe’s endorsement of world literature created marketable opportunities. Soon, literary histories and anthologies like Johannes Scherr’s Bildersaal der Weltliteratur (1848) used Goethe’s simultaneously national and cosmopolitan authority to validate their global vision of the literary archive (see Schwarz; Stern; Hart; Baumgartner).

Clearly, Goethe’s cultural authority did much to foster nineteenth-century comparative perspectives. It is worth noting, though, that this discursive strand did not invariably depend on Goethe’s testimonial. In 1899, the major Danish critic Georg Brandes published an incisive essay on the concept’s built-in formal and linguistic biases. He pointed out that its dependence on translation rigged the struggle for world-literary fame against, especially, the lyric and...


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