This paper investigates the influence of Goethe’s ideas about Weltliteratur upon the early disciplinary history of comparative literature. By examining Goethe’s various statements concerning Weltliteratur, as well as by contrasting them with his attempts to develop a method of comparative literary analysis in his Noten to the West-östlicher Divan, it is argued that Goethe’s ideas about Weltliteratur and about literary comparison raise important issues which are still live in the discipline today. Foremost among these is the question of using European aesthetic models to evaluate non-European literatures, and the related issue of how translations may elide the cultural particularity of literary works. It is proposed that Goethe’s ideas about Weltliteratur do not constitute a coherent or systematic theory, but rather offer up a series of discourses that were open to deployment by later scholars who had differing agendas. In the disciplinary history of comparative literature, two of the most important activators of these Goethean discourses were Hugo von Meltzl (1846–1908)—the founding editor of Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum (1877–1888), the world’s first academic journal devoted to comparative literature—and Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett (1855–1927), the author of the first Anglophone academic monograph on Comparative Literature (1886). Whereas Meltzl regarded Goethe’s ideas about Weltliteratur with some skepticism, fearing that they may surreptitiously extend German cultural hegemony in Europe, Posnett deployed Goethe’s concept of Weltliteratur to enhance the prestige his social-evolutionist model of global literary development.


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pp. 167-194
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