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  • Migrant Reading
  • Thomas Docherty (bio)


In February 1835, the eminent English politician and historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, wrote his famous "Minute" on the proposed educational arrangements for the people of India, where he served as a Member of Council. The British East India Company's charter had been renewed two years previously, in 1833. The regulations governing charter renewal stipulated that the East India Company must engage in educational activities; and, ever since the charter renewal of 1813, a sum of one Lakh (100,000 rupees) had been provided "for the revival and promotion of literature" (Macaulay 1835, 2). For Macaulay, this had to be specifically English literature, and it had to be advanced through the medium of the English language, the language that "is the best worth knowing" (9).

Despite acknowledging complete ignorance of both Arabic and Sanskrit, Macaulay insists that there is not a single orientalist "who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia," given the "intrinsic superiority of the Western literature" (1835, 10). This "superiority," casually asserted, is both moral and metaphysical, for English literature

abounds with works of imagination … with models of every species of eloquence,—with historical composition, which, considered [End Page 839] merely as narratives … have never been equaled—with just and lively representations of human life and human nature,—with the most profound speculations on metaphysics, morals, government, jurisprudence, trade,—with full and correct information respecting every experimental science which tends to preserve the health, or increase the comfort, or to expand the intellect of man.

(Macaulay 1835, 12)

As Gauri Viswanathan has pointed out, there is a deep irony in the fact that "English literature appeared as a subject in the curriculum of the colonies long before it was institutionalized in the home country" (1989, 3). "English literature," as an institutional form, is, indeed, inaugurated "across continents." Further, it owes a good deal of its intrinsic impetus to the demands of capital within the context of global political power. As Macaulay argued, since "English is the language spoken by the ruling class" in India, "it is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East" (1835, 12).

This all shows that the status of "English literature" is determined by politics, and explicitly by what we can call "the government of the tongue" (Heaney 1988, passim). Speaking occurs, as it were, only within governing conditions, under governance. This is so even in minimal conditions whereby our "first" language is that which is conventionally spoken around us and in which we willingly engage, or that which is "imposed" upon us, either contingently or by political design.


Such governance—and such imperialism—can be broken, however. Two notable occasions will advance the argument here. Speaking in Berlin on June 26, 1963, John F. Kennedy (JFK), then-US President, famously stated that "Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was 'civis romanus sum.'" He then uttered the phrase for which the speech became known, saying "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner'"; adding "I appreciate my interpreter translating my German." In this, JFK explicitly acknowledges his linguistic imprecision and, in doing so, places German and American on an equal and democratic footing with each other. He also indicates that the days of empire—specifically that of Rome—may no longer pertain in the same way as they once did; the implicit political sub-text and claim is that "empire" is replaced by "freedom." The words establish the political identification of the [End Page 840] United States with Germany (and specifically Berlin) as the locus of freedom and democracy, set against an encircling but outdated Communist imperialism. It is intended to signal a gesture of friendship, not of expansion of US interests (the real politics behind the rhetoric differs, of course).

The United Kingdom's head of state made a similar gesture in an address given on the occasion of her State Visit to Ireland, hosted by President Mary MacAleese, on May 18, 2011. This was the first such visit by a British monarch for a hundred years, the only...


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