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World literature is sometimes used to refer to the sum total of the world’s national literatures, but usually it refers to the circulation of works into the wider world beyond their country of origin. Often used in the past primarily for masterpieces of Western European literature, world literature today is increasingly seen in global context. Readers today have access to an unprecedented range of works from around the world in excellent translations, and since the mid-1990s a lively debate has grown up concerning both the aesthetic and the political values and limitations of an emphasis on global processes over national traditions.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used the concept of Weltliteratur in several of his essays in the early decades of the nineteenth century to describe the international circulation and reception of literary works in Europe, including works of non-Western origin. The concept achieved wide currency after his disciple Johann Peter Eckermann published a collection of conversations with Goethe in 1835. Goethe spoke with Eckermann about the excitement of reading Chinese novels and Persian and Serbian poetry as well as of his fascination with seeing how his own works were translated and discussed abroad, especially in France. In a famous statement in January 1827, Goethe predicted to Eckermann that in the coming years world literature would supplant the national literatures as the major mode of literary creativity:
- I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men. . . . I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.
Reflecting Goethe's fundamentally economic understanding of world literature as a process of trade and exchange, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used the term in their Communist Manifesto (1848) to describe the "cosmopolitan character" of bourgeois literary production, asserting that
- In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climates. . . . And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.
Martin Puchner has argued that Goethe had a keen sense of world literature as driven by a new world market in literature. It was this market-based approach that Marx and Engels pick up in 1848. But while the two authors admire the world literature created by bourgeois capitalism, they also seek to exceed it. They hoped to create a new type of world literature, one exemplified by the Manifesto, which was to be published simultaneously in many languages and several locations. This text was supposed to inaugurate a new type of world literature and in fact partially succeeded, becoming one of the most influential texts of the twentieth century.  Whereas Marx and Engels followed Goethe in seeing world literature as a modern or even future phenomenon, in 1886 the Irish scholar Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett argued that world literature first arose in ancient empires such as the Roman Empire, long before the rise of the modern national literatures. Certainly today, world literature is understood as including classical works from all periods, as well as contemporary literature written for a global audience. By the turn of the twentieth century, intellectuals in various parts of the globe were thinking actively about world literature as a frame for their own national production, a theme found in essays by several of the progressive writers of China's May Fourth movement, including Lu Xun.
Over the course of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the rising tide of nationalism led to an eclipse of interest in world literature, but in the postwar era, comparative and world literature began to enjoy a resurgence in the United States. As a nation of immigrants, and with a less well established national tradition than many older countries possessed, the United States became a thriving site for the study of comparative literature (often primarily at the graduate level) and of world literature, often taught as a first-year general education class. The focus remained largely on the Greek and Roman classics and the literatures of the major modern Western European powers, but a confluence of factors in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to a greater openness to the wider world. The end of the Cold War, the growing globalization of the world economy, and new waves of immigration from many parts of the world led to several efforts to open out the study of world literature. This change is well illustrated by the expansion of The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, whose first edition of 1956 featured only Western European and North American works, to a new “expanded edition” of 1995 with substantial non-Western selections, and with the title changed from “masterpieces” to the less exclusive “Literature.” The major survey anthologies today, including those published by Longman and by Bedford in addition to Norton, all showcase several hundred authors from dozens of countries.
The explosive growth in the range of cultures studied under the rubric of world literature has inspired a variety of theoretical attempts to define and delimit the field and to propose effective modes of research and teaching. In his 2003 book What Is World Literature? David Damrosch argued for world literature as less a vast canon of works and more a matter of circulation and reception, and he proposed that works that thrive as world literature are ones that work well and even gain in various ways in translation. Whereas Damrosch’s approach remains tied to the close reading of individual works, a very different view was taken by the Stanford critic Franco Moretti in a pair of articles offering “Conjectures on World Literature.” Moretti argued that the scale of world literature far exceeds what can be grasped by traditional methods of close reading, and he advocated instead a mode of “distant reading” that would look at large-scale patterns as discerned from publication records and national literary histories, enabling one to trace the global sweep of forms such as the novel or film.
Moretti’s approach combined elements of evolutionary theory with the world-systems analysis pioneered by Immanuel Wallerstein, an approach further discussed since then by Emily Apter in her influential book The Translation Zone. Related to their world-systems approach is the major work of French critic Pascale Casanova, La République mondiale des lettres (1999). Drawing on the theories of cultural production developed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Casanova explores the ways in which the works of peripheral writers must circulate into metropolitan centers in order to achieve recognition as works of world literature. Both Moretti and Casanova emphasize the inequalities of the global literary field, which Moretti describes as “one, but unequal.”
The field of world literature continues to generate debate, with critics such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak arguing that too often the study of world literature in translation smooths out both the linguistic richness of the original and the political force a work can have in its original context. Other scholars, on the contrary, emphasize that world literature can and should be studied with close attention to original languages and contexts, even as works take on new dimensions and new meanings abroad. Once a primarily European and American concern, world literature is now actively studied and discussed in many parts of the world. World literature series are now being published in China and in Estonia, and a new Institute for World Literature, offering month-long summer sessions on theory and pedagogy, had its inaugural session at Peking University in 2011, with its next sessions at Istanbul Bilgi University in 2012 and at Harvard University in 2013. Since the middle of the first decade of the new century, a steady stream of works has provided materials for the study of the history of world literature and the current debates. Valuable collections of essays include Manfred Schmeling, Weltliteratur Heute (1995), Christopher Prendergast, Debating World Literature (2004), David Damrosch, Teaching World Literature (2009), and Theo D’haen’s co-edited collections The Routledge Companion to World Literature (2011) and World Literature: A Reader (2012). Individual studies include Moretti, Maps, Graphs, Trees (2005), John Pizer, The Idea of World Literature (2006), Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, Mapping World Literature (2008), Theo D'haen, The Routledge Concise History of World Literature (2011), and Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven, and Tutun Mukherjee, eds. Companion to Comparative Literature, World Literatures, and Comparative Cultural Studies (2013).
World literature on the Internet
The World Wide Web provides in many ways the logical medium for the global circulation of world literature, and many websites now enable readers around the world to sample the world’s literary productions. The website Words Without Borders offers a wide selection of fiction and poetry from around the world, and the Annenberg Foundation has created an ambitious thirteen-part DVD/web series produced by Boston’s public television station WGBH, “Invitation to World Literature.” The major survey anthologies all have extensive websites, providing background information, images, and links to resources on many authors. Finally, globally-oriented authors themselves are increasingly creating work for the internet. The Serbian experimentalist Milorad Pavić (1929-2009) was an early proponent of the possibilities of electronic modes of creation and reading, as can be seen on his website. Though Pavić remained primarily a print-based writer, the Korean/American duo known as Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries create their works entirely for internet distribution, often in several languages. World literature today exists in symbiosis with national literatures, enabling writers in small countries to reach out to global audiences, and helping readers around the world gain a better sense of the world around them as it has been reflected and refracted in the world’s literatures over the past five millennia.
Classics of world literature
Wide international distribution alone is not a sufficient condition for attributing works to world literature. The decisive factor is an exemplary artistic value and the influence of the respective work on the development of humankind and science in general, and on the development of literature(s) of the world in particular. An agreement on universally accepted criteria to decide what works have literary world ranking is not easy, especially since individual works have to be considered in their respective temporal and regional contexts.
- Comparative literature
- Comparative cultural studies
- History of literature
- List of years in literature
- List of world folk-epics
- Literature by country
- Print culture
- World cinema
- World history
- World music
- Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, trans. John Oxenford as J. W. von Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann, repr. North Point Press, 1994.
- Eckermann, p. 132
- Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos and the Avant-Gardes." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006
- H. M. Posnett, Comparative Literature. London: K. Paul, Trench, 1886
- The Norton Anthology of World Literature, ed. Maynard Mack and Sarah Lawall, Expanded Edition, 1995. Third edition, ed. Martin Puchner et al., 2012.
- Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1 (2000), pp. 54-68; repr. in Prendergast, Debating World Literature, pp. 148-162. Moretti offered further reflections in "More Conjectures," New Left Review 20 (2003), pp. 73-81.
- Emily Apter, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 2006.
- The World Republic of Letters, trans. M. B. DeBevoise, Harvard U.P., 2004.
- See Gayatri C. Spivak, Death of a Discipline.
- Pavić's website, http://www.khazars.com, is named for his best-known novel, Dictionary of the Khazars (1983), a worldwide bestseller with over five million copies sold in a host of languages -- an eminent example of the possibility today for a writer from a small country to reach a global audience.
"Bibliography of (Text)Books in Comparative Literature." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture (Library) (1999-): <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweblibrary/comparativeliteraturebooks>.
- Casanova, Pascale. The World Republic of Letters. Trans. M. B. DeBevoise. Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 2004.
- D'haen, Theo. The Routledge Concise History of World Literature. London: Routledge, 2011.
- D’haen, Theo, David Damrosch, and Djelal Kadir, eds. The Routledge Companion to World Literature. London: Routledge, 2011.
- D'haen, Theo, César Domínguez, and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, eds. World Literature: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2012.
- Damrosch, David. How to Read World Literature. London: Blackwell, 2009.
- Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Damrosch, David, April Alliston, Marshall Brown, Page duBois, Sabry Hafez, Ursula K. Heise, Djelal Kadir, David L. Pike, Sheldon Pollock, Bruce Robbins, Haruo Shirane, Jane Tylus, and Pauline Yu, eds. The Longman Anthology of World Literature. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. 6 Vols.
- Davis, Paul, John F. Crawford, Gary Harrison, David M. Johnson, and Patricia Clark Smith, eds. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004. 6 Vols.
- Gossens, Peter Weltliteratur. Modelle transnationaler Literaturwahrnehmung im 19. Jahrhundert. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2011.
- Hashmi, Alamgir. The Commonwealth, Comparative Literature, and the World. Islamabad: Indus Books, 1988.
- Lawall, Sarah, ed. Reading World Literature: Theory, History, Practice. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
- Pizer, John. The Idea of World Literature: History and Pedagogical Practice. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
- Prendergast, Christopher, ed. Debating World Literature. London: Verso, 2004.
- Puchner, Martin, Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Wiebke Denecke, Vinay Dharwadker, Barbara Fuchs, Caroline Levine, Sarah Lawall, Pericles Lewis, and Emily Wilson, eds. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 6 Vols.
- Rothenberg, Jerome, and Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium: A Global Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 2 Vols.
- Sturm-Trigonakis, Elke. Comparative Cultural Studies and the New Weltliteratur. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2013.
- Thomsen, Mads Rosendahl. Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures. London: Continuum, 2008.
- Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven, and Tutun Mukherjee, eds. Companion to Comparative Literature, World Literatures, and Comparative Cultural Studies. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press India, 2013.
- List of Selected Comparative Literature and Comparative Humanities Journals
- Institute for World Literature - the Institute's website
- World literature at DMOZ
- World Literature Forum - world literature community