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New Left Review 109, January-February 2018


Peter Morgan

WORLDS AND LETTERS

The new studies in world literature that emerged in the 1990s confronted the problem of how to conceptualize intermediary structures between the individual literary work and the presumptively global literary cosmos. [1] Alexander Beecroft, An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day Verso: London and New York 2015, £19.99, paperback 320 pp, 978 178168 573 0 The comparative literature departments that developed in American universities after 1945 had implicitly operated by setting one national, usually European, literature next to another. Was it possible to posit structuring relations with a wider reach and a deeper time frame than those national-philological models? Goethe’s scattered comments on Weltliteratur, explored by Sarah Lawall in an influential collection, Reading World Literature (1994), provided a touchstone for the new disciplinary direction. In his introduction to Carlyle’s Life of Schiller (1830), Goethe suggested that during the continental wars of the Napoleonic era, Europeans had ‘imbibed much that was foreign’, awakening a consciousness of ‘hitherto unknown spiritual needs’. The coming world literature, he told his young amanuensis, would involve ‘an ongoing exchange of perspectives between readers in different countries’. In the early days of the globalization era, that prospect seemed to offer a new basis for literary studies.

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