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. 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.

One influential line of approach adapted Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis, with its emphasis on struggles for hegemony between regionally constituted, longue durée socio-economic systems, structured in terms of core, periphery, semi-periphery and external zones. In Italy, Franco Moretti posited the genre of the ‘modern epic’, instantiated in a series of large-scale, supra-national works—Faust, Moby Dick, The Man Without Qualities, One Hundred Years of Solitude—as literary representations of the emerging capitalist world-system (Modern Epic, 1994). Moretti’s ‘conjectures’ on world literature suggested that breakthroughs in literary forms—in the narrative structure of the novel, for example—could arise from the adaptation of ‘core’ genres to the social realities beyond them. From France, Pascale Casanova’s World Republic of Letters (1999) combined Wallerstein’s core and periphery with Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital and the competitive field to describe a literary ‘world republic’ with its own relations of domination and subordination, whose gatekeepers in metropolises like Paris, London or New York determined whether outsider writers from ‘smaller’ literatures should be allowed access, by way of translation, publishing, reviews; against this order, rebel writers from the social or geographic peripheries developed their own strategies for the capture and détournement of forms.

A second approach, closer in spirit to Goethe’s cosmopolitanism, retained the older idea of a canon of ‘world masterpieces’, requiring close reading, but expanded it to include a wider array of marginal and subaltern forms. From differing viewpoints, scholars such as David Damrosch, Gayatri Spivak, Emily Apter and Djelal Kadir explored and problematized what happened to works of literature when they moved, as Damrosch put it in What Is World Literature? (2003), from their original cultural context into the world at large. In this view, world literature was also a mode of reading—‘a detached engagement with worlds beyond our own’—that opened onto vaster regions of space and time. The problem of how to conceptualize intermediary structures between the world and the work remained, however, while, as Spivak insisted, close reading demanded a knowledge of the work’s originating culture and frame of reference that might seem to lead back into a study of regional if not national literatures.

Is it possible to square these circles, with a conception that could comprise both the totality of works of literature in all languages and all eras, from Gilgamesh to the present (Damrosch), the literature of the contemporary world, under conditions of economic globalization (critically considered by Spivak, Apter, Kadir) and the historical world systems—ancient, medieval, modern—within which literatures have been produced (Moretti, Casanova)? The ambitions of Alexander Beecroft’s Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day are not quite this vast; but they are considerable. His temporal vista runs from 2600 bc, with the first Sumerian and Akkadian inscriptions, to the era of globalization; his geo-cultural span encompasses the Mayan and Vedic civilizations, as well as early China and archaic Greece. Beecroft brings to the subject the great advantage of familiarity with both Greek and Chinese literature; a Canadian scholar, his doctoral dissertation completed at Harvard provided the material for his debut, Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China (2010). Complemented by Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (2006) on Sanskrit culture, this gives him an easy comparative reach, ranging from ancient Sparta to China’s Warring States, Java to Afghanistan.

Beecroft’s aim, more precisely, is to identify the relevant geo-cultural units by which literatures and their languages may be defined. Ecology supplies the controlling metaphor, understood as ‘the interactions between the different forms of life that exist in a particular region’, as well as their interactions with the non-living environment. Whereas frameworks derived from economics reduce the inputs into a system to equivalences expressed in terms of value, Beecroft argues, ecology insists on the distinct and mutually interactive nature of the various inputs, so that changes in the external environment can have ‘complex and shifting impacts’ on the species in a given habitat. More specifically, he proposes to think in terms of ‘particular patterns of ecological constraints operating on the circulation of literary texts in a variety of different historical contexts’. The major determinants shaping such ecologies include the status of the literary language—whether or not it is the common parlance of the region; the operative political and economic structures—tribal community, world-empire, nation-state?—the role of religion; cultural politics, including reward structures; and technologies of distribution. Literature in general is expansively defined as ‘all self-consciously aesthetic use of language’, or again as ‘a marked category of literary utterance’, as distinct from the unmarked use of language in everyday life. Meanwhile, ‘a literature’ is delineated by interpretative practices that link some texts together—by language, polity, genre, influence—while excluding others.

On this basis, Beecroft identifies six literary ecologies—elements of a non-exhaustive, empirically derived typology rather than a total system, he emphasizes—discussed in order of their historical emergence. First are the literary ecologies of small communities, typically in early societies—such as the city-states of ancient Greece or China, around 500 bc—but also among tribal peoples. Beecroft terms these ‘epichoric’, meaning ‘of the locality’, from the Greek khôros (place). Examples of these literatures are the lyric poetry of Sparta, the Chinese Songs of Chu, the kungax singing of the Wet’suwet’en people of British Columbia, or the rituals of the Sentinelese tribe of the Andaman Islands: performance and consumption here involve specific interactions of performers, audience and place that constitute the literature as ‘epichoric’. As a limit case, Beecroft observes, the ideal epichoric culture would have no contact with any other culture, but ‘since we know of no culture so isolated, epichoric readings of texts necessarily involve some kind of “forgetting” of broader cultural connections.’ By the same token, an epichoric literature may be used as a foil within a larger cultural system—to represent ‘localness’.

The next level of complexity is the ecology of panchoric literature, in which the political act of assembling the literatures of the localities, typically to establish an ideology of shared identity, creates a new cultural object. The key device here is the catalogue, as in the Iliad’s ‘Catalogue of Ships’ or the collection of the ‘Airs of the States’ in the Confucian Book of Songs. These compilations create a whole that is not only greater than the sum of its parts but ‘a radically distinct entity’. Panchoric literary ecologies are also defined by ‘charter myths’—the Trojan War, the Zhou conquest of the Shang Dynasty—celebrated in their great works which, like the Homeric epics or Confucian canon, are themselves compiled from fragments. If the paradigms here are the Panhellenic and Panhuaxia cultural spaces, Beecroft finds similar panchoric practices in the pre-Islamic Arabian odes of the Mu‘allaqa¯t, in Mayan and Vedic works: the bonding together of epichoric traditions, stripped of their particularity, to create an ‘emerging sense of cultural unity’ across a world of small competitive polities.