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.〔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.〕 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.〔Eckermann, p. 132〕
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. 〔Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos and the Avant-Gardes." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006〕
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.〔H. M. Posnett, ''Comparative Literature.'' London: K. Paul, Trench, 1886〕 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.
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