Literary gerrymandering

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Edelstein (Credit: L.A. Cicero)

Interesting discussion at Inside Higher Ed about “Gerrymandering the Canon” here. Dan Edelstein decries a recent comment in a New York Review of Books article by Harold Bloom:

“’In the two centuries since Byron died in Greece […] only Shakespeare has been translated and read more, first on the Continent and then worldwide.’ Bloom does not cite any statistics, and one cannot help but wonder: Really? More than Homer and Dante, or, among the moderns, more than Sartre and Thomas Mann? Of course, what Bloom really means is that Byron was translated and read more than any other English writer, and he may well be correct on that count. Yet this omission is telling, as it highlights an unfortunate tendency (recently diagnosed by David Damrosch) among certain English professors to equate literature in general with literature written in English.  …  this pattern also raises a larger academic question: Why do we still partition the literary canon according to nationalist traditions? Is this really the most intellectually satisfying and authentic approach to literary studies?”

The letters are piling up for the piece — one raises the obvious rejoinder that translated works have been considered as the second-class baggage of lit courses, with too much lost in translation to make the effort worthwhile.  And of course foreign language departments often refuse to teach works of world literature other than in the target language — in other words, you have to learn Japanese to get Tale of Genji.

Cheer up.  It could get worse.  Robertson Davies satirized “Amcan” literature programs across his native Canada. The literary Balkanization has not gotten as bad as that.  At least not yet.

(By the by, I’ve written about Edelstein’s “Mapping the Republic of Letters” project here.)


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