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What is Wrong with National Literature Departments?


  • Meltzer, Françoise


This article asks what is wrong with national literature departments. Traditional literature departments, even with various politically conscious additions – women writers, authors of colour, postcolonial conditions, linguistic minorities, queer theory – assume by their very structure a romantic notion of the nation state, of borders and of linguistics as a major aspect of national identity and canonicity. The article considers the early German Romantics to see how they understood the twinning of nation and culture, and how this is baggage that Western universities still carry, even as they try to open themselves to other cultures. ‘Frühromantiker’ such as Friedrich Schlegel, A.W. Schlegel, Novalis and Fichte (along with Chateaubriand) idealize the Middle Ages as a time of great unity in Europe, and understand nationhood to have a divine aspect. Recently, the idea of the university and of national literature departments is being fundamentally rethought. Said, Bernheimer, Moebius, Reading, Foucault, Spivak, Bauman – to name just a few – have all worried about the place of literature in the light of globalisation, the dominance of Europe in literature departments, and the place of minority discourses. The article suggests that Comparative Literature may be the hope for the future in literary studies, because it is a field that by definition combines linguistic, cultural and political perspectives in its approach to texts. At the same time, however, comparative literature has traditionally been dominated by Eurocentrism, which has been the source of much criticism. Should the dominant languages of Europe be set aside to make room for the less known, less powerful ones? The article sees the European project of community as a source of hope, analogous to comparative literature, in facing both the challenge and cultural wealth of diversity.

Suggested Citation

  • Meltzer, Françoise, 2009. "What is Wrong with National Literature Departments?," European Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 17(01), pages 161-175, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:eurrev:v:17:y:2009:i:01:p:161-175_00

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