Learning From World Literature in the South

Editing the Norton Anthology of World Literature ultimately changed Martin Puchner's view of the literary marketplace and what literature can do.

December 13, 2017

When I was asked to edit the Norton Anthology of World Literature a decade ago, I was daunted by the task. Even with a team of co-editors and consultants, how could I possibly take responsibility for everything from Icelandic sagas to Chilean poetry, from the earliest writings to the most recent global authors? My head swam, thinking of the entire world. But what I would learn, from working on the Norton, was that world literature is always local.

The job started not with literary works but with questionnaires. I will never forget that moment when we sat around a conference table, staring at a large stack of surveys. The pile commanded respect, the force of numbers: hundreds of teachers against a handful of editors. We realized that our preferences didn't matter, that this was not about us imposing our tastes.

We began the humbler work of turning the surveys into a canon of world literature as it was being taught on the ground. Goethe, who had coined the term “world literature” in 1827, was losing readers, while Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th-century Mexican nun who was quite unknown a few decades ago, was gaining them. We were watching the canon change before our eyes.

Our next lesson came when we learned where the anthology would be taught: world literature was a North American phenomenon. Even though the United States is famously provincial in that only about 2 percent of books sold are translations from abroad, it is the world leader in world literature courses. The most important reason is structural: the looseness of the American-style liberal arts education accommodates broad survey courses more easily than the more specialized systems dominant in the rest of the world.

More to the point, world literature is a phenomenon of the southern United States. The 11 southern states contained only 14 percent of the nation’s population, but they accounted for half of our adopters. True, there were world literature courses that didn’t use any anthology, while others might assign one of our rivals and therefore wouldn’t show up in our statistics. But despite these caveats (Norton has over 80 percent market share), it was clear that world literature was thriving in the South, unsettling any easy generalization about red states and blue.

The popularity of world literature in the South was so surprising to me -- and to pretty much everyone I have talked to -- that I decided to visit some of our adopters. When I asked them why their institutions were so invested in world literature, they explained that while many coastal elite universities had given up on Great Books courses during the canon wars, the more conservative southern colleges had held onto them. But gradually those institutions transformed what originally would have been Western literature courses into world literature courses. (This account dovetailed with another result from the surveys: a separate anthology of Western literature was losing adopters, and we have since decided to phase it out).

My most memorable trip led me to Alabama. In preparation, the local sales rep had sent me two items: the documentary film Muscle Shoals, set in the small northern Alabama town that boasted the hottest recording studio of the 1970s, and an issue of Garden & Gun, the glossy southern magazine with ads selling elegant rifles for the lady huntress.

One teacher I met in Alabama did have an impressive array of action figures -- several representing Gilgamesh, the famous hunter -- but for the most part, hunting played a minor role. What really mattered to teachers was introducing students to the world. Few of the local students had had the opportunity to travel; many didn’t possess a passport or had never even left the state. World literature was their opportunity to get to know something of other cultures.

Encountering the enthusiasm with which teachers and students tackled texts from far-flung places changed my view of what literature could do: it allowed students access to the foundational texts of foreign cultures, their cultural DNA. Far from being a mere substitute for travel, world literature offered a superior version of it.

While visiting southern colleges, I learned about a second effect of world literature courses: they were very good at fostering closer relations between local and international students. All segments of American higher education have become more international in the last two decades, with a large infusion of students from China, India, Saudi Arabia and South Korea (the four largest groups). In world literature courses, these students were experts, while local students grappling with foreign texts could find a deeper way of relating to their international colleagues. I even suspect that the internationalization of American higher education has contributed to changes in the canon, with the Analects of Confucius, the Mahabharata and the Arabian Nights (along with the Quran) now high on the list.

The interests of students in the South also dovetail with another feature of world literature: the importance of religious texts. Our current understanding of literature as fiction is recent. Anthologies of world literature, which cover 4,000 years, use a much wider definition -- namely, significant writing, including religious, philosophical and political texts. The Buddha and Socrates are as important as Virgil or Shakespeare.

Conversations with students and teachers in the South encouraged me to adopt a broader understanding of literature, one less focused on recent genres such as the novel and more attuned to foundational and religious texts. The change led me to write The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization, a recently published account of the shaping force of foundational texts.

My involvement with world literature courses also changed my view of the literary marketplace. Literature professionals in the United States tend to have degrees in English. Today, that is no longer enough. If we want to avoid nationalism and nativism, we should embrace world literature. Colleges in the South have been on the forefront of this shift to world literature because they know how important it is. We can learn from their dedication.


Martin Puchner is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His books cover subjects from philosophy to the arts, and the Norton Anthology of World Literature and his HarvardX MOOC (massive open online course) have brought 4,000 years of literature to students across the globe. His most recent book, The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization (Random House), tells the story of literature from the invention of writing to the internet.


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