World Literature in 1928

By Ruden, Sarah | New Criterion, November 2004 | Go to article overview

World Literature in 1928


Ruden, Sarah, New Criterion


How all seventeen volumes of an early twentieth-century edition of the Columbia University Course in Literature came to Africa, eventually to appear in a Cape Town thrift shop, might be an interesting story in itself. But I have no room in my curiosity for that. I am too excitedly comparing the selections to the beginning university literature courses in my own life. I not only had my freshperson dose of Great Books at the University, of Michigan, but I also taught this stuff at Harvard, at the University of Cape Town, and, most truculently, at the University of Kansas. There, one student reported in the first essay I assigned ("My Favorite Book") that his favorite book was one on the Jayhawks, because he lived for Kansas basketball--had spent the rest of the day sobbing after one loss, and joined his twin brother in trashing their dorm room in rage after another. I have long been sunk in my own psychopathology, featuring among other symptoms a delusion that the canon actually matters, so that my lust to debate what young people should read can survive any number of young people themselves. I should probably be locked up. Failing that, indulging me in a disquisition like this could keep me from much worse.

It is striking, first of all, how much university students were expected to read back then. Each volume in the Columbia University Course is over five hundred pages long, in small type, and the organization is not anthology-like but textbook-like. Here, for example, are the most important Russian authors; these are their most important works, but first comes a long essay on how they all fit together. The chronology is tight within the ethnic and generic sections. You were supposed to read all of these volumes straight through, as if they were a physics course with interdependent logic and applications. In the anthology we used at Kansas, my students read perhaps a hundred and fifty pages in a semester, plus a paperback novel, and whined about their busy social and professional lives. I wish I had had these tomes on hand then to shame the little weenies with images of their gaitered and pince-nez'd ancestors quietly swatting because it was the duty of pretenders to education to learn about world literature.

World literature it actually was, but without the sub-Saharan African, Oceanic, and Native American provinces. At the time, however, there were splendid excuses for that. Scholarship had so far retrieved barely anything from oral traditions. Balkan oral composition linguistics--studied in connection to Homer--forms much of the basis of the modern interest in and understanding of oral literature. That without the work of Milman Parry (whose first collecting trip was in 1933) there should have been a full admission of the world's preliterate literature into the canon by the 1920S is either a disingenuous or a not very well informed demand--especially given that most of this literature was in languages known to no Westerners but missionaries. Stephen Watson, a poet at the University of Cape Town young enough to have been my own colleague (and the victim of my reviewing), publishes groundbreaking popularizations of Bushman folklore. The oral literature arguably most accessible to the Columbia editors was African American, but in 1928 Zora Neale Hurston had scarcely started on her career-long project of making it known to the mainstream. (She was opposed, interestingly enough, not by white bigots but by radical black writers and their radical white patrons.)

But the editors plainly wanted to get at different experiences any way they could, and their use of the only voices and the only categorizations they knew of cannot be held against them. Colonial literature such as Kipling went under the headings of the mother countries, and postcolonial literature was an orderly queue. The United States and Canada and a few other former colonies happened already to have had a fully evolved written literature, which is represented. …

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