National Literature

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

National Literature

Imre Szeman

Even as it was in the process of being established at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the productivity and function of the concept of “national literature” was already being questioned. National literature and its apparent opposite—world literature—find their origins in German Romanticism. The intimate, organic connection between land, language and people (captured in the concept of Volksgeist, or “national spirit”) that lies at the heart of all understandings of national literature owes a great deal to the ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744—1803); the first expression of the concept of a Weltliteratur (world literature) was made by Herder's contemporary, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This origin of opposites from the same conceptual terrain is less surprising than it might seem. From our contemporary perspective, it is all too easy to imagine that the idea of national literature has been gradually superseded by ideas of world literature, global culture, and cosmopolitanism—the xenophobia and false limits of the national giving way over time to the borderless imaginings that we (too quickly) assign to contemporary cultural production. But in literature the “world” was always already a category that unsettled the assertion of the national. Goethe's scattered comments on world literature show how the consolidation of a number of discrete national-literary fields immediately opens up its opposite: the possibility of encountering numerous literary traditions as a form of enlightened training in both difference and the common humanity thought to be expressed incompletely in each national form.

Despite these uncertain foundations, the idea of national literature has proven to be remarkably durable—perhaps the single most durable literary-critical concept, having changed little in its core precepts over more than two centuries, and continuing to be the predominant form into which literatures and literary study are institutionally organized throughout the world. Fundamentally, “national literature” expresses the belief that one of the most significant elements in shaping literary expression—and thus guiding literary criticism in its analysis of texts as well—is the national space or culture out of which it originates. That a political form—the nation—would be imagined as having such a decisive impact on aesthetics and culture is directly related to the powerful ideological work that the idea of the nation has performed since it began to be used in at the end of the eighteenth century. In Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), the unfinished Outline of a Philosophical History of Humanity (1776), and other works, Herder argued that it was essential to see that there were deep connections between geography and history, and as a consequence, the development of languages and cultures as well. For Herder, specificities of place and historical experience gave rise to linguistic (see LINGUISTICS) and cultural differences to which of necessity linguists and historians had to carefully attend. They also gave rise to Volk (distinct peoples) shaped by these specific circumstances, each of whom would find representation in discrete political forms. In Herder's thought, there is a conflation between race, culture, language, and nation; as he writes, “every nation is one people, having its own national form, as well as its own language” (166). Long held as one of the structuring assumptions of modernity, this equation of land, language, and people in the form of the nation has continued to shape geopolitics and culture even in the global present, a time that is often imagined as being post-national by definition.

What has always been most ideologically suspect about the concept of the nation lies in its powerful inversion of historical cause and effect. Herder's aim in his account of the development of the Volk was to insist that languages and cultures had to be seen as expressions of particular people at a particular time. This attention to the specifics of history challenged universalistic accounts of social development and pointed to the necessity of analyzing peoples and cultures on their own grounds, as opposed to through a temporal measure of universal human development. On its own, this insistence on the importance of material reality and on the interrelation of mind and matter expresses a significant development in social and cultural historiography. At its most productive, the concept of national literature draws attention to the ways in which material realities shape literary expression. However, by making “nation” and “people” into organic, universal concepts as opposed to understanding them as historical and political ones, Herder and other early theorists of the nation made each into natural, necessary forms in ways that have proven surprisingly difficult to shake.

The idea that the natural “container” or “unit” of cultures is the nation is a political invention. States do not develop organically out of the material of national cultures at the end of a long process of emergence—the effect of a cause that begins in the soil of geography. Rather, states invent nations as a way of legitimating and giving material and imaginative substance to those geographic spaces over which they claim sovereignty (Gellner; Hobsbawm). The end result of the governing fiction of the nation—i.e., that it represents the political expression of a real as opposed to an essentially arbitrary isomorphism between land and culture—has played an essential role in virtually every instance of human conflict and deprivation over the past two centuries. Belief in nation and national culture has enabled wars of sovereign states against one another (through a logic of “us” versus “them” and the necessity of defense of one's homeland), justified internal suppressions of all manner of differences, legitimated zones of inclusion and exclusion along arbitrary geographic borderlines, and produced particularly vicious attacks on those groups, such as Roma and Jews, who are imagined as being peoples without their own “home” nations.

As a primary example of the distinct form of the cultural expression of a people, the idea of national literature has played a central role in legitimating the myth of the nation. The development of literature as a category (and the rise of the novel in particular) from the end of the eighteenth century occurs alongside the emergence of the nation as a political form. As Terry Eagleton and others have argued, “literature, in the meaning of the word we have inherited, is an IDEOLOGY” (19). Those written works that qualified as literature were thought to express universal values of order, propriety, Reason, and Progress. This made literature into a tool of class politics that could be used to “raise up” philistine middle and lower classes who lacked proper, “cultivated” values; as “national literature,” these same texts were taken to exemplify national greatness and intellectual achievement, highlighting both specific national characteristics (e.g., the pioneer spirit of Americans, French intellectualism) and the capacity of a nation's people to generate these universal Enlightenment values. As instruction in literature became institutionalized in universities at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, a canon of representative literary texts was developed which had the dual function of training a nation's subjects in national values and beliefs (Baldick), and managing colonial subjects through immersion in the “universal” values of the literature of colonizing countries (Viswanathan). Also, as Benedict Anderson has influentially shown (1991), the novel in particular makes an important formal contribution to the creation of nations. By introducing the possibility of social simultaneity—the ability for of a spatially extended community to believe they all belong and exist together as one social body—the novel helps to create “imagined communities.”

In literary criticism, the body of what might be considered to constitute various theories of national literature consists largely of attempts to challenge the ideological work of the nation, both on its own and in conjunction with the categories of literature or the literary. What has made this task complex and confusing is that even if at their core both “nation” and “literature” are political inventions, over time each category has produced real objects with material and imaginative substance. When Fyodor Dostoyevsky is described as a Russian writer, Wisława Szymborska (1923—) as a Polish poet, or Ivo AndriImage as a Bosnian writer, the national designations are provided as more than markers of citizenship; “nation” is offered as an immediate contextual entry point into how each writer is to be read and understood. The borders of (for instance) European nation-states have been changing even up until the present (e.g., AndriImage was a Yugoslavian writer when he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961). Nevertheless, the concerted political and sociocultural activity of state and people within the borders of nations with centuries-long genealogies (such as France or the U.K.) has created “imagined communities” that are far from contingent. On the level of literary training and practice, the institution of national canons and of national literary markets has produced the conditions for the production of literary texts that draw on national narratives and see themselves as speaking to specific national audiences. The challenge and difficulty for those theories of national literature that want to suspend the priority of the category—the way in which it has “in the last instance” come to define literary production and criticism—is to be able to simultaneously insist on the fiction of the category of national literature while also being attuned to the substance that this fiction continues to have.

There have been three major areas of debate over the concept of national literature within contemporary literary criticism: (1) debates over the constitution of national literary canons; (2) the difficult and contradictory genesis of postcolonial national literatures; and (3) a range of proposals that insist on the transnational or global character of all literary production.

The establishment of national literary canons played an important role in training in literary studies, and in representing and reproducing national verities and virtues to those audiences who were being constituted as national subjects. Since the late 1990s we have witnessed significant challenges to existing national canons throughout the world, most famously in the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S. The charge against U.S. literary canons was that they were unrepresentative of the true multicultural character of U.S. society and history (Morrison). By failing to include literary work by women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other minority groups, the canon functioned to maintain older forms of class privilege and power. The ensuing “culture wars” over U.S. multiculturalism did help to make canons more diverse, despite concerted efforts by conservative commentators (most notably Allan Bloom) to preserve the core texts of the old Western canon. The culture wars were fought both against a general Western canon of texts (from Plato to T. S. Eliot), as well as against national canons, such as those that might be used in an introductory class on (U.S.) American literature. While it was recognized that national literary canons were artificial inventions, arguments about canons were rarely posed as arguments against the category of national literature as such, as much as about the specific composition and representativeness of national literatures.

To a degree not often appreciated, many of the important issues and themes raised within postcolonial literature and criticism relate to the problems of the category of national literature. In virtually every postcolonial situation, whether in decolonized countries in Africa or Asia, “settler countries” such as Canada and Australia, or “developing” countries in South America riding the global wave of cultural nationalist sentiments that followed WWII, the challenge for both writing and theory came from the contradictions and paradoxes of establishing national literatures in these states (Szeman). The issue in postcolonial countries was also one concerning canons. Following the pattern established in Europe, it was imagined that new nations—whether new by virtue of becoming independent modern states for the “first” time (e.g., Jamaica, Nigeria, India), or as a result of increasing confidence in and hopes for national self-definition (e.g., Brazil, Canada, Australia)—required of necessity their own national cultures, including national literatures that would define and shape the nation. The creation of these literatures took a variety of forms, from nativist assertions of the need for writing in African languages (as in the work of NgImagegImage wa Thiong'o) to critical anxieties over lack of established national canons in countries such as Canada, and the consequent activity of creating them rapidly and from scratch (Lecker). The fiction of national literatures was hardest to sustain in these circumstances in the postcolony, in part because of the clear artifice of the nation itself in countries produced as a result of colonial misadventure rather than through centuries of the development of land, language, and people (e.g., Nigeria, which contains myriad languages, ethnicities, and peoples). The category of postcolonial literature for this reason has from its inception productively unsettled the Eurocentric idea of national literature; the category of the “postcolonial” challenges the limits of the national and points toward the necessity of considering literary developments on a global scale.

In the era of globalization, it is Goethe's Welt rather than Herder's Volk that has dominated attempts to map literature into its contexts and circumstances. Though literary studies remain organized into national literatures, the literatures studied within this framework now often focus on multiple, extranational spaces and imaginations (e.g., within the U.S., asian american literature, latina/o literature). Comparative literature (see COMPARATIVISM), which has implicitly relied on national spaces across which to deploy its critical strategy of comparison, has set out in new directions, best exemplified in Gayatri Spivak's arguments for a transnational literary criticism in Death of a Discipline (2003). Most intriguingly, scholars such as Franco Moretti (1998) and Pascale Casanova (2004) have sought to reimagine literary geography entirely, by looking past the nation to the spatial coordinates of literary genre, reading publics, and marketplaces, and to the place of cities in the development of fiction.

SEE ALSO: Anthropology, Comparativism, History of the Novel, Regional Novel.


1. Anderson, B. (1991), Imagined Communities, rev. ed.

2. Baldick, C. (1987), Social Mission of English Criticism.

3. Bloom, A. (1987), Closing of the American Mind.

4. Casanova, P. (2004), World Republic of Letters.

5. Eagleton, T. (1983), Literary Theory.

6. Gellner, E. (1983), Nations and Nationalism.

7. Goethe, J.W. von (1973), “Some Passages Pertaining to the Concept of World Literature,” in Comparative Literature, ed. H-J. Schulz and P. Rhein.

8. Herder, J.G. von (1800), Outlines of the History of Man, trans. T. Churchill.

9. Hobsbawm, E. (1990), Nations and Nationalism since 1780.

10. Lecker, R. (1995), Making It Real.

11. Morrison, T. (1992), Playing in the Dark.

12. Moretti, F. (1998), Atlas of the European Novel, 1800—1900.

13. NgImagegImage wa Thiong'o (1986), Decolonising the Mind.

14. Spivak, G.C. (2003), Death of a Discipline.

15. Szeman, I. (2003), Zones of Instability.

16. Viswanathan, G. (1989), Masks of Conquest.