Comparative Literature

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Comparative Literature


the branch of literary history that deals with literary relationships, similarities, and distinctions among different countries. Similarities between works of literature may be based on similarities in the social and cultural development of the respective countries of origin or on cultural and literary contacts between the countries. Consequently, there are two areas of comparative literary studies: typological literary analogies and literary relationships and influences. Although these areas interact with one another, they should not be confused.

Comparative literature postulates a unity in man’s social and historical development. Since similar social relations have existed among different peoples, historical and typological analogies may be observed in the development of different literatures during a single historical epoch. Comparative literature may therefore study single literary works, literary genres and styles, the work of individual writers, or literary trends. Thus, during the Middle Ages, the folk heroic epos of different peoples of the East and West reveals similarities. During the period of feudalism, similarities existed among the chivalric lyrics of Provençal troubadours and German minnesingers, early classical Arabic love poetry, the versified chivalric romance in the West, and the romantic epic in eastern literatures.

An orderly succession of literary trends may be observed in the bourgeois literatures of different European countries: Renaissance literature, the baroque, classicism, romanticism, critical realism and naturalism, symbolism, modernism, and new forms of realism.

Although similar literary developments take place among different peoples, mutual contacts and influences are also common and generally accompany such developments. However, a prerequisite for a literary influence is an inner need for such a cultural “import” and an analogous social and literary course of development. A. N. Veselovskii wrote of “crosscurrents” in borrowed literature. According to his theory, every borrowed work becomes partially transformed, or adapted, to correspond with the national development and literary traditions of the country adopting the work. The adaptation is also influenced by the ideology and literary approach of the writer making use of the borrowed work. For comparative literature, such differences between works are as important as similarities.

Mutual literary influences among countries are not limited to contemporary literature. The literary heritage of great writers of the past continues to influence the present. An example is the influence of ancient Greek and Roman literature during the Renaissance and the period of 17th-and 18th-century classicism. An associated subject of study is that of the influence of various writers in different epochs and countries. Examples are the influence of Shakespeare and Goethe in France, Great Britain, and Russia and that of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Gorky in world literature. This field of study also involves the history of translations as well as of literary criticism, which reflects the development of social and literary thought in a given country.

Literary relationships and influences between countries differ in intensity and form under different historical conditions. These relationships and influences became particularly marked and wide-ranging beginning in the 19th century. From 1827 through the 1830’s, Goethe propagated the slogan “a universal world literature,” which referred to a literature that would include the most important works created by all peoples at every stage of historical development.

The October Revolution of 1917 gave rise to a multinational Soviet literature unified by the method of socialist realism. Toward the mid-20th century, the literatures of peoples that were formerly little known owing to their remoteness from Europe or to their social backwardness became increasingly drawn into the sphere of comparative literary studies. This phenomenon is related to the question of literary “interrelationships” between East and West.

After World War I (1914–18), increased attention was devoted in the West to literary relationships among different countries. The study of such relationships became a special field of literary history called comparative literature. This field of study was founded in France by F. Baldensperger and P. Van Tieghem, who published articles in the journal Revue de littératurecomparée (founded in 1921) and a series of monographs that were published as supplements to the journal.

In the years after World War II (1939–45), major scholarly centers for comparative literature studies were established in the USA by W. Friederich, R. Wellek, and other scholars. The journals Comparative Literature and Comparative Literature Studies were founded in 1949 and 1963, respectively. Somewhat later, comparative literature centers were established in the Federal Republic of Germany by K. Weiss and other scholars; the journal Arcadia was founded in 1966. Other such centers were founded in Canada. In 1954 the International Comparative Literature Association (ICLA) was founded; its central office is located in Paris and its official journal, Neohelicon, is published in Budapest. The association convokes international congresses and has published International Comparative Literature Association: Proceedings of the Congress (vols. 1–6,1955–70).

In Russia, comparative literature studies attained extensive development earlier than in other European countries. By the 1880’s, chairs of universal literature existed in most Russian universities. At the University of St. Petersburg, A. V. Veselovskii, the founder of Russian comparative literature studies, assumed the chair of comparative literature in 1870. Veselovskii’s works included Historical Poetics (1870–1906; separate edition, 1940).

Interest in comparative literature was revived in Soviet scholarship in the mid-1950’s. In 1960 a discussion was held in the USSR on interrelationships among national literatures.

In the other socialist countries, research on comparative literature is being conducted in Hungary by I. Söter, T. Klaniczai, and G. Vajda and in Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.