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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

The Speed of Literature

Let’s do a little time travel to think about the history of world literature. Think about how long it takes to spread a story around the world these days. It can happen in seconds. Jump back just 25 years, and a great novel might spread in days, especially if it got some television publicity. If we travel in time back to the 1950s, a good book might take weeks or months – even longer when you consider translation time, and we’re still within the lifetime of many adults!

Set the dial on your time machine to 1900, just before the first world war. There’s no fast travel to be had – at all. So, even a book that set imaginations aflame could only spread as fast as the speed of the people carrying it.

We’re going to focus on that time before modern transportation and communication and before many books broke the boundaries of their countries of origin. Let’s look at world literature from the 1600s to the 1800s.

Defining World Literature

Before we go any further, let’s be clear on one thing. That term ‘world literature‘ may not be completely obvious. It doesn’t just mean literature written in countries around the world, it refers to books that have a readership beyond their home country. While that is wide open for literature in the past 25 years, it severely limits the books from the 17th – 19th centuries.

Many great books during that time may not have had a chance to be read much beyond the borders of their home countries, and they faded into obscurity. However, there are some notable books that not only spread during their time but remain popular. Before we get into the examples, let’s get the big picture and look at major trends.

Major Trends in World Literature

Just as the ’80s had hair and metal and the ’70s had disco, literature has trends that characterize specific time periods. The period from the mid-17th century to the end of the 18th century is what we call the Neoclassical period, a time when writers wanted to revive the classic style of ancient Greece and Rome. Neoclassical literature is known for order, structure and intelligence. We can go back to our music analogy for what came next.

Just as the punk rockers rebelled against the sweet sounds of the folk era, so, too, did the romantics rebel against the intellect of the Neoclassical writers. Romanticism was a literary era marked by emotion rather than reason.

Romanticism began in 1798 and lasted into the late 19th century. Now that you have the broad strokes, let’s look at some of the standouts from these eras.

Four Classics of World Literature

Jonathan Swift, an influential Irish writer, scored a major hit with his book Gulliver’s Travels. The book was immediately popular, and it has remained in print for nearly 300 years. Not only is the book highly imaginative with its giants, talking horses and miniature societies, but it’s also sharp political satire, a style of writing in which the author makes jokes designed to get the readers thinking.

Moving into the early 1800s, Denmark’s Hans Christian Anderson wrote our next example, Fairy Tales. Anderson’s stories won the hearts of children and adults, and his writing spread around the world. These short tales remain relevant because versions of them have found their way into so many cultures that they’re the basis of many modern stories. How many tales of transformation had their roots in The Ugly Duckling?

How many works have been inspired by The Little Mermaid? Anderson’s far-reaching influence certainly meets our criteria for world literature.

In the mid-1800s, the French writer Gustave Flaubert published Madame Bovary. The romantic writers of the time period were not much interested in depicting the stark reality of life in the mid-1800s, but Flaubert’s novel introduced a new way of seeing the world.

With Madame Bovary, Flaubert kicked off the Realism movement, a literary movement with the goal of showing life as it is. Flaubert was charged with obscenity due to the content of the book; sales skyrocketed, and he was acquitted.

The 19th century ends with our last example. This one is the Russian masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. While it’s set around 150 years ago, this book deals with deep philosophical issues around free will and faith, and it takes place in a time of rapid change. Those sound like contemporary issues! When a group associated with the Nobel Institute (the people who award the Nobel Prize) ranked the top 100 books of all time, this novel, and three others by Dostoyevsky, made the list.

Lesson Summary

World literature refers to books that have a wide audience outside their countries of origin. World literature in the 1700s, began with Neoclassical literature, a revival of styles and subjects from ancient Greece and Rome.

At the end of the 1700s, Romanticism became the new mode, and it put emphasis on emotion instead of reason. Literature was not easy to distribute in this era due to the capabilities of transportation and communication, but some books still managed to fit the criteria for world literature.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels caught people’s imagination while exposing them to Swift’s brand of political satire. Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson hooked the world on Fairy Tales, and French novelist Gustave Flaubert introduced Realism when he wrote Madame Bovary. Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky penned his classic The Brothers Karamazov at the end of the 1800s. This book on weighty issues would go on to be considered one of the greatest examples of world literature.

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