On January 31st, 1827, the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe shocked his secretary by uttering a new word: world literature. Goethe had just read a Chinese novel and concluded that Europe needed to rethink its relation to the rest of the world. Humanity was entering a new phase: the phase of world literature.
Coined in provincial Weimar, the idea of world literature soon caught the imagination of Marx and Engels and was subsequently used by those seeking to promote national literatures, from Yiddish to South Asia, within an international context. What can we learn from this history? And what does the term world literature mean today?
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