Christian Thorne Interviews Joe Cleary–World Literature Under American Supervision


This interview is part of a series titled “Re-Read, Re-examine, Re-Think”. For more on Casanova, Cleary, and world literature, see Christian Thorne’s companion essay.

Christian Thorne:  We’ve all read some cutting reviews of Pascale Casanova’s work. But you refuse to be cutting. Your book sets out, rather, to extend and amend The World Republic of Letters in a sympathetic spirit. Can we imagine you’re talking to someone who read maybe two chapters of Casanova fifteen years ago? What might such a person have missed? What in Casanova’s approach is most worth carrying forward? What might we learn from her that we will have a harder time learning from other scholars? And what in her framework have you nonetheless felt compelled to revise?

Joe Cleary: When Harvard University Press translated The World Republic of Letters (1999) into English in 2004, its reception in the English-speaking world did appear to be quite frosty and skeptical. Much of the early criticism was predictable and concentrated on matters such as eurocentrism, francocentrism, canonicity, and so on. For some critics, one of the problems with Casanova’s study was that it was too systemic and imposed an excessively tidy order on the putative complexity of modern literary production and consecration. For others, hers was a rickety system produced by loosely combining Bourdieu, Braudel, Wallerstein, and others, and as such not nearly systemic enough. In addition, there was considerable resistance to Casanova’s stress on competition and conflict, on rivalries and struggles, on power and domination as matters constitutive of ‘world literature.’ For the more Goetheian and Kantian versions of ‘world literature,’ for criticism that assumed a contemporary transnational dispensation for which nation-states no longer greatly matter, or indeed for liberal modes of criticism generally, Casanova’s stress on the literary world system as an always contested force field that had been historically created and then transformed by national rivalries, as well as by individual authors’ bids for recognition and consecration, struck an unwelcome note. In other words, Casanova’s emphasis on conflict and competition, repression and recognition, domination and revolution did not sit well with those forms of world-literature studies that highlighted cross-civilizational communication and exchange, or those forms of postcolonial criticism that stressed hybridity, or modes of liberal criticism premised on literature’s capacity to cultivate empathy. The World Republic of Letters cites a great many writers (more writers than critics I imagine); I’m not sure if many contemporary writers have returned the compliment and seriously engaged Casanova.

However, the skeptical or dismissive responses to Casanova are only part of the story. The World Republic of Letters was quickly translated into numerous languages, generated extensive international debate, and attracted a good deal of serious and respectful criticism. It is worth mentioning, too, that The World Republic of Letters received an early and enthusiastic welcome from senior figures associated with the ‘new left,’ including Perry Anderson, Edward Said, Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, and her later essays appeared, as did Franco Moretti’s, in the New Left Review.

What are some of the things worth carrying forward in Casanova’s work? To begin with, it is worth stressing that her work did not begin and end with The World Republic of Letters; the later articles and books deserve consideration though her career was, due to illness, all too short. Some things that I value in the World Republic book are the following:

Casanova stresses the historical nature of the world literary system, which she traces back to the rise in the early modern period of European national vernacular literatures, absolutism and the Westphalian state system and, later, the era of national self-assertion and self-determination.

She is interested in how that system consolidates and regulates its operations and dominates its peripheries but also, vitally, in how, from time to time, that system undergoes transformations and mutations. And periodically, maybe not more than once or twice a century, as Jerome David puts it, the world literary field is subject to revolutionary disruptions or re-centerings when new literary forces or movements, the bearers of new representations of reality, burst on the scene and impose themselves on the existing field. More than others, Casanova is interested in the social conditions, literary and linguistic strategies, and motivations that enable significant transformations. These concerns seem of particular interest in our contemporary moment when the postcolonial decolonizations of the 1960s and 1970s and even more “the rise of China” and the BRICs are challenging Western European and US geopolitical and geocultural world domination. Though Casanova was working loosely with Wallerstein’s work, Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century appeared in 1994 and his Adam Smith in Beijing in 2009.  Arrighi and Casanova were apparently unaware of each other’s work, but their interests converge despite their different disciplines. Each is interested in articulating and analyzing political and cultural phenomenon in terms of a modern world system, in explaining the history and dynamics of the emergence and operations of that system, and in considering the possibility of its imminent transformation.

Casanova’s interest in the peripheries and semi-peripheries of the world literary system as sites for change is also worth stressing. Her knowledge of these postcolonial peripheries may have been limited and sometimes superficial (though she was hardly alone in this respect). Nevertheless, she contended that the drive for radical change issues periodically at least from the semi-peripheries and peripheries. Writers in the metropolitan centers (Paris, London, New York) can easily bask in their contemporary fame and apparent ‘universality’ and take the advantages they derive from the world system largely for granted. Those from the peripheries have greater reason to be more conscious of the powers and privileges that accrue to the centers and they have to be canny about how to maneuver to find recognition in that system or to take it on in various ways. Directly or indirectly, their strategies can disclose a great deal about the operations of the world literary system. Likewise, at the level of the nation, the most prestigious literary nations can rest on their past historical accomplishments and powerful consecrating institutions. Those countries or cultures with historically lesser prestige typically have fewer resources but if they find the will to improve their situation or to challenge and buck the system, they can sometimes find the means to do so.

What in Casanova’s framework did I feel compelled to revise in Modernism, Empire, World Literature?  First, it is important to say that the study of world literature has clearly developed quite a bit from 1999 when Casanova’s volume appeared. Naturally, some things are clearer now than they were some quarter of a century ago. Likewise, geopolitical developments, such as the rise of East and South Asia, for instance, have probably done more to change settled perceptions of things than have the critical debates and academic controversies on world literature over that period because that “rise” has done so much to highlight the contingent nature of American cultural and political power. Therefore, many things appear in different light now than they might have done when Casanova was writing her book in the 1990s. That said, even in my early review of the World Republic of Letters in the Field Day Review I pointed to several limitations of her framework that still matter. I noted then that she made no allowances for world literary systems not centered on Paris; the Soviet world literary system centered on Moscow was an obvious example. Katerina Clark’s Moscow, The Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism and The Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941 (2011) is a pioneering study in English of that literary world and its ambitions. Important studies by Monica Popescu and Rossen Djagalov on that Soviet system and the ‘Third World’ have followed. Likewise, Casanova pays no heed to non-European literary systems organized in terms of “world languages” such as Chinese, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Turkish, and so on. Even if one takes the view that these other systems were eventually subordinated to the European-centered system that was globally expanded in the age of empire, and that they were therefore considered ‘non-modern’ as opposed to modern systems, their persistence and accumulated accomplishments were something Casanova did not engage. Casanova is not wrong, in my view, to stress the exceptional importance of Paris and French culture for other cultures almost everywhere in the modern era.  But the world literary system seems to be more layered and laterally stratified than she describes. Thus, while Casanova is, I feel, sincerely interested in how things change, her system can seem, despite itself, somewhat static and caught in Parisian freeze-frame. For Modernism, Empire, World Literature, I wanted to study one moment of rupture in which, I contend, the literatures of one soon-to-be-dominant but still-quite marginal literary power, namely the United States, and one British colony and semi-periphery, Ireland, were able to effect a transformation of the Anglophone literary world previously centered on London. Moreover, in so doing, I suggest, these literatures energized what we now called Anglophone modernism and its strange new forms, styles, idioms and extravagant ambitions. As with most, maybe all, “revolutions,” this modernism was a compound of radical and reactionary intellectual and aesthetic forces and ambitions, but when it imposed itself on the early twentieth-century world system one could never see “English literature” in the same way as before. A sea change had occurred: New York emerged as a rival to London as literary capital and Dublin became, for a period at least, a significant site of peripheral literary insurgency, one to which several African American, Caribbean, Indian, Chinese, and African writers looked with considerable interest. In Modernism, Empire, World Literature, I am interested in the literary, intellectual and institutional dynamics of this change in a more granular way than Casanova could be in The World Republic of Letters. I have no real competence to deal with contemporary changes brought about by Asian and African decolonizations and by “the rise of China,” but for the period when I was writing the book my sense of the transatlantic modernist period was shadowed by considerations that comparable or greater changes may be underway now as US hegemony is contested by a variety of new forces.

CT:   The most obvious difference between your book and Casanova’s is that you give detailed readings of individual literary works, and she mostly doesn’t. Having brought into view the existence of a world literary system, she spends nearly all of her book trying to figure out how that system works—and this in roughly sociological terms. What has to happen for a novel or a poem to count as world literature? Who gets to say that a particular book should be read all around the world, and what gives them the authority to do that? Which are the institutions that allow books to circulate outside their countries of origin? What sorts of books do those institutions tend to promote? And why books of that type and not others? How does the situation of a writer in any of the small languages differ from a writer in any of the global or imperial languages? What forms of inequality does the system tend to produce?

But those aren’t exactly your questions, since you’ve found a way to travel from Casanova’s reconstruction of the system in extensio back to particular works, which you need to lift from out the system long enough to peer at them closely. You seem, in other words, to have translated Casanova’s literary sociology into something rather like a practical criticism, and I’m wondering what a fellow literary historian would have to do in order to emulate your accomplishment. If we’ve read Casanova carefully, which questions should we asking of individual novels and poems and plays? 

JC: Though I reach back into the mid-nineteenth century to consider how Paris and London shaped conceptions of American and Irish national cultures in that century, and to review the ways in which American and Irish literary nationalist conceptions of their particular situations internalized much of this metropolitan sense of things, even as they also partially resisted it, Modernism, Empire, World Literature covers a more compressed timeframe than Casanova’s much wider study. Moreover, while Casanova deals with literatures in several languages, my study deals only with a few English language modernisms. This narrower frame allows more scope for detailed textual studies. Because of questions of scale and its association with Moretti’s “distant reading,” world literature studies are sometimes assumed more interested in questions of markets, circulation, translation, consecration, or consumption than in incisive close readings, and I did want to press against this. Even so, I should stress that I consider the sociological dimensions of Casanova’s work crucially important. Any serious literary materialist analysis ought to pay proper attention to how literary works are produced and circulated, and to the many institutions or awards systems through which they reach publics—booksellers, libraries, schools, universities, broadcasters, academies—and leftist cultural study ought to be responsive to such analysis. The challenge is really how to do this kind of sociological study dialectically so that one does not crudely reduce the literary work to a mere effect of the external conditions of its production and transmission.

In the individual case studies in Modernism, Empire, World Literature, I attempt to show how the dynamics of the world literary system often show up, directly or indirectly, in the torsions of the literary texts themselves. They do so in different ways, not in the same repetitive manner in every great literary work. In the case of The Golden Bowl the subject of imperial cultural plunder and transfer—Roman, British, and American—is thematized in the figure of the enormously wealthy art collector Adam Verver and the expert management of crises is dramatized in the figure of Maggie Verver. In Eliot’s The Waste Land, English and European collapse, political and literary, is not so much directly thematized as inscribed in the distressed form and dissonant linguistic music of the poem, though the poem, as I read it, is as much reconstructive in impetus as it is a lamentation of collapse. That is, what The Waste Land offers is a poetic reconstruction on new principles that accompanies Eliot’s attempted reconstruction, conducted via The Criterion and elsewhere, of a “European republic of letters” after World Wars I and II. And Eliot’s reconstructed poetics and his will to recuperate this international “republic of letters” seems to anticipate the wider American reconstruction and management of Europe after World War II. In Walcott’s Omeros, a much later work obviously, the triangulation of Europe, the United States, and Africa, with the exilic poet-persona anxiously shuttling between these sites and his abandoned island home of St. Lucia, gives the epic its topos and compositional form. In its American-European and Caribbean-African shuttlings, Omeros expresses at the level of form an ambitious will to master the contemporary US-dominated world literary system that a clearly distressed “Walcott” self-figure unhappily inhabits. That is to say, for Walcott the Caribbean poet must either master his circumstances or be mastered by them and become, like the Saint Lucian service worker strata in his poem, low-wage worker-writer in the literary field. In these cases, and others, I attempt to underline that while writers have little option but to navigate the given literary field or system as best they can, the task of the critic is not simply to diagnose, after Casanova, how that field or system works outside of or as surround to the literary work once it is published. Critics can also work to show how the pressures of that force field or dynamic structure imprint themselves, whether in open or obscure manner, on the literary work’s style, content and form. Just as Marxist critics are interested in investigating how the traces of the commodity form imprint the literary work, or how the literary work resists its conscription as commodity, so we can expect that if a great literary work inhabits a complex and contested world literary system, that system will also inhabit the literary work, however obscurely.

However, questions of literary form are only one piece of this. Some writers seem to be, as Casanova suggests, lucidly aware of the operative logics of the world literary system and quite deliberate in their determination to improve their individual situations or those of their national literatures in that system. I consider this matter particularly in the case of Yeats and Pound, two writers who had big ambitions for their national literatures and were restively antagonistic to London’s imperial cultural authority, which they both, in their respective ways, considered ‘decadent.’ In addition, in the case of Joyce, I discuss the treatment of national rivalries and the consecration of literary greatness by way of Stephen Dedalus’s contentions with Shakespeare (and behind him Goethe and Yeats) in the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode of Ulysses. The epic has always been a particularly important form to assertions of individual and national literary distinction and greatness; each chapter of Modernism, Empire, World Literature attends to questions of epic, though the approach varies in each case.

You asked, which questions prompted by Casanova’s work should we direct at individual novels, play or poems? Firstly, I think we should include writers’ and critics’ critical writings in this catalogue also. Casanova’s work, in my view, prompts several different types of questions—these include issues of mimicry and emulation, the inscription of literatures in a system and the inscription of that system in literary works, the uneven character of transnational literary exchanges and rivalries, and so on. I consider Casanova’s World Republic to be an ambitious but inevitably preliminary or rough sketch of a world literary system, not something she intended to be the completed model. Moreover, Casanova’s work describes what is essentially a Western European literary world system, one that has been contested and reconfigured a great deal since World War II, and one that is changing again in our time as new technologies of transmission, new geopolitical struggles, new migrations, and new literary or cultural capitals exert their influence. Since we should think of the system as dynamic and contested, rather than static or merely self-reproducing, the questions that we ask about literature will change, to some extent at least, as the system changes.

CT: I’m wondering about the place of Paris in your thinking. Let me say straight off that I take this issue to be more important than it might at first glance seem. I finished The World Republic of Letters suspecting that Casanova had made Paris too important. That book sometimes gives the impression that world literature is largely the creation of Éditions Gallimard.  But then when I finished your book, I couldn’t altogether quash my misgivings about your having (mostly) omitted Paris. To hear you tell it, ambitious Irish and American writers had to work out their relationship to the English literary establishment, but they didn’t have to take any kind of position with regard to the French (or the German or the Spanish). At first glance, this seems only obvious: Writers in the former English colonies have always had to play king-of-the-mountain with the English canon. But I’ve always thought of Casanova as usefully prodding us beyond that commonsensical position. If there really is a literary world-system, then that system is one; that’s the force of the concept, as adapted from Immanuel Wallerstein. Post-colonial theory taught us all how to talk about the literatures of the individual European empires, but Wallerstein’s point was always that the empires should not be considered in isolation, that they finally add up to a single network—conflict-ridden and dynamic, to be sure, but functionally unified even so. World-system theory has always been a theory of super-imperialism. The literary world-system is to that extent most visible when a novel or poem moves from one linguistic zone to another. The concept of the Anglosphere, by contrast, doesn’t capture the multi-imperial dimensions of the thing.

There’s more: One of the ways in which you improve upon Casanova is by bringing in the work of Giovanni Arrighi, to refine her use of world-systems theory. But Arrighi is if anything even more insistent than Wallerstein that the world-system has, in any period, only one capital—one country that plays an outsized role in coordinating global capitalism as a whole. You’re doing something notable, then, when you write that “by the nineteenth century Britain and France were the world’s two leading imperial as well as literary powers” (5) or when you say that “the old literary system [was] organized by Paris and London” (39). That strikes me as your major (and silent) amendment of Casanova’s case, all the more notable in that it contravenes one of the central tenets of world-system theory. I can ask my question concretely: What is the status of Paris in your thinking? My impression is that the book first shifts our attention to London by partnering the city with Paris, and then lets itself ditch Paris altogether, but that might not be fair. I can also ask the question theoretically: Can a world system, literary or otherwise, have more than one capital?  

This is an important issue. One might reverse the question and ask, “Where is London in Casanova’s model?” Your question rightly identifies that the problem of the interplay between various literary capitals, however organized and stratified, requires a good deal more attention than world literature studies has afforded it to date. How do major and satellite literary capitals relate to each other? In what ways are those relationships both competitive and cooperative (or symbiotic) at the same time? If there is only one capital of capitals, then how do the lesser but still major capitals relate it to it and it to them? How do major historical events (world wars, revolutions, new media technologies, the changing statuses of “world languages,” reader demographics) affect such relationships? I think my book has things to say on this but let me try to address your question as clearly as I can.

First, I think it is essential not to readily conflate the world system model as it comes to us from Wallerstein or Arrighi with the world literary system as developed by Casanova and others after her. It is true that Casanova takes her model from Braudel, Wallerstein, and world systems theory, but that system is economic and political in conception whereas she is conceptualizing a cultural or literary system. It is true, too, as you say above, that a world system is functionally unitary, and I think this holds for both literary and economic-political systems. This would not imply, however, that the operative dynamics of each system are simply the same. The relationship of great literary capitals to each other need not follow the same logic as that of financial capitals. And whereas Arrighi thinks in terms of world systems in which the central coordinating powers are combinations of states and business corporations of increasing size and complexity (in turn city states, nation-states, continental states), it may be that capital cities (Paris, London, New York, Barcelona, Constantinople, Moscow, Beijing) matter more to Casanova’s model even though those cities are mostly national centers also. There may well be a compensatory element to cultural capitals for example. Nineteenth-century London had surpassed Paris in size, and England and its allied European powers defeated the grand ambitions of Napoleonic France. The British Empire also exceeded France’s in size and geostrategic significance. Yet Paris’s cachet as a great center of fashion, consumption, taste, and culture seems still to have surpassed London’s.

Though some critics disagree, I think Casanova is basically correct to assert that for the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century Paris was the capital of literary capitals, the functional center or hub of the world literary system (one that was effectively and assumptively European even if its sway by the mid-nineteenth century reached into all continents). She takes her sense of Paris’s super-eminence not only from Baudelaire, Benjamin and Bourdieu, but also from the testimonies of writers around the world hymning Paris. What she might have formulated more clearly is the Paris-London relationship and how she thinks it works. I found Evan Horowitz’s article “London: Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (New Literary History, 2010) one of the most useful and suggestive reflections on this topic. Summarizing crudely, Horowitz argues that in all sorts of ways nineteenth-century London and England were more modern and advanced, and more politically stable, than Paris and France. However, he concludes that if uneven development—the clash of center and province, of capitalist industry or finance and agriculture, of modern and non-modern, of academies and avant-gardes—is catalytic to cultural creativity, then London may simply have been too evenly modern to be the volatile and creative cultural crucible that Paris was. Further factors such as Paris’s continental location between southern and northern Europe (something to which Moretti has also drawn attention), its long-accumulated prestige as a center of taste, fashion, and intellectual radicalism, and the prestige of French as the language of transnational culture and diplomacy were also crucial. Nevertheless, even if one accepts Paris’s supereminence this still does not tell us much about the precise nature of its relationship with literary London. The issue is not merely which capital is primary and which secondary, but how primary and secondary centers relate.

In Modernism, Empire, World Literature I assume Paris’s precedence as world literary capital. Nevertheless, London is a close competitor and serves for writers in the Anglophone world as a hinge-city to Paris and French and European notice and fame. Irish and American writers move between both cities: Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and George Moore are notable late nineteenth century instances. However, many made their larger careers in London or had to establish reputations there to become really notable in Paris. The two cities, however similar in some respects, serve quite different functions: Paris, for example, is decidedly Europe’s art capital in a way London is not. And this matters to literature and to literary modernism, which is in so many ways influenced by the artistic avant-gardes from the Impressionists to the Surrealists. Because Paris is the capital of European art, the trendsetter, the great art collectors and patrons gather there too, those from the Anglophone world included. So, it is not just a case of writers living in Paris; as Henry James observed, ‘American  art’ in his day was made in Paris but even when it was made outside of Paris we find a great deal of Paris in it. We all know about the Irish and American expatriates who moved to Paris in the early twentieth century or in the twenties. But even these writers continued to depend on English or American literary magazines, reviewers, publishers, patrons, and readerships, so for the Anglophone writer it was rarely if ever a case of working exclusively in a Parisian or French world.   However, I also suggest, contra Casanova, that things were slowly but surely changing, and that the changes were speeding up across the twentieth century especially. As the British Empire expanded, and as the United States was transformed from a largely agrarian colony and slave plantation into a growing industrial power and empire (expanding into Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Pacific), the English language’s reach as “world language” was expanding too. Contemporary English-speaking linguists and writers were mostly triumphantly aware of this shift and this awareness is a crucial factor in literary production of the period, though not only among English-language writers. In the Belle Époque and the US’s Gilded Age, there was a much-commented-upon attempt by wealthy Americans, especially on the Atlantic coast, to augment the US’s cultural capital by building great museums, galleries, libraries, concert halls, universities, and so on, to compete with London and Paris and Europe generally. This kind of cultural catch-up led to “the plunder of Europe” and “the Orient” for artifacts of all kinds and their transfer to US repositories. James in The Golden Bowl (1904), Ezra Pound in Patria Mia (1913), and Lewis Mumford in The Golden Day (1926) all write wonderfully on this topic as do many other early twentieth-century writers and present-day American cultural historians and scholars. My argument in Modernism, Empire, World Literature is that while Paris is indeed the leading capital of the world literary system and enjoys an enormous, maybe unrivalled, prestige in the modernist era, the rapid expansion of English across the globe (thanks in part to empire and better communications systems), the remarkable rise in US wealth and power, and European turbulence after 1914 and in the entre deux guerres moment, means that the literary world system is already being reconfigured in ways Casanova either overlooks or recognizes—if she recognizes it at all—only in her own lifetime.

However, things are happening on the peripheries that matter too. Concurrently, though in very different circumstances, the Irish and Celtic Revivals gained momentum alongside the Irish struggle for Home Rule, and attracted much attention in the US both from mainstream white intellectuals (like Pound or Van Wyck Brooks, for example) and from writers in the Harlem Renaissance (Claude McKay is a notable Caribbean-American instance). My argument is that Irish and American modernisms were nurtured by these earlier domestic national literary and cultural assertions, and by their sense of ambition. Even if many individual modernists wrote scathingly of their domestic societies and cultures and went into long-term exile in London and Paris, they still took with them something of this increasing national assertiveness and diffidence to things metropolitan. For writers from the English-language colonies in Ireland, the US, and the Caribbean, and indeed for Irish nationalist, African American, and Caribbean political and intellectual activists, London and England were critical: it was there that crafts could be refined, contacts made, patrons found, voices amplified, reputations elevated. So, we have great migrations from Ireland (George Moore, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats), the US (James, Pound, Eliot, Stein), and from the Caribbean (CLR James, McKay and others)—these are just the obvious examples. Still, if London is a necessary first citadel to be taken, so to speak, for Anglophone writers, Paris remains preeminent.

At the same time, there are different ways of taking on Paris in a literary sense. For James, Eliot, and George Moore there are sojourns and immersions in French literary circles or in poetic and other artistic and philosophical developments. Others like Stein and Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and many major African-American expatriate artists, bypass London for a more or less direct route to Paris (the routes of Joyce and McKay are more circuitous than most).  Even in the case of someone like CLR James who moves to Lancashire and London, Paris and France are patently important intellectually—one need only consider the enormous reading and research on French domestic and imperial politics and culture necessary for James’s scholarly epic, The Black Jacobins. Or, think of Ulysses, one of the obvious landmark modernist masterpieces. Joyce initially gets published with the help of Pound, but his Parisian consecration comes essentially with Ulysses, a work to which Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company is indispensable. What an amazing cooperative venture—this creation of Irish Catholic and American Presbyterian expatriate renegades in Paris. The sense of intellectual and artistic ambition not just to get to the European capitals or be recognized there, but to radically remake “literature” as understood in Paris or London is still remarkable and underappreciated.

In any case, to bring things to a point, my sense is that London and later New York mattered to English-speaking writers from the peripheries because it was there that primary reputations were made. English-language publishers and reviewers were indispensable to finding what every writer needs, namely readers and markets and reviews. Nevertheless, Paris still mattered more to avant-garde painting and literature more than London did, and still conferred the highest form of cultural prestige or consecration: French translation (a power supplemented or confirmed by the Nobel Prize in time). There is another twist though, another ruse of literary history. The English-language modernisms of Ireland, the Caribbean, and the United States may have been written with a certain sense of resentful diffidence to received pronunciation or the King’s English—a diffidence especially obvious in Joyce, Stein and McKay, to mention a few. Nevertheless, one of the paradoxes of the success of English-language modernisms taken collectively is that they also hugely augmented the prestige of English as a world language and world literary language. Other things were also tipping the scales away from French and towards English. The rapid rise of the US as world power after WWI, the assertion of New York as an ultramodern center of finance, fashion and publication, the development of air travel (the language of international aviation is English), the promotion of American popular cinema and culture, and the fall of Paris and France to Nazi Germany in 1940 all contributed. In many respects, the English-language modernisms from the peripheries can be read as a brash challenge to and in some sense, a remarkable takeover and renewal of “English literature” as earlier formulated by means of a converging series of attachments to and rivalries with literary London. Nevertheless, when modernism comes to be celebrated as one of the great literary revolutions or sea changes in twentieth-century literature, then modernism, willy nilly, becomes part of the story of the augmentation of the Anglophone sphere’s cultural prestige and reach and, conversely, part of a relative reining-in of French literary preeminence.

Paris does not suffer any kind of sudden or absolute decline, but its sense of itself as uncontested “universal” capital of culture comes under strain from the rise of the Soviet Union and the rise of the United States and American English. Had Oscar Wilde, Henry James, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Claude McKay and CLR James not just been fascinated by Paris, but also written their oeuvres in French, how different modern literature would appear!  There’s a Leonard Cohen song that goes, “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.” In the case of Anglophone modernism, this might be revised, “First we take London, then we take Paris.” However, as New York came increasingly into prominence the London-Paris nexus became a more complex London-New York-Paris one. Still, I recognize that my response remains sketchy. It is easier to point to broad contours of change than to explain them in some more finely detailed accounts of reconfigured literary fields or world systems. This, I expect, will require collective scholarship and combinations of cultural sociology, quantitative analysis, translation studies, and close reading. The changing roles of publishing companies, university populations, and critical scholarship, literary migrations, prizes and awards, and many other things, would have to be considered in terms of this wider transatlantic and intercontinental system.

CT: Casanova makes a few suggestive remarks about American fiction and has quite a lot to say about Irish literature, but you largely omit the very authors she foregrounds—those would be Faulkner and Beckett. I’m wondering if that’s significant. Casanova, after all, regards Beckett as the greatest of all twentieth-century writers—and greatest because he was the culmination of the literary world system, enabled by dislocation to achieve “the total autonomy of literature” (128), a literature beholden to no place, no community, no particular language.

About Faulkner, meanwhile, she says the following:

“William Faulkner, no less than Joyce, was responsible for one of the greatest revolutions in the world of letters, comparable in its extent, and in the depth of the changes it introduced in the novel, to the naturalist revolution of the late nineteenth century. … in the outlying countries of the literary world [Faulkner’s innovations] were welcomed as tools of liberation. Faulkner’s work, more than that of any other writer, henceforth belonged to the explicit repertoire of international writers in dominated literary spaces who sought to escape the imposition of national rules, for he had found a solution to a commonly experienced political, aesthetic, and literary impasse.” (336)

Faulkner, she says, could play this role because he was writing about a backward and perhaps even colonized portion of the U.S., archaic and left behind. His American South was of a piece with the global South, and this made him compelling to readers in the colonies and post-colonies. Faulkner wrote a regionalist and rural fiction, to be sure, but his novels were unlike anything the nineteenth-century had served up under that rubric. It thus fell to a white American to teach the writers of the old Third World how to forge a rural modernism, in which an underdeveloped region manages to sustain stylistic bravura. Faulkner modeled for (post)colonial writers how to stay on the periphery and still be experimental and formally challenging.

I’m wondering, then, about whether you think Casanova is right about Beckett and Faulkner. And I’m wondering, too, whether you think these judgments are compatible with your account of American and Irish modernisms. Does your passing over Faulkner and Beckett in (near) silence suggest a disagreement or at least a different emphasis? Two years before The World Republic of Letters, Casanova published a single-author study called Beckett the Abstractionist, but then in the later book she wrote about him all over again. In 2021, you published not only Modernism, Empire, World Literature but also The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalization, and in neither book do you make more than passing reference to Beckett. Casanova made him central more than once in quick succession. You seem to have responded by skipping him twice over. 

JC: That’s something I hadn’t ever considered and one to which one might give a few answers.

Some of the differences may be just down to the vagaries of reading and what makes an impression, some to the architecture of my argument, but some stem from a disagreement with Casanova’s conception of literary world systems.

In terms of the quirks of reading, I came to modernism as an Irish undergraduate in the early 1980s. We read what would now be considered a conventional and conservative high modernist canon: Henry James, Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Yeats, early Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Faulkner. If I remember correctly, we encountered Beckett selectively as a dramatist. I came to Beckett’s novels later, after college, and Beckett’s plays still make a deeper impression. (Beckett died in 1989; perhaps he was lodged somewhere anomalous between “contemporary” and “modernist” in undergraduate Irish syllabi and “late modernism” wasn’t really a category.)  It was only at graduate school in Columbia University that I really came to what we now call “postcolonial literature” in a serious way. In some ways, then, the modernist literature that made the greatest impression on me was “early” and “high” modernism, and “late modernism” always seemed a little compromised or hobbled by its adjective, its tardiness. In many ways, I’m anti-Lukácsian when it comes to high modernism, but must fight with my tendency to view “late modernism” in rather Lukácsian terms! Casanova, on the other hand, seems magnetically drawn to Beckett as late modernist and, like Adorno, to have a far keener feeling for Beckett than for Brecht.

In terms of the structure of my book, it would be a stronger work were there a chapter on Stein or Faulkner, coming after the chapter on Joyce and before that on Walcott. But since the study is fundamentally about how it took the energies of two former peripheries, one a colony in the process of breaking with Britain and the empire, the other a former colony in the process of becoming an imperial metropole and new-world hegemon, to bring about a significant structural change in the literary world system, I wanted to keep the focus largely on the period before World War II. In addition, because my stress was on Irish and American modernist connections and mutual awareness, I decided to focus on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eugene O’Neill rather than Stein or Faulkner. I saw that chapter as a kind of bridge chapter: two American Irish figures working largely in the US and building on the achievements of the earlier expatriate Americans but belonging to a different phase of American assertion and imminent ascendancy. I was also trying to expand a little the conventional sense of “Irish modernism.” Irish studies, with a few notable exceptions, has largely tended to bypass Irish American modernism and to fixate on the trinity of Yeats, Joyce and Beckett, with Bowen now added to make the trio a quartet. For its part, “American modernist studies” has always been far more interested in American and British modernist connections than in connections with Irish modernism. There are many interesting books on the expatriate Americans in London and Paris, because these were the cities where the major expat writers resided. However, there are few if any ambitious scholarly works on American or African American takes on the Irish Revival and modernism. In many respects, the American scholarly fascination with London and Paris confirms Casanova’s thesis.

Third, and most important, I fundamentally disagree with Casanova’s assertion that “autonomy” is the highest and finest stage of accomplishment in terms of world literary systems. For her, Beckett’s attempt to be free of all constraints—of nation, public, or language—represents “autonomy” pushed to its auto-referential highest reach, literature aspiring to the quality of visual abstraction.  You’ve written admirably on the contradictions in The World Republic of Letters on this issue in “The Sea is Not a World” in boundary 2. On the one hand, Casanova is committed to the idea of a world literary system that is one but uneven and expanding in scale but disrupted and sometimes even transformed or revolutionized from its peripheries or semi-peripheries. On the other hand, she takes a conception of “autonomy” which is ultimately a kind of meta-art transcending national communities, linguistic adherences, and political commitments as the highest kind of literary attainment because this establishes some sort of absolute sovereignty for literature—autonomy not just from religion or race but nation and state and just about anything else. It’s hard to tell where literary “autonomy” or “sovereignty” does not become in her work a kind of literary “isolationism” or delinking to use a world systems term. Where I differ is that I view that conception of “autonomy” as something that is itself historical and owes something to Flaubert and some versions of nineteenth-century French letters and to some versions of modernism and New Criticism and then to Western Cold War ideology rather than as the given or necessary telos of world literary systems. Put another way, the idea of “autonomy” to which Casanova subscribes belongs to a particular time and place, to a particular configuration of the Western world literary system; I see no reason to accord it the kind of “end of history” status that Casanova seems to grant it. The Soviet world literary system obviously did not assign the same prestige to “autonomy” that the Western Cold War literary system did, and there is no reason why some newly configured world literary system might not create for itself a quite different value system to those associated with either the Soviet or Western literary systems. Autonomy from the authoritarian centralized state and autonomy from capital, the commodity form, and the cultural industries are quite different things, but Casanova appears to conflate them.

Finally, while I admire the way Casanova ascribes real agency to the élan of great writers like Joyce or Faulkner (and some others) and doesn’t reduce them to mere functions or effects of her system, I’m more cautious of phrases such as that which you cite above. When Casanova says Joyce and Faulkner created “two of the greatest revolutions” in the literary world she ascribes singular agency to them. Revolutions seem to require their Toussaints, Dantons, and Trostkys, so why not accord outstanding writers the stature of their achievements? Nevertheless, the world literary system as such seems only to be structurally changed or radically transformed when there are other geopolitical and geocultural events that, accidentally or otherwise, abet and further the achievements of the great individual writers. Melville’s achievements in the nineteenth century now seem astounding but went largely unrecognized in London or Paris or indeed in the US until the world’s geopolitical circumstances had changed and until more room was made for oddball novels like Moby-Dick. It took the rise of the United States and sea changes in literary taste attributable to modernism for established views on Melville to change significantly. So, yes, Casanova may be largely correct in her sense of Faulkner’s enormous literary influence beyond the United States and in the Global South, but Casanova, like us all perhaps, struggles to keep the dialectics of individual agency and general system in play. By the way, what Casanova says of Faulkner and his conception for writers beyond the US seems analogous in many respects to what Said says of Yeats as poet of decolonization. Yet in Casanova’s Irish schema, Yeats, about whom she has little to say, is only a secondary “rebel” and Beckett a first-rate “revolutionary.”  In my book, I use but also work against her hierarchical valuation of “assimilated,” “rebel” and “revolutionary” writers.

CT: Even passing familiarity with the Anglo-modernist canon lends credence to Casanova’s big claim: that the system of belles lettres has been organized by transnational literary capitals, metropolitan clearing-houses that vacuum up manuscripts from vast, multi-continental literary peripheries — or that lure the peripheral writers themselves to relocate: the American novelist living in Sussex; the Polish novelist living in Kent; one Irish playwright living in London, a second living in Paris, a third living first in London, then in Paris; the short-story writer from New Zealand moving to England; all those expatriate American poets: Eliot and Pound and H.D. and Stein. One of the ways in which you’ve broken with Casanova, I think, is that you give the impression that the English literary establishment was in some respects quite weak, overwhelmed by all these innovators from abroad, whereas she, despite making some sharp observations about national literary rivalries, tends to emphasize the persistent power of metropolitan cultural institutions (as the arbiters of all things literary). I can put this another way: You make the case that non-English writers, lacking an internationally ratified literary tradition, felt freer to innovate. What you help us see is that modernism could easily carry a certain all but overt national and anti-metropolitan content. Maybe the English had a harder time innovating. And here the economic analogies really do suggest themselves: The English were held back by their very success. They had too much invested in a particular literary infrastructure, too much fixed literary capital. A reader who picked up your book knowing nothing about modernism could perhaps get the impression that there were no English modernists. But then one can’t help but wonder about D.H. Lawrence or Virginia Woolf or Wilfred Owen. So let me ask: You’ve convinced me that modernism has a special affinity for the (rising) periphery. How does that force us to rethink the modernists from the old imperial core?

JC: Let me make two general comments before coming directly to the English modernists. First, the ways in which various literary metropoles or capitals relate to their peripheries do not necessarily follow some common formulaic rule or pattern. Even if all such relationships involve domination and dependency, the particular dynamics of how London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Barcelona, Kolkata and so on relate to their peripheries may differ considerably. As such, the relationship between Parisian modernism and the modernisms of France’s peripheries may not be the same as that of London and the Anglosphere’s peripheral modernisms. Second, while there was an earlier tendency in modernist scholarship to identify modernism almost exclusively with world cities, there is good reason to resist shifting to the other extreme to associate modernism exclusively with semi-peripheries or peripheries. Clearly, if we think of modernism not just in terms of major individual writers but also in terms of the avant-gardes, then most of the avant-garde movements are located in the metropoles. If we follow Peter Bürger and think of the avant-gardes as movements that challenged the art institutions and their ideas about what constituted “art” and its function, then there is obvious reason why the avant-gardes were concentrated in major capitals: the institutional complexes that defined what constituted art were located in these capitals and it was there that the avant-gardes made their assault and impact.  If we think in terms of the more commonly cited avant-gardes—the Impressionists, Symbolists, Cubists, Futurists, Constructivists, Dadaists, Expressionists, Surrealists, Bauhaus, Abstract Expressionists, etc.—London is not the world capital that most readily leaps to mind. Many of these avant-gardes are associated more with the visual arts or theater than with the novel or poetry, but the point stands. (The European avant-garde most identified with non-metropolitan affect and association is probably primitivism.)

As for a specifically English literary modernism, it is important not to reduce the matter simply to numerical headcounts of “great writers.” To think exclusively in these terms—though literary textbooks and companions appear sometimes implicitly to do so—is to say that England produced X-number of great modernist writers, the US Y-number, the Caribbean Z-number, and thus forth. So, one can allow England its Woolfs, Lawrences, Joneses, Buntings, and others, but this doesn’t go anywhere especially useful. The more significant and less studied matter is what modernism meant for different Anglophone national literatures and how national literary histories retrospectively constructed its place in national terms. It is here we can see real differences.

The Irish, Scottish and American peripheries produced writers in the nineteenth century that exerted international impact. Napoleon read Macpherson’s Ossian in Italian translation, revered it, and allegedly carried it into battle. Baudelaire was famously impressed by Poe and Nietzsche by Emerson. Thomas Moore’s “Irish Melodies” were translated into numerous European languages. So, as Katie Trumpener, in Bardic Nationalism, and others after her have demonstrated, the Anglophone peripheries were already of consequence in the metropolitan centers well before what we now call modernism. That allowed, it is with literary modernism that Irish and US literatures announce themselves with unprecedented literary force on the “world stage.” The modernisms of Yeats, Joyce, O’Casey and Beckett may respond to the Irish Revival in quite different ways, but they appear more or less concurrently with the drive for Irish independence and, as someone like Wyndham Lewis recognized, are tinted by its assertiveness. American modernist writing undoubtedly expresses a range of extremely complex, often aggressively critical responses to American society. However, whether in its elite white or Black internationalist forms, there is some palpable sense that the US’s role in the world is no longer peripheral but rather that of a great power coming into its prime. In the book, I cite Pound, Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop, Clement Greenberg and others who give explicit expression to this new sense of American arrival and accomplishment in letters and the visual arts, but that brashness is implicit in American modernist forms and ambitions in other ways too.

In the case of the English, the same period appears one of considerable fertility especially in the novel. Conrad, Wells, Ford, Foster, Woolf, Lewis, Lawrence, Jean Rhys, Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley, Elizabeth Bowen were all born in the nineteenth century; Malcolm Lowry was born in 1909: their collective careers are enough to indicate novelistic liveliness. Nevertheless, some things appear worth observing. On the whole, the English modernists—including for the most part the outstanding figures of Woolf, Lawrence and Lowry—loosen and renovate the conventions of the realist novel. But very few radically transmogrify the novel as form in the manner of Proust, Joyce, Stein, Dos Passos, Broch, Faulkner, or Beckett. To say as much is not to disparage Lawrence or Woolf or the others but only to note a certain difference. Even when Lawrence or Woolf display an extremely modernist sensibility and a keen familiarity with non-English modernisms, they mostly retain considerable attachment to the realist form and its conventions. The same holds for Bowen, West, Ford, Forster, and others. Indeed, if we were to accord Anthony Powell (born 1905) and his 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, the major stature that Perry Anderson has recently argued for it in Different Speeds, Same Furies: Powell, Proust and Other Literary Forms (2022), then one might well argue that in England the social realist comic or ironic novel of manners and social novel (strengthened in the best instances by contact with modernist writing) remain the dominant forms across the twentieth century—the modes in which English fiction attains and retains its highest accomplishments. If this is so, then what we call “modernism” would not represent the kind of radical rupture with earlier realism in England that it did elsewhere. Viewed in this manner, Woolf’s and Lawrence’s works would not appear lesser but in a different light nonetheless. My suggestion is not that Woolf and Lawrence are merely ‘minor modernists.’ They are both great writers, serious and superb innovators. My point is that English modernism owes more to non-English expatriates and Celtic fringe writers than is commonly allowed—despite Terry Eagleton’s Exiles and Émigrés (1970) making this point a long time ago—and that for various reasons modernism occupies a different place in the English literary canon than in, say, the Irish, American or Scottish ones.

In the case of poetry, there are modernist poets but no English figures to compare with Yeats, Eliot, Pound, H.D., Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore or Stevens for sheer impact. Mina Loy (born in 1882 as Mina Gertrude Löwy to a Hungarian Jewish refugee father and English mother) was a London-born avant-gardist who lived much of her adult life in Europe and then became an American citizen, living in New York, dying in Colorado. Hope Mirrlees’s (born 1887 in Kent) Paris: A Poem (1920) is a notable work. David Jones’s (also born in Kent in 1895) In Parenthesis (1937) and Anathemata (1952), and Basil Bunting’s (born 1900) Briggflatts (1966) are late modernist works of large ambition. Hugh MacDiarmid was born in Langholm, Scotland, in 1892; A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) was much influenced by Joyce, Yeats, and the Irish Revival and is a modernist long poem. Mirrlees grew up in Scotland and South Africa, Jones was born in Kent to a Welsh-speaking family and strongly identified with Wales, and Bunting lived much of his adult life as an expatriate in France, Italy, Persia and elsewhere, and was greatly influenced by his friendship with Pound. I mention these details for two reasons. In the case of English or British modernism (the two are often conflated), the role of writers from England’s peripheries—from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—and of European émigrés or the children of émigrés exceeds that of London and of Bloomsbury. Think of the early importance of translators of advanced European poetry and drama: of Welsh-born Arthur Symonds’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899, revised 1919), of Scottish born William Archer’s and Irish-born G. B. Shaw’s early advocacy for Ibsen in theater and of the role of Eleanor Marx, translator of Madame Bovary and An Enemy of Society in 1887 and The Wild Duck in 1888, in promoting advanced European literature. Or consider Irish-born Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, written in French in 1891 and first produced in Paris in 1896, or of Melbourne-born George Egerton’s (born Mary Elizabeth Annie Dunne in 1859, raised in Dublin, educated for a time in Germany, later moving to New York and Norway) immersion in ‘New Woman’ circles and in Nietzschean philosophy and in the Scandinavian modernism of Hamsun and Strindberg. Then consider the émigrés Henry James, Conrad, Lewis, Eliot, Pound, and Rhys. European modernist literature comes inwards to Britain from its peripheries and from the US and other colonies, not outwards from Bloomsbury.  Second, the period we associate with modernism, from the fin de siècle to World War II say, is also a period when Eliot as poet and critic takes over London in terms of poetry and Shaw as leading playwright and critic in terms of drama. And this is when many of the greatest English writers of the time leave England and take off for elsewhere to find inspiration.  D. H. Lawrence travels the world in the 1920s and spends time in the United States before returning to France to die. After periods in Paris, Germany and Italy, Loy leaves for New York in 1916 and dies in the US in 1966. Well-traveled Lowry leaves for New York, Cuernavaca, Los Angeles and Vancouver, returning to die in England in 1957. Auden leaves England in 1939 for New York, dying in Vienna in 1973. The major works of Grahame Greene, Rebecca West, Lawrence Durrell, or Anthony Burgess are more associated with the colonies, or the Middle East, or the Balkans, than with “Little England.” Woolf and Powell may be the two most significant stay-at-home London-based figures in twentieth century English fiction to keep faith with domestic English society. There may be many reasons for these self-exiles from England and London—a disillusionment with post-war England, a search for new materials—but they clearly signal a sense that London is no longer the center of even the Anglophone world let alone of the world generally.

The significance of the peripheries to Anglophone reception of modernist currents, to achieved high modernist ambition, and the itchy-feet world-crossing restlessness of many of the greatest English poets and novelists of the twentieth century seem to me to index a loss of England’s and London’s earlier confident centrality. Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth and Scott, Dickens and Thackeray, Charlotte Brönte and George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Tennyson all travelled but their works remain decisively and securely “English” or “British” and, in the case of the canonical novelists especially, are generally firmly located in England or Scotland. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said argues that the nineteenth-century English realist novel is so securely English that the empire and colonies were taken largely for granted, appearing mostly only in peripheral vision or in the novelistic background. However, things are changing by the period we associate with early and high modernism. Writers and dramatists from the peripheries are becoming the dominant forces in the Anglophone novel, poetry and drama, and many of the greatest English writers are by then roving restlessly across the world and making the world beyond England their subject matter—it is as though the world can no longer properly be comprehended or panoptically imagined from England or London. The empire becomes visible to the more prestigious forms of English letters largely in its decline and fall, and the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe and the colonies now have to be more directly reckoned with in English letters—as Michael Denning noted long ago in Cover Stories (1987) we see this new and more paranoid worldview emerging in the English spy novel and thriller. The world literary system had pivoted and the English writer had to adjust. It is not, then, that there is no English modernism. It is that English modernism has to share its lesser share of the international limelight with other Anglophone modernisms in a world where the United Kingdom is contending with the nationalisms, literary and otherwise, of its Celtic peripheries and with its declining stature in the world system. “English literature,” if by this we mean literatures in English everywhere, is becoming more global and transcontinental than ever before; “English literature,” if by this we mean literature written by English-born writers about England, is becoming or has already become for several decades anxiously provincialized.

CT: In your final chapter, on Derek Walcott, you refer in passing to the “now-American-centered world literary system.” (250) The world literary system once organized from the twin capitals of London and Paris is now organized largely by Americans. It is American literary institutions—and American literary administrators—that enjoy a certain disproportionate say in what counts as world literature. That phrase – “now-American-centered” – stands out because it flags a big geographical mutation in the world literary system, which is a matter that Casanova almost entirely neglects. The phrase also puts me in mind again of Giovanni Arrighi, since his great contribution to world-systems theory was to propose a properly Wallersteinian version of the translatio imperii. If a reader were to take away a single claim from The Long Twentieth Century, it would be that the world system has always been organized around a geographical center, but that the system is nonetheless prone to leaping—prone, that is, to the epochal swapping of centers: from northern Italy to the Dutch Republic to Britain to the United States. Once we’ve cracked open the Arrighi, though, I find myself wanting to ask three interlinked questions:

1)    Arrighi goes on to explain (in great detail) that the world system reorganizes itself whenever it moves to a new capital. Each geographical shift—from Amsterdam to London, say—has been accompanied by major institutional transformations. I’m wondering if you think the same is true of the literary world system? Is the US-centered world literary system importantly different from the older Anglo-French system, and if so, how?

2)   Arrighi is also at pains to explain why the world system keeps shifting its headquarters—why, that is, finance capital can’t just find a business district where the coffee is good and stay there indefinitely. Briefly: A given entrepot will slowly lose its competitive advantages as these are adopted across the world system, including by its national rivals, and as it finds itself with a given economic regime’s oldest and most dilapidated physical plant. Eventually, new organizational advantages will have to be devised, and this will be easier to attempt on fresh terrain. I’d like to ask, then, whether this argument can be adapted to literature. You agree with Casanova when she says that the capital of a world literary system needn’t be the same as the capital of the world economic system. But then why does the world literary system ever move to a new metropolitan center? What dislodged it from Paris and London?

3)  The “now-American-centered world literary system”: Did you mean the now of 1990, when Omeros was published, or the now of 2021, when Modernism, Empire, World Literature was published? Or both? Has the world literary system changed over the last thirty years—and is it still centered on the US? I could also ask the question this way: On p. 47, you write that “change also occurs within the literary system … when peripheral cultures and their emissaries have the audacity and ambition to dispute a declining centre’s consecrating authority.” Is the American-centered world system in decline? Is anyone in the position to dispute its consecrating authority?               

JC: There are many nested questions here and each one might require a book to address!  Let me start with your Question (2), move back to (1), and end with some sketchy speculations on (3).

Yes, Arrighi proposes that economic world systems are not merely organized around particular geographical centers but also that the current center’s dominance is only ceded when some successor center can reorganize the entire system not only in its own interests but in a general manner with benefits accruing to the subsidiary states as well. He contends, moreover, that in the case of those systemic transformations he describes—from the Italian city-states to the Dutch United Provinces to the United Kingdom to the United States—the size and reach of the states involved and the expanse of the overall capitalist system it regulates increases. However, he suggests, too, that each successive hegemon enjoys dominance for a shorter period than its predecessor did. He also stresses that serious financial crises and devastating “world wars”  accompany such transfers. It seems worth adding that the “decline” of the former centers as conceived here is relative decline, not absolute. The US may have taken over the role of capitalist world hegemon from the UK after World War II, but the UK is still one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union may have failed in their respective imperial, Nazi and Soviet bids to supersede the US as world hegemon, but all are still leading world states in some respect or other.

In The World Republic of Letters, Casanova seems to assume that the world economic and world literary systems are structurally similar but separate—or tendentially separate and ideally, in her view, becoming completely so in order that that the production of the most ambitious literatures would be subject to neither church nor nation-state nor capitalist economy. She also swings between defiant assertions that Paris remains in her time the supreme capital of literary capitals for the higher forms of literature—with New York and London merely supervising more upmarket versions of commercially-successful literature—and an elegiac concession that this Anglo-globalization is already or will soon become dominant.

However, the question you ask is, even if we can imagine a literary world system as roughly analogous to an economic world system, then what motivates its transformation? After all, financial capital and symbolic or cultural capital are not the same and need not follow a similar logic of decreasing returns. So, your question is, why should we suppose that world literary capitals must change even if we accept financial capitals must do so? My response is that there was never a singular all-encompassing world literary system in the manner that Casanova proposes. Even as the Paris-centered system became dominant and arbitrated what was considered passé, “classical”, or “modern” or “avant-garde” in terms of literary value, the older capitals of other world languages and literatures did not cease to matter. And in the twentieth century, a new communist world literary system emerged under Moscow and Beijing. These different literary worlds or sub-systems intersected, collaborated and competed with each other in complex ways. However, it would appear that as different states vie to be supreme world hegemon, they rarely do so in exclusively politico-economic or military terms. To secure their long-term prestige and to convert domination into hegemony they also need to project themselves culturally and intellectually in terms of the arts and sciences. The Italian city-states gave us the Renaissance. The United Provinces give us the Dutch “Golden Age.” This refers not only to transcontinental trade (including the slave trade) and the Dutch East India Company (VOC). It also includes a flourishing of the sciences, philosophy (in the works of Spinoza and Descartes, for instance, who lived in Holland for twenty years and had his leadings works published in Amsterdam and Leiden), the Dutch realist school of painting, and indeed “the Protestant ethic.” The French and British empires give us a different kind of global domination and their modern literatures. That England gave us Mill and Darwin as well as Austen and Dickens and sheltered the émigré Marx. Paris gave us Saint-Simon and Tocqueville and Proudhon and Curie as well as Balzac and Hugo, Stendhal and Zola.

In the case of the United States, cultural assertion takes the form of anxious “catch up” with Europe well before it achieves either domination or hegemony and is then followed by global cultural projection as it attempts to consolidate its new position after WWII. In the case of New York specifically, its emergence as an international cultural capital was a matter of policy and massive investment. It would seem that a world literary capital requires more than the establishment and cultivation of prestigious literary institutions. To become world capitals, cities have to create whole complexes of institutions in all of the arts—music, dance, opera, theatre, the visual arts, architecture, performance, and in the twentieth century cinema too. Fashion and cuisine are part of the mix. New York achieved this in the form of extravagant galleries, museums, music academies, film institutes, ballet and dance academies, literary and musical bohemian districts (Harlem, Greenwich Village), universities, publishing corporations, arts foundations, high-end newspaper reviews, literary magazines, and so on. Arguably, the visual arts and architecture were more important in the first instance than literature to the construction of new cultural capitals because the visual arts are less linguistically anchored and thus translate quicker and architecture is lived in everyday ways that the other arts are not. Because New York was a more heterogeneous immigrant city than London or Paris were in the early twentieth century, it could, with the help of the Harlem Renaissance and jazz, also appear more “globally modern” sooner than they could. In the same early twentieth-century era, the US also developed and expanded a continent-wide research university system. Nevertheless, it seems likely that without the artistic and intellectual migrations triggered by the Bolshevik Revolution, the victories of Fascism in Western Europe and Japan, and the catastrophe of World War II, the twentieth-century “American Renaissance” might have been far less spectacular. The long-term development of artistic and scientific infrastructure, extensive intellectual and artistic migrations from Europe and elsewhere, and then a more concerted Cold War policy of constructing the US as the guarantor of an imperiled “Western Civilization”—imperiled by communism within and without, and by mass culture—had a cumulative effect. It is too instrumentalist to think of all of this solely as “soft power” but something of that is also involved.

Nevertheless, even if London—particularly because it shared the same language as the United States—and eventually Paris were ultimately overshadowed by New York, and its satellite cities in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the former world capitals didn’t cease to be significant. For one thing, they have centuries of old cultural capital from earlier ages that New York cannot match no matter how much classical or medieval or early modern or non-Western art it mimics or funnels into its galleries. For another, London and Paris had well-developed publishing and intellectual links with their imperial colonies and for much of the twentieth century the artists and intellectuals from these colonies still looked to Paris and London as much or more than to New York. Indeed, it is worth noting that several recent expatriate winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature have been attached to France and England: Abdulrazak Gurnah, Kazuoa Ishiguro, V. S. Naipaul, and Gao Xinjian.  However, relative decline is still decline. Many leading European cultural centers were devastated by civil war (Russia, Spain, Greece) as well as two world wars and the economic and other hardships that followed World War II especially. China and Korea were also shattered by civil wars, Japan was nuked, India and Germany convulsed and partitioned. If American culture flourished spectacularly in the “American century”—Louis Menand offers a lively account of this in Freedom: Art and Thought in the Cold War (2021)—many of the world’s other ancient or modern cultural capitals suffered astonishing adversity in the same half-century, yet without simply becoming culturally impoverished.  So, what we get, I think, is a rearticulation of the old European-dominated Western-leaning system with the US as its new center.

In more conceptual terms, the answer to your question as to why must literary capitals change at all is they are compelled to change when the capitalist world system changes, when the lingua franca of international elites changes, and when old capitals are actively outbid by bold new ones. These are complex variables mutating at different tempos, and they probably only come into decisive alignment over some considerable durée.

Your second question is, did the US change the world literary system as it became an ascendant force in that system? I would say yes though not in ways analogous to the politico-economic-military system where command or management of things by institutions like the UN, IMF, World Bank, the WTO and NATO are crucial. Instead, the system changes in less overtly directive manner. The most important change comes with the massification and limited democratization of secondary and higher education, a process accelerating unevenly across the globe after World War II. The modern vernacular literatures didn’t have much toehold in the universities till quite late in the nineteenth century or even later and compulsory secondary education only really became widespread in the twentieth century. With the expansion of national secondary and tertiary education systems, especially after WWII, the institutionalized reading of modern vernacular national literatures by adolescents and undergraduates really takes off. In that context, literary historical scholarship and the criticism of modern literature becomes a credentialed university activity. With its well-endowed universities, mix of domestic American and migrant intellectual talent, and arts foundations and publishing conglomerates, the US gradually exerts real force in terms of literary gatekeeping, analysis, and legitimation. In the same period, we see the cultivation of what Mark McGurl calls “the Program Era,” the training of writers and aspirants through MFA programs and the employment of writers within the university. McGurl contends that these programs allowed writers a buffer from the cruder demands of the market and facilitated the continued cultivation of more advanced or experimental forms of poetry and fiction. The university writing program offers a function that wealthy patrons did in the modernist era or that, according to Jordan Brower in Classical Hollywood, American Modernism: A Literary History of the Studio System (2024), the Hollywood studio earlier did for American writers. That seems true but the university also sucked writers away from bohemias, radio stations, film studios, and so on, sites that had fostered different types of formation and conceptions of “the writer.” In any case, in the Cold War context there was also the promotion of university courses on the “great books of western civilization” and “world literature” and the dissemination of these across the globe in world book sets, encyclopedias, and anthologies. This was the period, too, when American Studies programs were vigorously promoted on several continents (the cultural wing of overseas American military bases, perhaps). In time, as the writing programs expanded and the US universities competed with each other to secure the more prestigious reputation, they became magnets also for writers from around the world. Therefore, it wasn’t just “literary cities” like New York or San Francisco but the university residencies that made the contemporary US a new kind of cosmopolitan cultural center where expatriate writers and intellectuals clustered as they might once have done in London or Paris.

In Modernism, Empire, World Literature I suggest that what we call “modernist literature” played an important transference and value-reorganizing role in this larger process. Because of its high ambition, esoteric qualities, curious mix of classicism and avant-gardism, and so on, modernism lent twentieth-century literature an aura that mixed intellectual respectability with radicalism, interpretative challenge with a promised profundity. It didn’t seem amiss to read Proust with Augustine, Joyce with Homer, Lawrence with Nietzsche, Woolf with Freud, Mann with Goethe, Beckett with Schopenhauer.

None of this meant that the US now called all the shots. The Nobel Academy continued to consecrate its literary prize from Sweden; Paris continued to translate writers from Europe and beyond; in the UK, Commonwealth Literature studies and the Booker Prize exerted their own countervailing pressures. Likewise, the Soviet Union essayed its own version of “world literature” and the Chinese and other Asian, Arab and Latin American nations assiduously cultivated their own modern national literatures, often deliberately differentiating these from their classical literatures. However, the combined force of American popular culture, Hollywood, the Ivy League universities, and New York as cultural and publishing center lent the US cultural field a luster that few other national cultures could individually match. Moreover, in the course of this wider transformation currencies of literary distinction didn’t standstill; like everything else, they too gradually changed.

Your third question is when exactly did this transformation take place and has the system changed much in the last thirty years? Is it still US-centered or is the US-centered system now disputed or even in decline? It seems better to think of these processes as sea changes rather than in terms of particular dates.  In the book, I cite John Peale Bishop’s 1941 Kenyon College address in which he notes the fall of Paris to the Nazis and observes that “it was in Europe that the centers of civilization were to be found,” but now: “The actual center of western culture is no longer in Europe. It is here.” I cite also Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes article, “The Situation of the Writer in 1947,” where he surveys the melancholy condition of the postwar European writer, sandwiched now between new supremacies of the Soviet Union and US, the passing of the European haute bourgeoisie as class, and acknowledges that the great eras of European cultural accomplishment were “tied up with European supremacy and colonialism.”  One might equally cite Erich Auerbach’s 1952 “Philologie der Weltliteratur,” in which he contemplates the dissemination of world English by the victorious Americans and worries about the emergence of a single world language, something that would render comparatist scholarship redundant or certainly impoverished. And I cite Clement Greenberg’s 1955 ‘’American-Type Painting,” in which he observes: “Literature—yes we know we have done great things in that line; the English and French have told us so. Now they can begin to tell us the same about our painting.” These are canny worldly critics; each in his own way suggests a sense of a transformative change in which European cultural ascendancy is finally shattered and American supremacy has already arrived or is imminent.

Has the American-centered system changed in the last thirty years? Capitalism’s reproductive crises since the 1970s, the rise of the internet since the 1980s, the astonishing economic advances of China and East Asia, the massive expansion of the Asian university systems, the inexorably creeping climate crisis, huge domestic inequalities within states almost everywhere: these are cumulatively undoing the contemporary world order and American hegemony is certainly frayed as never before. The signs are everywhere. Left-wing challenges from below by anti-globalization and ecology movements, by Occupy and Black Lives Matter and Palestinian solidarity movements. And challenges from above by the BRICS states. Powerful challenges everywhere by right-wing nationalists and fascists at both state and populist levels. Add to this the increasing disarray of the American political elites and establishment parties, some turning to right-wing populism and authoritarianism, others purveying an exhausted neoliberalism or moderate Keynesianism with no real solutions remotely in sight. Several of the US’s once more compliant client states—Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan—have been openly thumbing their noses at Washington. Humiliations in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan. The crisis seems enormous at a global level but until or unless some new center can emerge to stabilize the current system or create a new kind of post-capitalist economy that crisis seems only likely to deepen.

How much does this current instability matter for the world literary system?  For the moment, the more dramatic changes bearing immediately on that system may be technological rather than literary. The expansion of the internet, the creation of Amazon and Alibaba, kindle and audiobooks, now AI: these seem likely to continue to reorganize modes of literary mediation and consumption. In recent decades, peripheral nations attempting to promote themselves internationally appear to focus more on mass culture, sports, cinema or the visual arts rather than on literature. Perhaps this was always so. Certainly, Chinese, Iranian or Turkish cinema, Korean tv series, pop music and cinema, Bollywood, and Saudi and Emirati sports franchises seem to break through onto ‘the world stage’ with more visible impact than national literatures. Peter Vermeulen argues that several of the leading names elevated to become “world figures” in recent decades—Ferrante, Bolanõ, Knausgaard—were translated into English before French and consecrated through New York rather than Paris. Many other big names in the last several decades—Walcott, Heaney, Achebe, Ngȗgȋ, Pamuk, Murakami, Hamid, Adichie—either came through major US writing programs or became attached to such programs in later career. So, the center still holds and writers migrate there or rotate in and out of the US in considerable numbers.

However, the most important thing to consider is that if the nature of the center has changed in the transition from London and Paris to New York, then what it would mean to challenge the US center may also have changed. Paris and London were the national capitals of rather compact medium-sized nation-states rather than cosmopolitan megacities. Their literary reputations were associated with old and illustrious French and English national literary traditions. Before the downsizing of their empires and the emergence of modernism, France and England made little attempt to cultivate multiracial or multinational imperial literatures. In the American phase of domination, contemporary literatures of the middlebrow or advanced sorts have moved much closer to the university for support and, as mentioned earlier, the decentralized US university system, other US cities and a complex economy of state and foundational supports all contribute to New York’s dominance. So, contemporary equivalents to the American or Irish modernist “sieges of London” that ran from Henry James and Wilde through Yeats and Shaw or Pound and Eliot may be less feasible today. Moreover, Casanova suggests that world-changing literary “revolutions” of the kind associated with Joyce or Beckett or Faulkner came only after “national revolts” or collective “national renaissances” in the periphery or semi-periphery had first laid the foundations and set new heights of ambition. Though nationalist sentiment seems on the rise in both the centers and peripheries of the world system, national literatures are not in favor with Western academies, universities, or awards systems. As James F. English has shown, these now favor more postnationalist and liberal multiculturalist globalist agendas. Perhaps the same is true for the higher-end literary production of the big English-Language publishing conglomerates. All that said, not everything is calm at the center. The influx of critics from the Global South and from East Asia into the US critical establishment is impactful. From the days of Said and Spivak, such critics have consistently challenged the complacency and insularity of the American university humanities. Émigré figures from the peripheries of the Global South may now function as something equivalent to the Henry Jameses or Bernard Shaws of their day. Meanwhile, the European Union is attempting, not with much success apparently, to find a conceptual basis for some reconstructed “European literature” and perhaps we can glimpse attempts to create a new East Asian literary system or force-field involving China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. At the same time, as the US is becoming more deeply politically factionalized, the country is also becoming more bilingual. Some 54 million Americans now use Spanish as a first or second language of everyday communication. Some estimates suggest that somewhere between 20 and 25% of people in the New York metropolitan region speak Spanish at home. New media technologies may mean that Spanish speakers will not assimilate to English culture as earlier immigrant language groups did. Yet the American literary establishment and leading institutions of consecration remain mostly monolingually English and cultural administrations are now under as much pressure from right-wing conservatives or white supremacists as from external forces.

Perhaps a better question might be to ask not what has changed at the center in the last thirty years but what it would actually take for a new literary center or capital to emerge. Would a new world political conjuncture be a precondition for such change? Would it require a several generations of writers across the world disaffected with the current American-centered literary system and its modes of valuation? A new world literary prize anchored in a foundation in China or India or somewhere in the Global South to compete with the Nobel Prize? An alternative institutional support system to the US university writing program, one that cultivated different conceptions of the “the writer” and new currencies of literary valuation? Even if a new world literary capital or center emerged it would coexist alongside the US-centered one for some extended time, and I suppose writers would navigate between the two.

One of Casanova’s basic assumptions in The World Republic of Letters concerning the contemporary moment is that there is an ongoing convergence between elite literary publishing and commercial publishing, thus eroding an earlier distinction as theorized by Bourdieu between “art” and “money” or “high literature” and “commercial literature.”  In this view, the earlier modernist attempt to distinguish between aesthetic status or prestige and commercial value diminishes as corporate publishing increases its market influence globally in setting values and shaping careers.  Three is certainly strong evidence for such convergence and literary sociologists such as James English, Sarah Brouillette, and others, tend to support Casanova’s view to this extent at least. Nevertheless, there are, in my view, reasons to resist the idea of some totalizing convergence of value systems. After all, the universities, the Nobel Prize, the small independent literary presses, and the big publishing conglomerates don’t all trade in the same literary-value-currencies and to some extent they depend for their reproduction on differentiating their functions from each other. If the universities mainly taught writers like Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Tom Clancy, or Danielle Steele, they would soon loose prestige.    Moreover, established tendencies can always generate backlashes and the dual economy of symbolic versus market valuation has certainly not collapsed. It would be interesting to speculate whether some new articulations of literary and aesthetic valuation that replicated neither those consecrated in the Soviet Union or the US during the Cold War era is conceivable in some future less Euro-American centered literary system. And of course there is always the possibility that in a capitalist world some new center might be even more, not less, market-driven than the current one. Therefore, the emergence of a new world center would be interesting only if it really offered some alternative to the current one.

Overall, for now, rapid changes in technologies of literary transmission, media, and marketing and AI seem to be reconfiguring things with more consequence than any immediate international literary challenges. Yet the center is not stable even in the center. There are not many signs of dramatic new energies in the old literary capitals or of imminent contestations from the rising great literary powers but change often seems to proceed slowly or not at all and then catapults by sudden leaps. As Casanova suggests, it is far more common for writers from the dominated and peripheral cultures to assimilate or largely conform to the dominant metropolitan literary norms and fashions than to do otherwise. Revolts and revolutions, to use her terms, are much less frequent. So it was ever, so it is still. However, the rebellions, even if rarer, are more exciting and consequential for change. There is the old Hemingway joke: How did you go bankrupt? Gradually, then suddenly. Perhaps the declines of the dominant capitals and circuits follow a similar tempo.  Throughout the nineteenth century, London, England and Great Britain remained free from invasion. The only French military boots that landed on United Kingdom territory in the Napoleonic wars did so in Ireland and the English soon repulsed these expeditions. Paris, in contrast, was rocked by repeated domestic uprisings, putsches, and German invasions. Parisian instability and turbulence probably contributed to the rise of the French avant-gardes and to the radicalism of French intellectual and literary innovation. London remained more stable and more artistically conservative. New York and the US’s domestic stability—quite often repressively enforced—have contributed significantly to American cultural hegemony.  However, while stability may help sustain hegemony in the arts, it may also in time corrode it. Nothing lasts forever. The sheer magnitude of American military power might, as Arrighi allows, maintain American domination of the international world system for a long time. But there is no reason to believe that even if this is the case that American literary or cultural power can be sustained in that manner. Domination is not hegemony. Sparta was not Athens. Hannibal did not conquer Rome but it fell anyway. New York and London are not enemy but fraternal cities, yet there is no doubt which of the two has mattered more to global culture and the arts since World War II.

Writing in a time of counter-revolutionary success, Percy Shelly penned ‘England in 1918,’ which ends:

                                        A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;

An army, whom liberticide and prey

Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;

Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;

Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;

A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—

Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may

Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

The rapid revolutionary change imagined here did not come in England. Despite Chartism and continuous domestic class agitation, no revolutionary “Phantom”’ appeared to “burst” through there (though the “specter of communism” was announced in London thirty years later in 1848 in The Communist Manifesto). As we know, change came anyway, not only in the form of domestic “long revolutions” but also in unexpected ways from dramatic developments in England’s imperial peripheries.

Christian Thorne is co-editor of boundary 2 and the author, most recently, of Deconstruction is America. He teaches in the English department at Williams College.

Joe Cleary is professor of English at Yale and author of Modern, Empire, World Literature and The Irish Expatriate Novel in Late Capitalist Globalization.


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