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Posthumous Papers: The Birth of the Literary Archive

ENGL 550.401
also offered as: GRMN 585, COML 590
Thursday 3-5:00 pm

Was there ever a moment in which the notion of posthumous papers and its institutional correlate, the literary archive, did not yet exist? It turns out that the systematic collection of one’s own (future) posthumous papers by writers themselves for posthumous archiving or publication was only reckoned with around 1800. The concept of a writer’s posthumous papers originates from a biographically oriented understanding of literature. It was none other than Goethe who played a central role in ensuring the enduring validity of this approach through his autobiographical writings, his authorized edition of his complete works, the publication of his correspondence and above all through the meticulous and professional organization of his personal archive. Goethe evidently wanted to guarantee his literary afterlife through the organization of his posthumous papers. After Goethe’s successful efforts, the writer’s posthumous papers were treated in an increasingly professional manner. Associated with this academic professionalization was an institutionalization of the posthumous papers in national literary archives which were founded at the end of the nineteenth century. As a consequence, the institution of the literary archive developed into a cultural force and critical practice influenced by scholars, administrators, archivists and not least authors themselves. The graduate seminar attempts to trace the complex history of the emergence of the literary archive and to show how this history profoundly informs the way literary critics are working today.

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