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Lineages of Literary Nationalism

ENGL 594.401
crosslisted as: ITAL 594, COML 591
instructor(s):
T 9-12:00

You cannot build a wall to stop the free flow of literary and creative ideas. But in constructing narratives of national identity, states have long adopted particular texts as "foundational." Very often these texts have been epics or romances designated "medieval," that is, associated with the period in which specific vernaculars or "mother tongues" first emerged. France and Germany, for example, have long fought over who "owns" the Strasbourg oaths, or the Chanson de Roland; new editions of this epic poem, written in French but telling of Frankish (Germanic) warriors, have been produced (on both sides) every time these two countries go to war. In this course we will thus study both a range of "medieval" texts and the ways in which they have been claimed, edited, and disseminated to serve particular nationalist agendas. Particular attention will be paid to the early nineteenth century, and to the 1930s. 

Delicate issues arise as nations determine what their national epic needs to be. Russia, for example, needs the text known as The Song of Igor to be genuine, since it is the only Russian epic to predate the Mongol invasion. The text was discovered in 1797 and then promptly lost in Moscow's great fire of 1812; suggestions that it might have been a fake have to be handled with care in Putin's Russia. Similarly, discussing putative Mughal (Islamic) elements in so-called "Hindu epics" can also be a delicate matter. Some "uses of the medieval" have been exercised for reactionary and revisionist causes in the USA, but such use is much more extravagant east of Prague. And what, exactly, is the national epic of the USA? What, for that matter, of England? Beowulf has long been celebrated as an English Ur-text, but is set in Denmark, is full of Danes (and has been claimed for Ulster by Seamus Heaney). Malory's Morte Darthur was chosen to provide scenes for the queen's new robing room (following the fire that largely destroyed the Palace of Westminster in 1834), but Queen Victoria found the designs unacceptable: too much popery and adultery.

Foundations of literary history still in force today are rooted in nineteenth-century historiography: thus we have The Cambridge History of Italian Literature and The Cambridge History of German Literature, each covering a millennium, even though political entities by the name of Italy and Germany did not exist until the later nineteenth century. What alternative ways of narrating literary history might be found? Itinerary models, which do not observe national boundaries, might be explored, and also the cultural history of watercourses, such as the Rhine, Danube, or Nile.

The exact choice of texts to be studied will depend in part on the interests of those who choose to enroll. Faculty with particular regional expertise will be invited to visit specific classes.

Candidate texts:

Ireland, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, medieval legends of the Red Hand of Ulster, the "great books" written in Irish houses that were later taken to England (but returned).

Iceland, Egil's Saga (key to independence movements in the 1930s); the unique "repatriation" of Icelandic texts by Denmark in the 1970s.

Wales, Mabinogion; Eisteddfod culture.

Italy, the tre corone (Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, a medieval group formalised by Bembo in the sixteenth century to represent a "stable" model for Italy. Also: the Aeneid as national Italian epic; the cult of Catherine of Siena as a national saint in the 1930s.

England:  Beowulf, Malory, Spenser, Milton?

France/ Germany/ Anglo-Norman England: La Chanson de Roland

USA: Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, The Birth of a Nation (with its wacky and vile "medievalism"), The Big Sea (crossing from Europe to discover the Renaissance in Harlem)? 

Uzbekistan, Dede Korkut

Turkey, Iskandersname (epic of Alexander, a figure claimed by many national literatures)

Hungary, myths and legends of St Stephen (including the "Crown of Hungary" in the parliament building: it is now illegal, in Hungary, to research this object).

Spain: El Cid, or the Libro de buen amor?

Israel: the Bible (its history is its religion, its religion is its history; Ruth, Esther, Tobit, and Judith as historical novels)?

Iran/ Persia: Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

territory unbounded: The Shahnameh ("Persian Epic as World Literature," Hamid Dabashi)

Japan, The Tale of Genji (the paradox of a female-authored national text)

China, novelle of the Tang dynasty (featuring the misadventures of students studying for exams)