The default setting of much critical work has been global: the global premodern, global modernism, and so on. But we are currently experiencing deglobalisation, a return to national boundaries, with restrictions on physical movement, prompted by anxieties about fuel self-sufficiency, vaccination supply, migration patterns, economic dependency. It thus seems timely to examine the cultural and historical mechanisms of nationalism. This course draws from some of the conceptual and material challenges of a research project of global scope, nationalepics.com, which has invited over 100 scholars to consider which cultural texts, most often literature but sometimes film, have been adopted to represent a territory as its national epic. When was this choice made? How did the chosen text emerge? Is it still fit for purpose, or do new texts threaten to take its place? The Song of Roland, for example, was made compulsory reading in all French schools, and French colonial schools, in the late 19th-century. Can it still, with its anti-Muslim polemics, be taught in Paris? When did The Song of Hiawatha, assuredly an American national epic a century ago, become a national embarrassment in the USA? Is El Cid, a favourite of General Franco, making a comeback with the return of the Spanish right? Is Mahabharata, always already India’s national epic, able to outlast the co-optative efforts of the current Indian regime? Many “national epics” first emerged c. 1800, especially in western Europe, often through the intensive collecting, editing, and repurposing of premodern texts. Our course begins out west, with Spain, France, Ireland, England, and Iceland, before pivoting across Eurasian space to Iran, Russia and Mongolia, and then China, Korea, and Vietnam. The latter part of the course can consider locales as chosen by class members; past locales include the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Scotland, Italy. This is not a class in “world literature,” but it does enter into debates between those who champion and market such a concept, and those (Emily Apter, Gayatri Spivak) who would critique it. Valuing philology highly, it draws upon the local linguistic expertise of students and Faculty. Courses such as this are proving increasingly attractive to undergraduates, given Penn’s globalising demographic, and we will also consider the challenges of formulating and teaching courses where most every student can be “expert for a week,” tracing long strands of family history. Examination by several short meditations, plus the workshopping and writing of one long (but not too long) research essay.
Advanced undergraduate students interested in this course should request permission from the instructor and submit a permit request via Path@Penn.