I asked ChatGPT to reconstruct the history of our field and this is what it proposed:
Origins: Classical Roots and Renaissance Beginnings
Comparative literature’s early inklings can be traced back to the classical era when scholars often compared the works of various cultures, notably the Greeks and Romans. The Renaissance era, with its revival of classical learning, marked the first conscious effort to analyze literature from different cultures. During this time, scholars began to compare Greek, Roman, and vernacular literatures.
19th Century: Nationalism and the Birth of the Discipline
By the 19th century, Europe witnessed the rise of nationalism and the establishment of national literatures. Yet, even as the study of national literature grew, the need to place one’s own literature in an international context persisted. The term “comparative literature” appeared in the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schlegel, with Goethe famously discussing “world literature” (Weltliteratur) – the idea that all national literatures were interconnected.
Universities in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, began offering courses in the field, leading to the institutionalization of comparative literature.
20th Century: Expansion and Institutionalization
The 20th century marked a period of immense expansion for the discipline. Comparative Literature programs were established in major American universities, starting with Harvard in the 1930s. This institutionalization was partly due to the influx of European intellectuals fleeing World War II.
Throughout the 20th century, the discipline grappled with defining its methodologies, scope, and objectives. Major debates arose around how to approach the study of literature in its relation to other forms of knowledge and arts, how to integrate non-Western literatures, and how to incorporate emerging theories (e.g., structuralism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism).
The Age of Theory: 1960s-1990s
From the 1960s onward, Comparative Literature became heavily influenced by critical theory. It became intertwined with psychoanalysis, Marxism, semiotics, deconstruction, and postcolonial studies. Figures like Jacques Derrida, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Roland Barthes played influential roles.
The incorporation of theory also meant the discipline started to move away from purely philological methods or simple textual comparisons. Instead, it embraced broader, interdisciplinary approaches.
Into the 21st Century: Globalization and Interdisciplinarity
With the turn of the 21st century, Comparative Literature faced challenges from cultural studies, media studies, and translation studies. The canon began expanding to include not just non-Western literatures but also various forms of media and oral traditions. As global exchanges became more pronounced, so did the need for a truly “global” comparative literature.
Comparative Literature today is marked by its openness to cross-disciplinary inquiries, its interrogation of what “literature” encompasses, and its focus on transnational and cross-cultural exchanges.
Comparative Literature has, over the centuries, transitioned from a discipline focused primarily on comparing national literatures to one that seeks to understand the dynamics of literary production, reception, and transformation across cultures and forms. As the world becomes more interconnected, the importance and scope of comparative literature will undoubtedly continue to grow.
Not too bad for an anglocentric cartoonish sketch of some moments in the field’s history. Of course, when you then ask ChatGPT a finer grained question: namely, about the history of the field at Harvard, it spits out the same generic content — clichés and commonplaces rather than hallucinations.
A Brief History of Harvard University’s Department of Comparative Literature
1. Early Foundations: Pre-Departmental Era
While the systematic study of Comparative Literature as a discipline began in Europe in the 19th century, at Harvard, the roots can be traced back to the early 20th century. Harvard had long been at the forefront of classical and modern language studies in the United States. The study of literature across cultures and languages began as specialized courses within traditional language departments.
2. Formal Establishment: 1930s
The Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard was officially established in the 1930s. This was a period when many European intellectuals, fleeing the rise of fascism and the upheavals of World War II, found their way to American universities. Harvard was among the prime destinations for such scholars, and they played a key role in establishing and shaping the department. Their arrival infused the department with various European intellectual traditions, solidifying its academic foundation.
3. Post-War Expansion: 1940s-60s
After World War II, the department expanded both in terms of faculty and academic scope. The curriculum became more diversified, encompassing not only European literature but also exploring non-European traditions. This period also saw a surge in the popularity and importance of the department, with an increase in the number of graduate students and scholars specializing in Comparative Literature.
4. The Age of Theory: 1970s-90s
Like many Comparative Literature departments worldwide, Harvard’s department was deeply influenced by various intellectual movements and theories in the latter half of the 20th century. Structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalytic theory, postcolonialism, and other theoretical frameworks became integral to the department’s academic orientation.
Prominent scholars associated with these movements, including some who taught at Harvard or engaged in dialogues with its faculty, influenced the direction and reputation of the department.
5. 21st Century: Globalization and Interdisciplinarity
In the recent past, the department at Harvard has continued to evolve in response to the changing global literary landscape. There has been a marked emphasis on global literature, transcultural exchanges, and interdisciplinary studies. The department’s reach has expanded to include collaborations with other departments and disciplines, reflecting the interconnectedness of literary studies in a globalized world.
Harvard University’s Department of Comparative Literature, from its inception to the present day, has been at the forefront of the academic study of literature across languages, regions, and cultures. It has been shaped by world events, intellectual movements, and its ever-evolving student and faculty body. The history of the department is, in many ways, a reflection of the broader trends and transformations within the field of Comparative Literature itself.
Plug in any peer department in the place of Comp Lit at Harvard and the resulting narrative will be similar.