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Course Instructors

      • David Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Comparative Literature
      • Martin Puchner, Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature

Online Teaching Fellow

      • Miles Osgood

Course Description

Based on the first half of the Masterpieces of World Literature edX MOOC, this short course explores how great writers refract their world and how their works are transformed when they intervene in the global cultural landscape.

No national literature has ever grown up in isolation from the cultures around it; from the earliest periods, great works of literature have probed the tensions, conflicts, and connections among neighboring cultures and often more distant regions as well. Focusing particularly on works that take the experience of the wider world as their theme, this course will explore the varied artistic modes with which great writers have situated themselves in the world, helping us to understand the deep roots of today's intertwined global cultures.

What You'll Learn in the Course

      • The origins and history of World Literature
      • How literary works are transformed by cultural transmission
      • How to analyze literary works critically
      • The significance of major technological advances in writing

Key Dates

This self-paced course opened on June 19, 2018 and closes on December 18, 2018 at 23:59 UTC.

The only due date for assessments is the final course end date of December 18, 2018 at 23:59 UTC.

Assessments and Grading

There is one graded assessment type in this course: section quiz (SQ). There are six section quizzes in the course (one per section, excluding the Orientation). Your lowest section quiz score will be dropped and will appear as an "x" on your Progress page.

To pass the course, you must earn a grade of 65% or higher.


We encourage you to read the texts in whatever language you are most comfortable with. Depending on where you live and which languages you read, some texts will be available online, often in older public domain translations. The following outline (and each section introduction) includes a list of advised and/or recommended readings.

NOTE: There are no required readings for this course. Readings are marked as either advised or recommended.

Course Outline

01 Goethe and the Birth of World Literature

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe formulated his concept of world literature (Weltliteratur) in the early nineteenth century while reading a mixture of Greek and Latin classics, Persian and Serbian poetry, and a Chinese novel.

There are no advised or recommended reading assignments for this week.

02 The Birth of Literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Written three and a half millennia ago, The Epic of Gilgamesh was forgotten for nearly two thousand years, until Austin Henry Layard and Hormuzd Rassam excavated the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. There, the library of Ashurbanipal yielded the long-forgotten text, inscribed on clay tablets, the first known great masterpiece of world literature and itself a text about exploring the world.

The advised reading for this module is the entirety of the Epic. The course team recommends the English translation by Andrew George. For a public domain English translation, you can use R. Campbell Thompson's version, and you can find a version of some of the Babylonian fragments on Project Gutenberg.

03 Homer and the Archeology of the Classical Past: The Odyssey

World literature has always rested on a foundation of classical works. Continuing the discussion from the previous week, this unit will take up Homer's The Odyssey in light of Heinrich Schliemann's excavations in Troy. Focusing on the episodes from the epic that emphasize intercultural contact, we read this text as a quintessential meditation on cultural dynamics and exploration.

The advised reading for this module includes books 5-12 of the Odyssey. Strongly encouraged are the first book and books 23 and 24. The course team recommends the English translation by Robert Fagles, but you can find a public domain English translation at the Perseus Project. If you would like to look at an edition of The Odyssey in the original Greek, you can also find that at the Perseus Project.

04 West-Eastern Conversations: The Thousand and One Nights

This work long circulated within the Middle East as popular entertainment and then took a crucial detour into France, where many of its most famous tales first appeared in the translation by Antoine Galland in the early eighteenth century. Scheherazade's tales of transformation and magic, travel, and adventure have themselves changed shape as they have circulated abroad in translation, from Galland to Sir Richard Burton to Husain Haddawy in the present.

Advised readings: Prologue, The Story of King Shahrayar and Shahrazad, His Vizier's Daughter, The Tale of the Ox and the Donkey, The Tale of the Merchant and His Wife, The Story of the Merchant and the Demon, The First Old Man's Tale, The Second Old Man's Tale, The Third Old Man's Tale, The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon, The Tale of King Yunan and the Sage Duban, The Tale of the Husband and the Parrot, The Tale of the King's Son and the She–Ghoul, The Tale of the Enchanted King. For a modern English translation, the course team recommends the The Arabian Nights, trans. Husain Haddawy (Norton, 2008). The 1885 translation of the 1001 Nights by the British explorer and Arabist Richard Francis Burton is available via the Internet Archive.

05 The Floating World: The Tale of Genji

A masterpiece of classical Japanese literature, the Genji monogatari was written around the year 1000 by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman deeply learned in the Chinese tradition usually mastered only by men. Drawing on a wealth of Chinese and Japanese poetry and on her keen observations of the surrounding courtly life, Murasaki revolutionized the vernacular Japanese romance tradition of her day.

The advised reading assignment includes: From Chapter I. The Lady of the Paulownia–Courtyard Chambers; From Chapter II. Broom Cypress; From Chapter V. Little Purple Gromwell; From Chapter VII. An Imperial Celebration of Autumn Foliage; From Chapter IX. Leaves of Wild Ginger; From Chapter XII. Exile to Suma; From Chapter XIII. The Lady at Akashi; From Chapter XXV. Fireflies; From Chapter XL. The Rites.

For an English translation, the course team recommends Royall Tyler's translation. You may find a public domain English translation of the text by Edward G. Seidensticker at the University of Oxford Text Archive. If you would like to attempt to read a 1654 Japanese version of the text, you can find it at the Asian Division of the Library of Congress.

06 The First National Epic: The Lusiads

All of the major qualities of Renaissance culture come together in Luis Vaz de Camões' epic poem The Lusiads (1572), a work that almost single-handedly transformed vernacular Portuguese into a literary language. Camões rewrites Homer's Odyssey as the modern tale of his ancestor Vasco da Gama's voyage of discovery seventy-five years earlier around the tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to south India. Mythic grandeur coexists with modern realism as Camões strives to present Portugal not in the margins of Europe, but as the center of the newly evolving world system of trade, conquest, and cultural exchange.

The advised reading for this module is the entirety of The Lusiads. You can read the epic in English translation at Project Gutenberg.


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