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HUM12X: Masterpieces of World Literature

Course Instructors

David Damrosch and Martin Puchner

Online Teaching Fellow

Miles Osgood

Course Description

With sessions ranging from Gilgamesh and the Odyssey to Borges and Orhan Pamuk, this 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 March 15, 2018 and closes on December 13, 2018.

The only due date for assessments is the final course end date of December 13, 2018.

Assessments and Grading

There is one graded assessment type in this course: section quiz (SQ). There are twelve section quizzes in the course (one per section, excluding the Orientation and Section 13). 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

1 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.

2 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.

3 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.

4 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.

5 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.

6 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.

7 Enlightenment in the Colonies: Candide

Voltaire's sparkling satire ranges widely, from Europe to South America, before ending in Constantinople, where Candide determines to cultivate his own garden at the crossroads of East and West. We'll look particularly at the ways in which Voltaire uses non-European cultures to provide a vantage point for social critique, and the ways he deploys satire, in contrast to his earlier essays and poetry.

Your advised reading assignment is to read the entirety of Candide. Here is a link to the 1918 English edition of Candide translated by William F. Fleming hosted by Project Gutenberg. Multiple editions in French are available online. The original 1759 edition is available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The 1829 Beuchot edition of the text is viewable via Wikisource.

8 China and Its Neighbors: Lu Xun and Eileen Chang, selected stories

The former medical student Lu Xun became a crucial figure in the Chinese literary tradition by connecting China to its larger and rapidly modernizing neighbors Russia and Japan through his work as a translator and writer. His short stories set the tone and agenda for much of China's "New Culture" movement and have made him a major figure in modern world literature. A generation later, the innovative Shanghai-based Eileen Chang carried through the project of writing a new vernacular literature for a China in transition, capturing the intertwined ambiguities of national and sexual politics alike.

The advised readings for this week include the full text of Lu Xun's "Diary of a Madman" and Eileen Chang's "Sealed Off." The course team recommends the English translation of Lu Xun's work by William A. Lyell. You can find a public domain English translation of "Diary of a Madman" here, and in the original Chinese at Project Gutenberg. You can find Chang's "Sealed Off" in English translation in Love in a Fallen City, but the text is also published online with permission of New York Review Books, here.

9 Inventing Latin America: Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

This week takes up one of the most remarkable of all modern writers, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, whose haunting, enigmatic tales blend Latin American localism and universalism, often through philosophical parables, pseudo-commentaries, and detective stories.

The advised reading this week is Borges' story, "The Garden of Forking Paths." We also strongly recommend "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," "The Library of Babel," "Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," and "Death and the Compass." The course team recommends the English translations by Anthony Kerrigan, in the volume Ficciones. You may find some of Borges' works in the original Spanish at Open Library.

10 From Empire to Globe: Wole Soyinka, Death and the King's Horseman

The imperial trade brought new cultural resources to writers engaged in the anti-colonial struggle against the British and other European empires. This week takes up the Nobel Prize-winning Wole Soyinka, whose great drama centrally treats the cultural, religious, and political tensions of the late colonial and early postcolonial periods.

The recommended reading for the week is Death and the King's Horseman in its entirety. The course team does not know of any public domain version of the text, but you can find it for purchase here.

11 East-West Encounters: Salman Rushdie, East, West; Jhumpa Lahiri, The Interpreter of Maladies

We look at selected stories by two mesmerizing writers who deal with cross-cultural encounters in a global age. In different ways, the Booker Prize-winning Salman Rushdie and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jhumpa Lahiri use global English as a stylistic medium and a cultural-political vantage point to probe questions of personal identity and belonging in a world of global conflict and creative exchange.

The recommended readings include: From Rushdie's East, West, "The Prophet's Hair," "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers," and if time permits, all three of the final set of stories, but particularly "Chekov and Zulu." From Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies: "A Temporary Matter," "Interpreter of Maladies," and "The Third and Final Continent." The course team does not know of any public domain versions of these stories, but we recommend this version of East, West and this version of Interpreter of Maladies.

12 Istanbul in – or as – the World: Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red

This week centers on the best-known novel by one of the most popular contemporary world authors, Orhan Pamuk, who in 2006 became the second-youngest winner of the Nobel Prize in literature – a remarkable achievement for a writer from a peripheral country writing in a non-European language. Pamuk is also a probing, reflective essayist, who has written extensively on the issues of cultural identity in a society straddling "East" and "West."

The course team recommends you read My Name Is Red. Most important are the first 7 very short chapters, chapters 10, 12, 13, 14, 16, as well as chapters 18, 19, and 20. This way you will get a sense of the main characters and of the main conflict. We also recommend chapter 29, which contains a detailed description of miniatures, and chapter 47. But if you'd like to know how the novel ends, you should keep reading! Though the course team is unaware of any public domain version of the text, the course team recommends the translation of the text by Erdag Göknar.

13 World Literature Today

Our final week will explore the movement of world literature into the twenty-first century, and out into the wider world of popular culture and the new universe of the Internet.

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


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