The World Republic of Letters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Certain men and women of letters have created imaginary republicssometimes vast societiesin their writings. Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series, listed more than seventy separate worlds in a loose hierarchy, including capitals of space sectors, trading and agricultural planets, a “world of strange fashions,” and of course Terminus, the Encyclopedia Planet. William Faulkner invented Yoknapatawpha County, home of the Snopes, Sartoris, and Compson clans. Now, in The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova has mapped a global realm of authors themselves.

Like political republicsand those invented by Faulkner, Asimov, and othersthis world republic of letters has its history, its major and minor characters, its capital (Paris), and its provinces. This is a placeand a state of mindwhose centuries-long development Casanova relates in The World Republic of Letters and carries further than it has been carried before.

Like political republics, the literary republic envisioned by Casanova runs largely on economics. Her predecessors in this line of thought have described the world of letters largely in economic terms. As early as 1827, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe anticipated that a global literary culture would be generated by “a commerce of ideas among peoples.” In the 1920’s, Paul Valéry likened it to the French stock market, the Bourse. The late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, one of Casanova’s most immediate intellectual models, conceived of “social capital” (class membership) and “cultural capital” (education and knowledge) as having force equal to that of economic capital. Casanova, however, stands apart from her predecessors in reworking a nationally based concept of “symbolic and literary capital” to present it on an international scale.

Like many worlds portrayed in economic metaphors, Casanova’s world republic of letters assumes a conflict model of human endeavor. In her view, the literary world has its winners and losers, as does the economic arena; but literary success is determined in large part by how close one lives to acknowledged literary centers such as New York, London, or, especially, Paris. Those born in the backwaters of this literary republic are doomed to obscurity unless they resort to tricks and stratagems to win public recognitionstratagems that may include relocating to one of the literary centers, as did the American expatriates living in Paris during the 1920’s, such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, and E. E. Cummings.

In allying themselves with the avant-garde, writers from the literary provinces partake of its “literary capital,” which Casanova says “is both what everyone seeks to acquire and what is universally recognized as the necessary and sufficient condition of taking part in literary competition.”

What are the components of literary capital? Casanova cites a study in which Priscilla Clark Ferguson identifies these components, including literacy rates, annual numbers of books published and sold, numbers of publishers and bookstores. The nations that score high on these componentsusually those with literary histories spanning several centurieshave accumulated the most “literary capital.” Literary capital also rests on judgments and reputation; as Valéry pointed out, this too gives literary capital something in common with the financial stock market. Casanova adds, “Language is another major component of literary capital. . . . Certain languages, by virtue of the prestige of the texts written in them, are reputed to be more literary than others, to embody literature.” The elitist tendencies of the republic are unmistakable, although as Casanova shows, it has also been the salvation of many writers from “deprived” areas.

How did the world republic of letters come into being? This is Casanova’s main subject in the first half of her book. As she sees it, four separate phases mark the republic’s development. First, the Renaissance and Reformation movements launched an offensive against a culture dominated by the Latin language and the Catholic Church. In 1549, Joachim du Bellay published an essay, “The Defense and Illustration of the French Language,” which Casanova describes as a “declaration of war against the domination of Latin.” Casanova, a Frenchwoman, credits du Bellay with starting the vernacular revolution, though actually Dante Alighieri’s De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1306; English translation, 1890), a defense of vernacular language, preceded du Bellay’s work by 243 years. From the 1550’s to 1700 and beyond, France accumulated “literary assets” largely by beating the dominant Latin culture at its own gametranslating and imitating classical models, standardizing the French language, and perfecting poetic form. By the reign of Louis XIV, French had supplanted Latin as the literary language.

Italy, too, though not...

(The entire section is 2020 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

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The Nation 280, no. 1 (January 3, 2005): 21-23.

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