Essay: Kevin Riordanon World Literature

World Literature Comes Full Circle, 1522-2022

Five hundred years ago this past September, the survivors of the first-ever circumnavigation returned. Out of Magellan’s original crew of 270, only 18 made it back to Cadíz, where the trip began three years earlier. This circular voyage was a triumph for the Spanish Crown, as well as a milestone for Europe’s Age of Exploration. Some of the trip’s accomplishments were committed to print in the Italian Antonio Pigafetta’s firsthand chronicle from 1524, Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo (Account of the First Voyage Around the World). His book lent the Pacific Ocean its name, for example, and it was the first practical documentation of the circumnavigator’s paradox, whereby a traveler loses or gains a day. In the 16th century, books like Pigafetta’s were “written by authors who belonged to an international republic of letters,” the historian Robert Darnton writes, “sold by booksellers who operated across national boundaries, and read in one language by readers who spoke another.”1 In other words, these books about exploration made their own journeys. They were part of the emerging phenomenon that, today, we call “world literature.”

For the past 500 years, circumnavigation stories—most famously, Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days)—demonstrate how a single reader can imagine themselves, as a character and potential traveler, in a direct relationship to the whole planet. Such stories boast a self-aware worldliness that better-recognized works of world literature rarely match; in their scope, The Tale of Genji and Don Quixote seem comparatively provincial. Perhaps these around-the-world narratives are not properly literary. But they were and are unique in how they scale the whole planet down into their pages.

Around the 500th anniversary of the Magellan expedition, world literature scholar David Damrosch published a critical circumnavigation, Around the World in 80 Books. Damrosch wanted to “introduce a broader readership to the expansive landscape of literature today.” He wonders in the opening, though, “What kind of story to tell, and how to give it a satisfying shape?” His answer came through the invocation of Jules Verne and the choice to stage world literature as a bookish circumnavigation. A critical account structured as a familiar narrative, Damrosch’s tour du monde remains grounded in the world (through the sites it visits) and in touch with the literary (through its storytelling style). If the field of world literature in the 21st century has become unwieldy—a contested collection of books or a network of overlapping discourses—Around the World in 80 Books performs a masterful trick of scale: translating world literature to the individual reader’s or traveler’s experience.

Beyond his title’s light allusion, Damrosch’s adaptation of Verne provides an illuminating commentary on world literature as an academic field and as a practice, as something to do. To make an around-the-world trip is to follow a thin line, but the traveler does align, at least momentarily, with everyone else and with every place on earth, along lines of longitude. That is, for the traveler, this centuries-old journey at least simulates a felt, corporeal sense for the whole planet. Damrosch acknowledges that ambitious gesture, though he counterbalances it with corresponding modesty, recognizing that any such trip only covers a thin circumference. He stakes out the uniqueness of his own venture, even when embarking on a trip that hundreds of thousands of travelers have made. His “very personal itinerary” is original, visiting Kraków and Kolkata and Bar Harbor, along with Paris and Beijing. It gathers literature from around the world in its course, though it produces, crucially, only “one version of world literature.”

Circumnavigation singularizes one’s experience of the world’s literatures. At the same time, this practice also pluralizes it, by implicitly and explicitly acknowledging all the other possible routes, the unread books, the other possible worlds. On each of these trips, the traveler nods to their predecessors, to fellow travelers, and to others yet to head out. The reiterative route reminds the traveler of the 500-year history and of their relation to the whole, to the planet itself.

Adopting such a moving, planetary point of view—regardless of one’s intentions—is fraught with some problems from the outset. Around-the-world trips can be noble attempts to expand one’s horizons, but they are also vain pursuits, tinged with imperial ambition. This circular journey is the “encyclopaedic manoeuvre par excellence,” and anyone on such a trip—or reading about it—shares in at least a bit of that acquisitive fascination.2 Yet the trip also has a way of checking that desire: the world puts us back in our place. For one thing, the circuit is by definition superficial. Every circumnavigator boldly goes “around the world,” but their course is mere circumference; they cover little surface area and even less depth.

The 500-year history is replete with reminders that the arduous trip is a humbling, though still revealing, lesson. Mark Twain concludes the 700-page record of his version of the encyclopedic endeavor with this statement: “Human pride is not worth while; there is always something lying in wait to take the wind out of it.”3

Circumnavigation is an elegant model for world literature because of its history, its popularity, and its recursiveness—and because of the unexpected lessons it teaches those who attempt it. Whether in the hands of Verne or Twain or Damrosch, the circuit does tend to make for a good story.

The Present Question of World Literature

“World literature” gained more common currency three centuries after Pigafetta’s account. In an 1827 letter, Goethe called for a Weltliteratur; in 1848, Marx and Engels announced its proper arrival: “From the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.”4  Since then, this term and the robust discussion about it have shaped our understanding of the relationship between the world and its stories.

World literature was long understood as a reading list or virtual library. It included foundational epics such as The Odyssey and the Ramayana alongside a later—mostly European—collection of classics. In the mid-20th century, these canons were updated with postcolonial literatures, with the likes of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Season of Migration to the North joining the anthologized and curricular ranks. Expanding the parameters for world literature energized the field, while making it more geographically and demographically representative of the world itself.

But when literary fields expand, explains Susan Stanford Friedman, the danger of their “lapsing into meaninglessness or colonizing gestures is real.”5 As world literature has become a much bigger category, it is more and more difficult for any single reader to engage with its complexities, its trajectories, or its stories.

At the beginning of the 21st century, scholars led by Damrosch, Pascale Casanova, and Franco Moretti produced and studied a new, more capacious world literature. Occasionally, they turned to methods borrowed from the social sciences to reckon with world literature’s new scale by examining trends and numbers, in addition to the books themselves. Critics in the field became less interested in lists of works, Rebecca Walkowitz observes, and more attuned to analyzing “what happens to literary works when they travel.”6

Such a mobile methodology is more dynamic than world literature’s earlier figurations; “travel,” after all, is more flexible than a fixed bookshelf, more adaptable than a flattened map. But key questions still remain: Who and what does this traveling? Where? And how?

Among these scholars, Damrosch has most persistently grappled with what we mean when we speak of world literature. In the opening pages of his 2003 What Is World Literature?, he establishes that this thing is better understood as “a mode of circulation and of reading” than as some “infinite, ungraspable canon of works.”7Yet even as a “mode,” literature’s circulations still move well beyond any single reader’s reach. Any individual scholar is constrained by context and limited by their languages, and so overwhelmed by world literature writ large. In an essay a decade later, Damrosch revisited the issues of scale and position: “At once exhilarating and unsettling, the range and variety of literatures now in view raise serious questions about scale, of translation and comprehension, and of persisting imbalances of economic and cultural power.”8 He concludes that 2014 introduction by acknowledging that “today’s debates on world literature come full circle.”9Damrosch’s periodic returns sometimes leave him back to where he started.

As it turns out, though, circular journeys can be a surprisingly helpful “mode of circulation and of reading” a range of literatures from around the world. All that is needed is the right itinerary. For Around the World in 80 Books, Verne’s 1872 itinerary provided Damrosch with a flexible route, and the French author’s popular credentials help translate the academic’s expertise to a “broader readership.” Verne was onto something with his tally of days too: 80, Damrosch writes, is “a capacious but still manageable number of works to discuss.”

Circumnavigation’s Critical Character

Circumnavigation is a travel tradition, Joyce Chaplin explains in Round About the Earth (2012), which always doubled as a storytelling exercise. This “geodrama” was scripted, transacted in both practice and print.

Francis Drake, Pigafetta’s first successor, “inaugurated a custom among round-the-world travelers of citing their predecessors, of seeing themselves as part of a tradition.”10 Expeditions sought new territories and made scientific discoveries, but they also innovated within a common storytelling project. William Dampier made the trip three times, and his chief written contribution, according to Chaplin, was more selective narration. Dampier left out the boring parts and so made this travel-writing genre the more artful. Stories of circumnavigation thereafter assumed more literary qualities and had crossover appeal for fiction writers. Daniel Defoe adapted an episode from Dampier’s career for Robinson Crusoe, and he tried his hand at a circumnavigation novel as well.

In the nineteenth century, in Goethe’s declared “age of world literature,” coordinated railroad-and-steamship itineraries made circumnavigation more accessible to travelers and readers alike. The Thomas Cook company alone ushered more than a thousand of these new “tourists” and “globetrotters” on the new grand tour by 1890.11 Cook joined the written tradition too, publishing his around-the-world reconnaissance in The Times of London in 1872, at the same time Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours unfolded in Le Temps in Paris. Many more chroniclers of the trip joined the tradition, and each published account could be read as a record and as a guidebook, as an implicit invitation to its reader.

Soon circumnavigators were starting journeys from the Americas, from Asia, from any line of longitude. In this age of mass tourism, the around-the-world trip became a cliché, and yet each departure still felt personal and full of promise. Intrepid travelers kept heading out, adding new variables, in different vehicles, along different routes.

Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours perfectly captured the trip’s eccentricity and its mass appeal. The novel read—and still reads—like a dramatic script to be performed (it was conceived first as a stage play) and as a practical guidebook for future travelers (the characters themselves carry a Bradshaw travel guide to make clear this connection). The cultural historian Stephen Kern notes how Around the World in Eighty Days both documented and encouraged the ongoing phenomenon. The book was “a compendium of global travel that was actually taking place, and an inspiration for others to follow.”12

Given that many people still reenact the journey—and given the work’s countless adaptations—Verne’s around-the-world story is still, in some sense, “actually taking place.” As Bernd Stiegler reflects, “Hardly any journey can be taken without recalling this text,” and along the way a tattered copy “is often used as travel reading.”13

Damrosch’s “Tour Du Monde”

It was reading Verne’s Le Tour du monde at sea, recalls Chaplin, that set her history project in motion. In her own introduction, she argues for the uniqueness of the around-the-world trip. A circumnavigator comes to think of “herself on a planetary scale, as an actor on a stage the size of the world… No other form of travel, and, really, hardly any other human experience, is truly planet-encompassing.”14 In Around the World in 80 Books, Damrosch casts himself to play that actor’s part, to test out whether one’s personal reading of literature can be “truly planet-encompassing.”

For his Around the World project, Damrosch draws on the circumnavigator’s profound, imperfect planetary relation to provide a “satisfying shape” for world literature. His conceit keeps the reader, traveler, and scholar in the world and in touch with books. Damrosch stages his chosen 80 in groups of 5 at 16 stopovers. This personalized “mode of circulation and of reading” transforms a potentially groundless survey into a moving narrative.

The book’s online supplement includes a map of the route, with flags at the start and finish. The looping dotted line indicates the traveler’s imprecision and indecisions en route. (This map depicts a different sequence than the final book, indicating the plan’s ultimate variability, even for the writer himself.)

For Damrosch’s readers, the dotted line is something to follow or to rebel against. Damrosch generally reads himself eastward, but he backtracks on occasion: from Clarice Lispector in Brazil to Gabriel García Márquez in Colombia, by way of Voltaire and a series of imagined places. Literature makes its own maps, and produces its own sense of the world. One can start anywhere or travel westward, or more erratically. Damrosch leaves many spaces unexplored: Russia, Southern Africa, and Australia may be some of the next stops for the curious. Or, the next reader may organize their circumnavigation according to national literatures, as a series of world cities, or they may prefer to remain at sea. In this circumnavigational mood, world literature is creative and associative, collaborative and stubbornly individualistic. The principle of this version of world literature is that one sets out in one direction until one is home again and shares the story.

Something—or many things—goes wrong on any given circumnavigation; that is part of the tradition, part of the story structure. The world itself is disorienting, and the journey reminds the traveler of their delicate, incommensurate relationship to the planet. Each trip underscores this feat’s folly. The first circumnavigation’s “success,” for example, is marred by its many deaths, including Magellan’s own in the Philippines. In Verne’s model, the characters leave behind a wake of destruction: they collapse a bridge, burn the ship that carries them, and leave a gas lamp burning in London all the while. Chaplin reads the trip’s carbon footprint as one of Verne’s key articulations for posterity. Around the World in Eighty Days underlines the toll of all these around-the-world adventures, “the planetary bill for centuries of burning fossil fuel.”15 Chaplin here anticipates the recent ecocritical consciousness in world literary studies. In the latest world literature, the world has become the planet, and literature reflects the planet’s fragility, its damage, and its indifference to the human. While armchair travel is conventionally maligned as a poor substitute for a real journey, there are compelling reasons to second-guess our wanderlust and to try new modes for experiencing distant worlds while staying closer to home.

Around the World in 80 Books registers these different fault lines in its own way. Damrosch’s intended trip, like so many of his predecessors’, does not go to plan. He booked a series of around-the-world engagements to share the work in progress. The author, that is, would be immersed in the worlds of literature, following in the footsteps of Phileas Fogg and many other authors and characters. But the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the journey before it began, and so Damrosch emulated a different version of Verne, an apparent armchair traveler who once wrote to Alexandre Dumas fils: “I travel only by maps.”16 Like Verne sending out travel stories from his study in Amiens, Damrosch embraced a virtual and vicarious form of traveling.

In stories of adventure like Le Tour du monde, it is the unexpected interruptions that vary the narrative and that coax characters to improvise. The interruptions to Damrosch’s trip grounded the author but they helped push this project out there, to find his “broader readership.” Canceling in-person appearances, Damrosch serially released an early version of this book online, when many self-isolated readers sought stories of a wider world. With this first, unfolding release—like Verne’s in Le Temps, exactly 150 years ago—Damrosch connected with a larger “live” audience than the planned auditoriums and seminar rooms could have held. The circumstances also registered Chaplin’s caution about world literature’s “planetary bill.” He remained, for the moment, “free from the carbon footprint of long-haul flights.”

Damrosch may still travel to those places in the future. While a single book or trip reaches an inevitable end, world literature and circumnavigation are always incomplete projects, as Damrosch’s critical oeuvre argues and as Verne’s literary example testifies. Verne’s series of some 60 novels, the Voyages extraordinaires, come as close as any other body of work to offering a complete world picture: the novels’ plots make a “credible attempt at systematic geographical coverage” of the global 19th century, and Verne has been translated more often (and therefore likely read more widely) than all but one other author (Agatha Christie).17 Still, despite his work’s aspirations for planetary coverage, Verne leaves his Voyages extraordinairesopen-ended. The novels (and implicitly the worlds they represent) are left with “an intensely modern, ‘unfinished’ feel.”18 The author leaves both instructions and room for future readers and travelers.

The Next Book

In the epilogue to his 80 Books, Damrosch meditates on what remains unfinished for him, after the apparently complete circle. He speculates on which book he should read next, because “we certainly can’t stop with eighty.”

In addition to the other transfers and exchanges along the way, in these final pages his first person becomes plural. Verne concluded Le Tour du monde by declaring that the trip’s costs were justified by the successful marriage plot. Damrosch’s profit on it may lie in that “we,” in the assembled company of authors, characters, and readers on similar journeys. He speculates that his 81st book might have been Le Tour du monde all along, but he is unconvinced; that would make for too tidy a conclusion. He leaves Verne’s extraordinary book outside his list, to help him organize the rest. Maybe the 81st is among those long-neglected volumes on our bookshelves, “awaiting their turn with silent reproach”; or maybe it is something newly published or translated.

Damrosch ultimately withholds his personal choice for the next book; he keeps his options open. For eccentrics and for the masses, circumnavigation’s literature remains unfinished, with each conclusion or return resembling a new, suggestive starting point.

The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. Today’s essay, ‘World Literature Comes Full Circle 1522-2022‘, by Kevin Riordan, was originally published by Public Books on 15 December, 2022.

Works Cited

  1. Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 135.
  2. Andrew Martin, The Knowledge of Ignorance: From Genesis to Jules Verne (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 144.
  3. Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey around the World (American Publishing Company, 1897), p. 712.
  4. Quoted in Martin Puchner, “Goethe, Marx, Ibsen and the Creation of a World Literature,” Nordlit, no. 24 (2015): p. 1.
  5. Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 50.
  6. Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 29.
  7. David Damrosch, What Is World Literature? (Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 5.
  8. David Damrosch, “Introduction: World Literature in Theory and Practice,” World Literature in Theory, ed. David Damrosch (Wiley and Sons, 2014), p. 1.
  9. Damrosch, “Introduction,” p. 10.
  10. Joyce Chaplin, Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit (Simon and Schuster, 2012), p. 50.
  11. Chaplin, Round About the Earth, p. 225.
  12. Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 212.
  13. Bernd Stiegler, Traveling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel, trans. Peter Filkins (University of Chicago Press, 2013), p. 135. The “around the world” (the most common translation of le tour du monde) has become a portable idiom in its own right—beginning in the 1870s, when its usage rose dramatically. The phrase is now used interchangeably with “globally” or “internationally,” though distinctively it insists on motion and an embedded position: someone or something is going around.
  14. Chaplin, Round About the Earth, p. xvi.
  15. Chaplin, Round About the Earth, p. xv.
  16. Quoted in Terry Harpold, “Verne’s Cartographies,” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 32, no. 1 (2005): p. 18. Despite this later-in-life statement, Verne was quite well traveled, though not to the extent of his characters.
  17. Timothy Unwin, Jules Verne: Journeys in Writing (Liverpool University Press, 2005), p. 27; “Index Translationum,” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (accessed November 10, 2022).
  18. Unwin, Jules Verne, p. 15.