Comparative literature department celebrates 50 years

The Department of Comparative Literature is celebrating its 50th anniversary this semester with an event, “Comparative Lit at Fifty: Early Modern Studies,” from 3-7 p.m., April 13, in the German Studies Lounge, 177 Goldwin Smith Hall and featuring speakers from other universities, a roundtable discussion and reception.

Professors Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man founded Cornell’s Department of Comparative Literature in 1966, using grants from the National Defense Act. The act was intended to “strengthen the American aerospace engineering plant,” but Hartman managed to convince supporters that “national defense” could be strengthened by the study of world literatures.

The department played a major role in the development of the discipline. From 1927 to 1943, The Comparative Study of Literature was offered at Cornell by professor Lane Cooper. Today, the department offers an interdisciplinary approach by combining the study of literature with such disciplines as philosophy, visual studies, political theory, and gender and sexuality studies. It also works in deconstruction, psychoanalysis, postcolonial studies, media studies and digital humanities, and critical race and sexuality studies.

“For my generation, comparative literature in the U.S. came out of World War II from university professors fleeing fascism in Europe,” said William Kennedy, the Avalon Foundation Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and one of the first faculty members in the department. “These emigres brought with them their language, literary knowledge, experience and history, and integrated it into the Anglo-American literary tradition.”

The discipline came to focus on intensive language and culture studies. Faculty in the department emphasize the importance of learning the original language of a text to see how systems of thought, government, expression, historical consciousness, scientific inquiry and philosophy interact with one another in the language.

“If you are going to understand the literature of another people, you need to understand how their writers express themselves,” Kennedy said. “Reading their works in translation does not give us the in-depth understanding of the dynamics at work in the piece that the original language affords.”

Kennedy, who retired in January, said the department has always been committed to growth and change.

Tracy McNulty

“We’ve always been a very integrative department, taking the languages and cultures on their own terms, not just to see how they relate to us but to see how they stand on their own terms,” he said. “In this way, comparative literature is a growing unit that is always under construction.”

Tracy McNulty, chair of comparative literature, also values this aspect of the discipline.

“You can do anything with comparative literature,” McNulty said. “It’s not organized around a single language or a single national history. It’s not just a matter of comparing different language traditions but also literature and philosophy, literature and psychoanalysis, and literature and visual studies.”

In recent years, the department has evolved from a focus on European literature to include literature written in the vernacular from different parts of the world.

“Many of our students speak another language and they want to bring that into their work, and many of them are really interested in non-European cultures. Comparative literature gives them a place where they can do that work,” McNulty said.

“In the 47 years I’ve been teaching, the discipline has opened itself up to literatures from Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean in addition to those from North America and Europe,” Kennedy said.

The department has also embraced technology to include studies of film, photography, sound and computational languages, acknowledging that texts are not only limited to literary text or human languages but multiple forms of media and language.

“Comparative literature has allowed me to explore different languages and cultures and, I think, in the microcosm that is Cornell, I was able to experience the world,” said Christopher-James Llego ’17, a comparative literature major. “In a sense, comparative literature was the perfect combination of all the majors I’d tried.”

Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a communications assistant for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Rebecca Valli