College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

They Say There'll Be an Evolution

A New Take On World Literature

Editor Widens net to capture voices from around the world

By Jeremy Schwab

When Wiebke Denecke was chosen to help develop the third edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature in 2007, she was thrilled as much by the prospect of delving deeply into the cultures that fascinate her as by the honor of being selected. The publishers of the landmark anthology picked the Arts & Sciences associate professor of modern languages and comparative literature—a renowned expert in East Asian literature—to be the anthology’s editor for Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese literature. Later, she also took charge of Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature owing to her experience with other ancient ideographic languages, in which graphic symbols represent ideas.

Denecke and her fellow editors wanted to take a different approach from that used by the editors of previous editions (published in 1956 and 1995), seeking to build an anthology that truly reflected the experiences of people in every period and every part of the world. To do this, they went beyond what is traditionally thought of as literature. “The traditional Great Books courses cover the enshrined masterpieces,” explains Denecke. “But we took the cultural approach, in two directions: ‘Why did these texts become important in their original cultural context?’ and ‘How can they matter to our lives in the globalizing world of the twenty-first century?’”

The editors included excerpts from political manifestos: for instance, futurism, dadaism, and communism. Studying these works alongside great novels, poetry, and ancient texts like the Bible and Tao Te Ching allows for a fuller understanding of humanity. Comparing the literature of different times and places yields insight into both our shared human experience and cultural differences, says Denecke. Take the treatment of war in poetry, as an example. Greek Homeric epics celebrate individual prowess in combat, whereas early Chinese poetry tends to lament soldiers who died in service to their lords. Cultural context helps explain this different emphasis: Greek poems were recited at lively dinner parties where guests were eager to hear about their heroes, while the Chinese approach reflected an attempt to pacify the souls of the war dead.

Denecke notes that exploring the literature of so many cultures and periods at once presents some challenges. “The question is how to teach this literature,” she says. “How do you compare separate cultures? It opens up questions we can’t treat in that reductionist fashion, really. It’s actually a double challenge: you’re kind of poking both the Eurocentrists and the too-culture-specific philologists out of their holes and saying, ‘Let’s look at all these traditions together, in mutual illumination.’” The six-volume anthology took four years to complete, publishing in March 2012.

From Szeged to Boston

Denecke’s journey to becoming one of the world’s foremost experts in East Asian literature began in an unlikely place: a Hungarian home for handicapped children, where she volunteered soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain. She was inspired to work at the home, in the southern city of Szeged, while on a classical concert tour as a violinist that had taken her and her fellow musicians to Hungary and Romania during the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Enthralled by the culture surrounding her, the German native also delved into Hungarian literature.

“Hungary was interesting,” recalls Denecke. “Their language is non-European, and their history and literature reflect the persistent struggle between aspiring to be a legitimate part of Europe while remaining proud of their mysterious Asian roots beyond the Ural Mountains.”

She was also interested in medicine, and despite her budding interest in the stories and languages of various cultures, she decided to embark on medical studies. Characteristically, Denecke did not go to school in Berlin or Paris. Rather, she boldly forged her own path, choosing to study Chinese medicine in Dalian, a city in Southern Manchuria where very few people spoke English.

Ultimately her desire to learn about other cultures and acquire new languages prevailed, and soon her medical studies gave way to a study of classical Chinese.

Working on the anthology allowed Denecke to continue doing what she loves—studying the intricacies of Asian literature such as early Chinese philosophy documents and poetry. “Classical Chinese packs so much meaning into so few syllables,” she says. “I like the way the language and its literature train you to see the world in great, astonishing nuance.” Enabling readers to see the world in all of its astonishing nuance is perhaps also an apt description of Denecke’s and her fellow editors’ broad, inclusive approach to world literature.