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Wafaa Ismail FALI

English 660

The French and American School of

Comparative Literature

Books are a medium through which the author can express his views and culture.
Those very views are clearly illustrated in a work of fiction that stimulates readers'
concern and provides an entertaining atmosphere called literature. In fact, literature
creates a world made up of words that connote more than they actually denote in an
attempt to reach pleasure and above all wisdom. Due to the fact that literature is based
on the interaction between life and human beings, people regardless of their
nationalities and culture, grow eager to know more about the other fellow beings'
culture and life. Due to this premise, comparative literature has been brought to light
to cast aside those national and linguistic boundaries in an effort to to make people
get closer and be included in a literary reservoir that is responsible for containing and
uniting varieties of languages alongside cultural outlooks to life.

Comparative literature is not only a bridge that holds and relates literatures and
thoughts together but it is a discipline based upon scientific approaches as well. This
domain inspires its root from the Sorbonne University in France by the end of the
nineteenth century; likewise, Abel Francois Villemain coined the term Literature
Comparée in 1827, then it was popularized by the influential critic C.A.Sainte Beuve.
This term was actually rendered into English as Comparative Literature by Matthew
Arnold (Jost, 11). During the wake of the twentieth century, this discipline started
being overspread in Europe and the United States.

Comparative literature is in fact more than a mere national literary production or a

linguistic expression but it is a universal human discipline having a specific influence
on the other branches such as philosophy, psychology, and psychology alongside arts
such as music and painting. In fact, this intersection between the different disciplines
and kinds of art gives comparative literature a vitality and validity in an effort to
encompass human thoughts. In the same context, comparative literature has got an
interdisciplinary feature in the sense that it marks an acquaintance with translation,
critical theories, and cultural studies so as to integrate literary experience with other
cultural phenomena (Saussy, 97). It gives credit to inclusion in the sense that it goes
in accordance with globalization as opposed to localization.

Comparative literature, as an academic discipline aims to fill the gap between the
Western literature and those literatures of the rest of the world by shedding light on
Eastern and Asian literatures which have been examined just as far as historical and
anthropological perspectives are concerned to study literature in the broadest
framework as being interlingual, interdisciplinary, and intercultural. Literatures'
meetings have therefore paved the path towards new theoretical discourse and mark a
kind of overlapping between the different national literatures. On this basis,
comparative literature facilitates the dialogue between cultures, languages, and

Comparative literature, which scholars know nowadays, can actually be considered

as a production of two major schools embodied in the French school, being the
founder, and the American school, being the ameliorator. Both of them serve in the
rise of this discipline yet each of them follows a certain approach in dealing with
comparison between the divergent literary texts. This paper is an attempt to disclose
the roots of Comparative literature following the French approach as well as getting
closer to the American school's contributions and efforts so as to make this discipline
global and extensive. In fact, comparative literature's definition which contemporary
scholars get is a result of the contribution of those two big schools, a kind of
collaboration between European and American school to give this new discipline
more significance and continuity.

Comparative literature as an intellectual field was first coined by the French school to
become later an academic discipline developed during the nineteenth century Europe.
The French school was deeply interested in evaluation as well as inquiry into what
unites European literatures basically the premise of cultural exchanges. This idea is an
offspring from the emergence of nation states in Europe to promote the cultural
claims of national literature and popular traditions. Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett
discusses the issue of this tradition that unites all fellow beings in his Comparative
Literature in which he states that the proper order of our studies in comparative
literature as the pursuit of causes which can be specified and described. These studies
were to reveal the cultural development of man from clan to city, from city to nation,
from both of these to cosmopolitan humanity (qtd in Clements, 85). It is broadly
acknowledged that his views were modified yet it reflects the idea that comparative
literature is linked to history and serves in pursuing the shared European traditions
reflected through national cultures and fundamentally national literature according to
a certain European model . This relation with history marks the traditional approach
which represents the nucleus of the French school.

The French school, then, embodies the historical background of comparative literature
and initiates a new discipline developed by the late of the nineteenth century. Susan
Basnett finds in her Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction that comparative
literature, under the French approach, arose as a counterpart of equally new fields of
comparative anatomy, comparative law, and comparative philology-being introduced
by Van Schlegal's Universal Poesie. These domains sought to unite the differences of
specific species, laws, and languages coming to national literature as a first attempt
(35). Comparative literature obtained its actual name from a series of French
anthologies used for literature teaching, published in 1816 entitled Cours de
Littérature Comparée standing as a reference as they introduce European literature in
a comparative perspective having relation with history.

The French school follows a particular approach in dealing with comparative

literature as it focuses of the texts within their historical, cultural contexts being
examined forensically for the purpose of finding evidence of origins and influences
between literary works from the different European nations putting the spotlight on
"national character" or what is called "the spirit of people". In some way connected
with this idea, the French approach is rather empirical for it combines literature with
history and tradition comparing texts according to a nation-based approach relying on
older methodological trends such as positivism and philology.

Systematically speaking, the French approach in comparative literature, as defined by

Baldensperger, Bruntière, Hazard, and Carré focuses on relations (rapports) studies
using a strict, historical, positivist manner. Following this process, comparative
literature's significances lies on facts, factual evidence and historical documents
representing therefore empirical, scientific proofs (rapports de faits) (Stallknecht and
Franz, 3). This sort of positivist method marks a historical, national study of literature
being limited to comparing particular European literatures based on influence. On this
account, contemporary scholars find out that the French Comparative scholarship
claims that it is too nationally oriented: that is why, it adopts exclusion due to lack of
equality in treating the other literatures from the ideological point of view. On the
other hand, the core of this discipline is seen in the light of factual comparison for this
particular reason it concentrates on rather empirical, positivist approach excluding in
this context literary criticism. On this basis, it is typically transnational as Van
Tieghem maintained that comparative literature is a part of literary history (Jost, 16).
It pays a considerable attention to historical evidence of contacts, imitations, basically
influence due to its rigorous, strict nature.

The French school, as mentioning above, seems to be forensic and rather rigid in its
study focusing just on the relation holding between national literatures in isolation
from the humanities and arts due to the French desire of safety or sécurité (Stallknecht
and Franz, 2). Subsequently, French scholars tend to keep comparative literature
study purely and typically literary without commenting on or trying to create a link
between literature and other disciplines lest their ideas might not be compatible. They
also see that such a challenge, studying literature via human disciplines and arts,
requires more scholar knowledge and competence for fear they may be accused of
charlatism. For this particular reason, the French scholars did not produce syntheses
as far as the intersection between literature and other areas of humanities and arts so
that not to enlarge comparative study horizon as it might become to a large extent
uncontrollable. This problem is clearly spotted in Revue de Litérature Comparée
(1921) which was directed by Baldensperger and Hazard (Stallknecht and Franz, 4).

This rigidity in handling literary comparison led the French school towards many
problems: comparative literature was not considered as a single independent
discipline but a part of history as Hazard pointed out that comparative literature is a
branch of history (Basnett,11). Another problem is actually vested in the lack of
logical coherence between comparative literature as being studied beyond national
boundaries and as a study of ramification of literature beyond its very internal
boundaries due to geographical, historical connotations. It also determines to meet
with human science just if they meet in a major point, for example Balzac's Père
Gariot has got a strong economic connotation so the overlapping can be assumed.

The modern period, especially post-war era, found out that it is time to attempt to a
nutshell overview of a discipline that encompasses literature, humanities, and arts in
one single reservoir so as to reach a better understanding and a fruitful meditation on
their function and nature. Accordingly, this very intellectual attempt has become
directed towards founding, instead, adding some new perspectives to the nationalistic,
traditional comparative literature maintained by the French school to instil
international co-operation since no national literature can be studied in isolation from
its sociological, political, and artistic context. This premise of amelioration or
modernization as far as the comparative study of literature is concerned serves in
bringing yet fashioning comparative literature as a discipline under the American
school. The American sense of democracy and open-minded views coloured
comparative literature with different colours of humanities (psychology, philosophy,
sociology, and later on religion) in addition to fine arts such as (painting, music,
sculpture) to enlarge the horizon of study.

The American school made first its appearance in the wake of the twentieth century
standing in reaction to the strict, national French school's approach in treating
comparative literature. American scholars are interested in giving this discipline a
new version in an effort to attain or get closer to the myth of validity and continuity
bearing in mind that introducing this discipline to other humanities and arts helps in
guaranteeing its existence and function. It is true that this school keeps the idea of
comparison, being the nucleus of this discipline; however, it sought to deal with it in a
way different from that used by the French comparatists.

The United States is well-known of the divergent communities it encompasses

making up a mosaic of various cultures. This heterogeneous society necessitates a sort
of assimilation having become a tradition from which comparative literature inspired
its framework. As a matter of fact, this premise of inclusion of all areas of interest
that happen to intersect with literature as well as issues having a direct relation with
literary criticism come at the essence of comparative literature under the American
approach. This school follows a certain strategy based on assimilation or inclusion
along with extension since the American approach sought to stretch to all marginal,
minor, and ethnic literatures in an effort to reach a global rather than local view of the
modern studies. It also relies on promoting knowledge via multifaceted method
following scholarly rigor and multi-layered knowledge to reach a mutual enrichment
of compatibility as far as theory and application are concerned. Accordingly, any
scholar of comparative literature under such an approach finds out that flexibility
marks the backbone of it.

Unlike the French school, the American school looks upon comparative literature as a
single, independent discipline instead of being a part of historical literature. Totosy de
Zepetnek suggests in his Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application that
literature is better disclosed in its diversity and sees that this idea can be achieved just
if comparative literature separates itself from history and becomes an independent
domain which sets up its own norms so that scholars may acquire a better
understanding concerning the interdisciplinary, intercultural, and interlingual nature
comparative literature has obtained (15). Apart from that, the American approach
reflects the function-the way comparative literature techniques are implemented- of
comparison making a given field corporate with literature regardless of its theoretical

Newton P. Stallknecht and Host Frenz are assumed to be the pioneers in forging the
American method of comparative literature. In fact, they discuss how this new
approach works in their book Comparative literature: Method and Perspective in
which they highlight the importance of integrating literary experience with other
cultural phenomena alongside philosophical and social movement (13).

American scholars react against dismissing lightly certain topics such as studies of
reception and intermediation from the French approach for the reason of security. On
this account, American scholars make those neglected points their starting points as a
kind of challenge. That is why, René Wellek, a pioneer in the field, stated that the
American Approach is the best to speak simply of literature (Clements, 74). This
comparatist sought to smash the boundaries set between literature and other
disciplines in an attempt to reach a universal totality inserting basically literary
criticism. For merely this reason, a trend emerged in U.S called "New Criticism" since
the comparison does not have necessarily to be entirely comparative on every page or
chapter. Instead, the whole content and execution should be comparative and needs
both objective and subjective evaluation. As far as literary theory is actually
concerned, American comparative literature is characterized by multiplicity of literary
theories due to the absence of national patriotism.

Comparative literature starts first as an idea in Sorbonne University yet due to its
broad aim to stretch to other parts of the world to present scholars with a panoramic,
cultural knowledge and to enhance the sense of European patriotism and nationhood.
On the other hand, this very idea has been transformed into a full-fledged academic
discipline in the United States as well as an important subject of research due to its
various relations with the other spheres of artistic expression and humanities. In the
French school, the one representing the cradle of this discipline, comparative
literature has become a paramount part of aggregation for candidates in humanities.
As a student of comparative literature I realized, if I am really allowed to say so, that
this discipline traces a human dimension as it vehicles human eagerness to know more
about the others and reflects in the same respect a human sociability vested in the
interdisciplinary nature of this domain showing up the primary Raison d'ètre (raison
of existence) as we tend to reach whatever holds us together, with a mind open to the

Works Cited

Basnett, Susan. Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Basil

Blackwell, 1993.

Clements, J. Robert. Comparative Literature as Academic Discipline. New York:

Praxis, 1978.

Jost, François. Introduction to Comparative Literature. U.S: The Bobbs-Merrill

Company, Inc, 1974.

Saussy, Haun. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Maryland: The

John Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Stallknecht, Newton .P and Host Frenz. Comparative Literature: Method and

Perspective. U.S: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Totosy de Zepetnek, Steven. Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application.

Amsterdam: Rodopi. B.V, 1998.

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