Walter Cohen argues that the history of European literature and each of its standard periods can be illuminated by comparative consideration of the different literary languages within Europe and by the ties of European literature to world literature. World literature is marked by recurrent, systematic features, outcomes of the way that language and literature are at once the products of major change and its agents. Cohen tracks these features from ancient times to the present, distinguishing five main overlapping stages. Within that framework, he shows that European literature's ongoing internal and external relationships are most visible at the level of form rather than of thematic statement or mimetic representation. European literature emerges from world literature before the birth of Europe-during antiquity, whose Classical languages are the heirs to the complex heritage of Afro-Eurasia. This legacy is later transmitted by Latin to the various vernaculars. The uniqueness of the process lies in the gradual displacement of the learned language by the vernacular, long dominated by Romance literatures. That development subsequently informs the second crucial differentiating dimension of European literature: the multicontinental expansion of its languages and characteristic genres, especially the novel, beginning in the Renaissance. This expansion ultimately results in the reintegration of European literature into world literature and thus in the creation of today's global literary system. The distinctiveness of European literature is to be found in these interrelated trajectories.
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Walter Cohen is Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, after having taught from 1980 to 2014 in Comparative Literature at Cornell University, where he received a distinguished teaching award and held various college and university administrative posts for two decades. He is the author of Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain, and of numerous articles on Renaissance literature, literary criticism, the history of the novel, and world literature. He is also one of the editors of The Norton Shakespeare.
"Cohen, with extraordinary erudition, places European literatures from the Romans onwards alongside extra European literatures. His book bulges with fascinating detail." -- Ritchie Robertson, Times Literary Supplement
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