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Can world literature exist? It depends on what is meant by world literature.

The phrase Weltliteratur was coined by Goethe. The German polymath told his disciple Johann Peter Eckermann in 1827: “I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at times to hundreds and hundreds of men…. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term, the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”

But what is world literature? World literature comes in two alternate, conceivable versions: contemporary world literature and global classicism. Contemporary world literature is the literature of contemporary societies — particularly works of literature that obtain an international reputation. Global classicism might be described as contemporary literature inspired by the multiple traditions of the premodern regional literate civilizations of Eurasia, including the Chinese, Indian, Greco-Roman, Euro-Christian, and Muslim.
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Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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Gloom rains down during early April days in the north. The sky is heavy and stuffed with shadows. A goldfinch at the bird feeder looks ridiculous; his molting winter feathers are a wreck. Everything about his half-golden face says hope, the uncombed horror of hope. This is the time we look for anything that reminds us of life. These are the days of stick-seeking and leaf-hunting, of changing our eyes into microscopes. On the windowsill, a slug; under a pile of leaves, an infinitesimal green something. Eliot was so right about April and its cruelty. 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can… More…