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Farewell to Pnin: The End of the Comp Lit Era

By Jeanne-Marie Jackson.

Yale University's Bingham Hall, home to its storied comparative literature department.

Yale University’s Bingham Hall, home to its storied comparative literature department.


“Something has gone wrong in our collective idea of the ‘public,’” Mark Greif declaimed in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, in an essay considering the fate of the public intellectual in “post-Partisan Review” America. Whereas standard accounts of that journal’s heyday imagine a chic, non-academic intellectual community set against the American university—Susan Sontag in Vogue, Clement Greenberg learning Latin in his bedroom—Greif points out that most of the PR crowd was in fact attached to a campus in one way or another, drawing energy, inspiration, and challenge from the scholarly expertise and rigor suffusing those institutions. For them, “public” did not imply “popular” or “general.”

The conflation of these concepts was not their problem, Greif suggests, but ours, as it has led to a widespread disavowal of the academy’s traditional scholarly (read “elitist”) ethos—even by the professors themselves. Today, most academics working in the humanities prefer the posture of reaching out to the public, “applying” their interpretive skills to remind us of social and political causes. This shift in priorities is a symptom and, probably, a cause, as well, of the relative tepidness of our critical academic culture. English professors, whose standards of evidence are fuzzy, are probably its chief exemplars.

One interesting bit of evidence Greif adduces for this claim is his inability to rally a potent young professoriate in his work as a founding editor of n+1, a literary journal of the left that draws much of its inspiration from the defunct Partisan Review. Greif notes with dismay that junior faculty submissions to n+1 are often cheeky and patronizing, the work of specialists “slumming it,” perhaps with the noblest of intentions, in analyses of pop culture for a non-academic audience. What he neglects to add is that this also characterizes much professional academic writing, even at the most elite institutions—writing that is addressed to the self-same public stirring his anxiety. For whatever reason, Greif seems to imagine brilliant, arcane scholarship having, as its misconceived public “other,” something like reality TV.

Frequently, though, he must be reading submissions that are natural extensions of sexy, “accessible” academic work that has far less trouble attracting interest from academic presses than one might guess. As magazines like this one have become more ambitious and more inclusive, for example, on their mastheads, literary scholarship has reached out defensively toward a shallower sort of democratization: “public intellectualism” within the literary academy now seems broadly to mean declaring one’s political allegiances, which often has little to do with actually practicing or rigorously theorizing politics.

To be clear, the politics themselves are not the problem – I am not, nor is Greif, interested in a return to socially disengaged belletrism. The burning question, rather, is how we imagine the literary scholar to be different from the literary blogger. That there is often a blurring of this line is sometimes good and sometimes bad; either way, it indicates a shift within the literary academy that has real significance for public thought.

What is most glaringly absent from Greif’s discussion of the evolving role of the public intellectual, and from the many PR obituaries before it that took up these same issues, is any consideration of comparative literature, or just “comp lit” to its wayward familiars. Discussed as much these days for its institutional recession as for its lasting contributions, it’s in the background of n+1’s founding, for example, at a few different levels: founding editors graduated from both Yale’s comp lit doctoral program and Harvard’s idiosyncratic but related History and Literature major. Just as importantly, comparative literature is the unspoken cultural subtext of the late-PR intellectual climate in the 1960s through 80s. These decades saw the unprecedented American flourishing of a discipline usually seen to have originated in Europe in the late nineteenth century. Technically, the field amounts to parallel study of two or more literary traditions but, in practice, it’s a more complex and controversial institutional phenomenon.

The history of the discipline has already been written, and written well; Natalie Melas’ 2008 book All the Difference in the World is probably the best work of this sort. But the crude populism underlying its current retrenchment, as well as what that populism means for the larger literary public, are usually voiced only in cliquish murmurings at conferences and Ivy League cocktail parties. This, I think, is a mistake.[1]

A common sketch of comp lit’s origins goes like this: in the 1940s, a bunch of erudite European scholars establish what will go on to become the most famous comp lit department in the country and, arguably, the world, at Yale University. They write dense books that blend old-school philology with grand historical theses (too grand, some would say, based on their decidedly Occidental skew), spanning German, French, English, and sometimes Russian texts and traditions. After a decade or so of collaborating with their friends from various Russian and Slavic Studies departments—this is the Cold War after all, and America is crawling with brilliant Soviet escapees, such as the linguist Roman Jakobson—these mostly French scholars usher Structuralism into its full literary flowering in the 1960s.

By the mid- to late-1970s, the supposedly naïve organizational schemas of thinkers like Claude Levi-Strauss and the “classical narratologists” Tzvetan Todorov, Gerald Prince, and Gerard Genette, who wanted to “scientize” literary analysis according to set technical principles and devices, are mutinied by their poststructuralist successors (also French). Led by Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, Yale’s department becomes a bastion of high Deconstructionist theory devoted to troubling the very idea of truth. All the while, English departments more or less maintain a belletristic commitment to studying that literature’s great minds.

The educated public finally enters the mix during the so-called Theory Wars of the 1980s, latching especially onto “The De Man Case,” which centers on his illustrations for an anti-Semitic Belgian newspaper during World War Two. At the same time, a wave of what might broadly (and perhaps crudely) be called “applied” poststructuralisms rises. These fields of multicultural and postcolonial theory, as a means of enfranchising the voices and perspectives that comparative literature had until then excluded, attempt to destabilize a modernity based on literary pillars like Goethe, Flaubert, and Scott.

It is at this point, heading into the 1990s, that the zeitgeist seems to start moving back over to English departments, largely owing to the backlash against Deconstruction and its arcane “continental” idiom. The literary academy as a whole faces what seems like a contradictory set of priorities: it is now oriented toward alterity and globalization – “diversity,” in short, sometimes more and sometimes less sophisticated in design – and yet it means to work out the details of this project outside the very discipline (comp lit) that is specifically predicated on diversity and difference, inasmuch as the field demands of its practitioners not just command of multiple languages but immersion in a variety of distinct literary systems. (And in fact cross-linguistic diversity and dissonance were clearly muted for a time with what some will recall as the movement toward “Global Englishes.”)

As Greif suggests in his Chronicle piece, the loss induced by this shift is ultimately attitudinal: the sense of a striving trans-cultural ambition, the kind that drove Sontag back and forth between Paris and New York, ends up as the baby thrown out with the Europhilic bathwater. In a real institutional sense, to be “post-European” today has meant being post-comp lit.


Partisan Review Pic


So what does this mean for the diversity of literary approaches, as well as which texts are studied and taught within universities? Speaking optimistically, it means that scholars are open to seeing a wider range of places, forms, and genres as deserving of serious attention. It means, in theory, that a specialist who works on Southeast Asian graphic novels, or Nigerian popular film, or, as I often now see, Beyoncé, will be at least as welcome at many top institutions as someone rewriting the history of the German Bildungsroman. This is by and large a good thing.

What it sometimes entails, though, to take just a few recent examples from my own experience, is an unexamined emphasis on timely and well-intentioned paradigm-generation; that is, on broad-strokes assertions of how we might think through shared problems on a grand scale (climate change, ethnic violence, and so on), without the relevant training or expertise required to intervene meaningfully in moving such issues forward. With progressive political ideals as an alibi, though, it also becomes difficult for interlocutors to critique a method (or how someone reads what they read) without looking like a cynic. We’re asked to just nod affirmatively during a 30-minute talk on the animated movie Ice Age, say, with the anticlimactic clincher that “humans might well go extinct like the dinosaurs.” (Academic readers will recognize the anthropocene in this one.)

More problematically, demonstrating one’s global social awareness often takes the place of nitty-gritty regional or field expertise: I’ve been to talks on Nollywood culture by people who speak not a word of a Nigerian language, and I’ve read essays by New York-based Americanist scholars that suggest the power “cultural rights” would have had to stave off Bosnian genocide in the 1990s. This is not to mention the less troubling, but more common role of the “world Anglophone” cultural scholar who loves the idea of translation for its politics of global recognition, but has no real knowledge of (and hence no real ability to theorize) what translation actually looks like from both ends. In literature departments, at least, we have now arrived at a critical juncture that is neither very material nor generatively abstract, in the manner of an earlier wave of structuralist left critics like Franco Moretti or Fredric Jameson.

It is difficult, sometimes, to figure out just what it is we’re good at in relation to colleagues in other departments: we do sociology without the empiricism, political science without the stats, and, most notably given our own field’s recent history, we now do “theory” without the abstract “jargon” that many people think it entails.

What I want to argue is that we in contemporary English and literature departments need to think instead about how to keep doing abstraction, but better—how can we “own” it, as my students might say, rather than wish it away. (And unlike our average philosophy colleague, how might we see abstraction as something that derives from rather than supersedes worldly experience?)

To this end, genuinely globally conscious work in comparative literature takes the measure of interacting systems: it puts parts in conversation with one another to alter the way we think of the whole, or, indeed, to alter the way we think about thinking of the whole. Alexander Beecroft’s recent Verso book An Ecology of World Literature, for example, brings a background in ancient Greek, Chinese, and French to bear on a panoply of propositions and interrelations, both inter- and intra-national. (His chapters address, among other things, cosmopolitan, vernacular, national, and global literature through specific case studies.) With so many optics in play, the book naturally forces their co-interrogation, each critical viewpoint exposing the limitations of the others. The very heterogeneity of content in Beecroft’s study, in other words, is also a methodological assertion.

The Berkeley scholar Harsha Ram, another example of a comparatist working outside strictly “western” paradigms, moves in his work from a general understanding of imperial Russian poetics and sublimity to their confrontation with the Georgian modernity just to the south. Georgia here is simultaneously immanent and alternative to the Russian empire, so that any notion of what empire is must mutate and advance in order to mount a critique of it. More recently, he’s embedded himself in Tbilisi to grapple with how a notion like “cosmopolitanism” can both obscure and illuminate the intensely local dynamics of Georgian literary culture. Such work obviously entails a substantial background in both the Russian and Caucasian traditions, and it must also draw from neighboring formal and civilizational fault lines (in Ram’s case, lines between Russian and Italian avant gardes).

I often think of my own work, which so far has moved mainly between southern Africa and Eastern Europe, as a very crowded Venn diagram: after wrestling with differences on both sides, you get to extract or abstract a moveable conceptual core. When I started researching my first book in its inception as a comp lit dissertation, I knew that I had glimpsed some comparable essence (a term I use at some risk) at key points in Russian and South African intellectual development. Both places struggled to theorize themselves; that is, to find a way of “bundling” a set of problems and traits that prevented any deep sense of either national cohesion or cosmopolitan belonging. In Russia in the 1860s through to the 1880s, especially, and in the South African “Emergency Years” of apartheid in the 1970s and 80s, writers and intellectuals in a marginalized reading culture had to distill extreme social, economic, and political disparity into some kind of unified form.

In practice, then, building this sort of comparative project involved bracketing any clear “themes,” and instead drawing out the structures whereby a given theme might even rise to legibility. In this case: the event of Russian Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881, as well as the clear social ill of apartheid, both point toward an underlying challenge of identifying where and how a body politic determines what kinds of violence to sanction or condemn. Taking this approach necessarily precludes hard-hitting social polemic, since the goal is to chart such complex and specific negotiations as they came into Russian and South African narrative form, not to draw conclusions about their moral legitimacy. More recently, in my work on the Zimbabwean novel, I’ve made it a point to try to bracket my own sense of the ethical status of the Mugabe regime from the exploration of the representational modes through which it’s depicted.

I don’t see this as a problem. Surely a humanistic audience is aware that apartheid entailed many kinds of overlapping violence, and surely there are scholars better equipped than I, trained in hermeneutics and Russian formalism, to excavate the historical and logistical entanglements of the Cold War era? More to the point, those of us who are classified these days as globalist literary critics must fight an opposite battle to our colleagues in more established fields. The idea of political “neutrality” in the literary arena rings deservedly sinister to an ear that came up amidst the New Criticism or among Leavisites. As a white, Western postcolonialist, though, my having some skepticism toward the crusading impulse seems well advised.

But this is not at all the reigning wisdom in literary studies today. There is an alternative and less nimble sort of recipe for publicly minded work, emanating particularly from English departments. Difference-minded scholars with an eye to progressive politics (and if there are contemporary literary scholars who do not claim progressivism, then I have yet to meet them) tend to take the measure not of the logic of particular systems, but of concrete social problems or themes. Numerous referees of my own book project, for example, tried to steer me toward clearer archival and material connections between the Soviet Union and South Africa, which to me seemed painfully obvious: of course the Soviet Union provided military training and assistance to the African National Congress, and of course there are many South African narratives in which this relationship appears.

The preference here is for validating structural hermeneutic claims with what is essentially soft data, since though there are piles of examples, there is none of the careful quantifying of evidence that one finds in sociology and anthropology departments. But this penchant for what is ultimately, and paradoxically, a mostly “theoretical” concreteness (as opposed, again, to serious empirical work) also extends to a mode of academic reading that might seem more inclined to the literary than the historical. In a lot of cases, the “problem” or theme at issue is some particular sort of violence, or an expression of something we already know to be abhorrent (in South African studies, for example, sexual violence is prominent). The central means of doing this kind of literary work is what we can shorthand as “reading problem x in archive y,” for example, reading domestic abuse in Sri Lankan novels (though I made that one up). This method is closely related to what we might call “applied intersectionality,” which reads one problem or category in connection with another to show that problems or categories illuminate each other.

Some of the likely examples here will be obvious in their social import, such as the relation of race and gender, or gender and class, in a given literary archive. This is most often the sort of material that does double duty as a scholarly and public intellectual intervention without needing much funneling or distillation of the critical takeaway. It can be summarized as the “I know this is bad/good; you know this is bad/good; I will demonstrate that books, too, from all over the world have shown in detail how this is bad/good” school of reading.

The problem here isn’t that work modeled on the second approach is somehow “too democratic” (read: insufficiently “elite” to placate Yale postgrads steeped in Fredric Jameson and heaps of family money). It’s that it’s only democratic in theory, yet without actually theorizing itself. Instead of reading for the plot, to paraphrase Peter Brooks’ famous structuralist manifesto, this is reading for the problem, and thereby, the virtue; it privileges the useable end, not the modular means.

This is not at all to suggest that “theorizing” politics is anathema to practicing it, though one does sometimes wonder why literary scholars who would clearly prefer to work for an NGO, or do a J.D., don’t simply go and do those things (I almost did both). What I am suggesting, though, is that if you’re going to take up a political topic in a scholarly register, then you need to be able to indicate what would be missing were there not a 300-page book and many years of academic training behind the intervention. What does our discipline bring to the table that others do not? I will be even blunter. If your aim is to mobilize a particular identity or position, then you should be able to argue for, and not just with, the concepts of identity or positionality.

Instead, the chief aim of explicitly “democratizing” scholarship is often just the performance of the scholar’s own democratizing desire. How much good, though, does it do to study the “other” if you only ever talk about their otherness? How much good does it do to assume that our words are a politics when it’s so glaringly evident that they are not? Comparatists don’t have nearly the same space for flaunting their political virtue because they must allocate so much time and energy to motivating their comparative enterprise. By contrast, in the worst cases, English department “globalists” simply grab books from a half dozen countries full of “others” and string them together on a chain of unassailable pluralism. (“We must stop othering all others equally.”)

Whenever we are tempted to feel good about enfranchising new “what’s” and “who’s” in what we study, we should take special care to also pressure-test the “why” within an intellectual as well as social frame. Otherwise, the rightful expansion of our textual and cultural archives risks serving as a mask for a failure to think expansively about—and indeed, to truly “enfranchise”—any of the cases at hand. In short, this salutary opening-up with which we’re now engaged—global, transnational, post-philosophical—can easily entail a far less healthful closing down, namely, of deeply situated argumentation that sees the specific as the vital launching pad to the universal.


Tbilisi, Georgia, a focus of Harsha Ram's comparative studies.

Tbilisi, Georgia, a focus of Harsha Ram’s comparative study of the literatures of Russia and the Caucasus.


“Abstraction,” when I try out the word on colleagues, often seems to be heard as “apart from real people’s lives,” or even against them. It rings cold, inhumane. And yet if you are working across disparate literary traditions whose very grammatical structures often resist you, you have no choice but to create an intermediary system of your own, neither one nor the other, neither “real” nor divorced from historical realities. You are forced to build scaffolding, to make shapes; you absolutely depend on “abstraction” to bring singularities to life.

It speaks volumes that I feel compelled to note that I am not what many envision as the “comp-lit type,” for whom such scaffolding is only visible through the windows of plush, sheltered rooms. I’ve gotten a sense over the years that a common objection, often unstated but nonetheless present, about comparative literature’s value is that it is simply too rarified, which means in part at least that the discipline is out of the reach of students who lack a very particular sort of privileged background. Admittedly, this is often enough true: I had friends in my doctoral program who had gone to fancy prep schools, or were from the well-off parts of New York City, or had grown up overseas as the children of diplomats or professors. I resented it (not them) every day. But then I also met passionately learned intelligentsia from other countries, and from other academic traditions, that don’t carry nearly the same assumption as Anglo-Americans do that investment in intellectual life for its own sake must be underwritten by socioeconomic privilege.

I genuinely love doing abstraction, in the sense that I have described it here, and I get chills at the very idea of abstraction, too. My own path to a life in comparative literature will seem improbable, and yet so are those of enough other die-hards I know to make it worth considering. I went to a big, struggling, racially diverse public high school in a lower-middle-class city just outside New Haven. My parents, respectively, went to a local two-year community college and a now-defunct for-profit computer-training institute. My father is of (Cuban) Spanish and Scottish descent and spent part of his childhood in a trailer park, after his mother had him at 16. My own mom worked a full-time job, various music gigs, and for a while at a grocery store to help make ends meet when my family declared bankruptcy. Needless to say, I went into the college application process almost completely naive, and I came out of college not just with a B.A. but with a student debt load that still tops $70k. Unlike the stereotypical Ivy League literature student, I worked to carry most of my own costs from the age of 15, assembling cheeseburgers, folding clothes, and holding several part-time jobs in college.

This shouldn’t be relevant, or unusual—it should be a narcissistic exercise in trying to disprove the general with the particular. But somehow it is relevant, because we seem increasingly desperate to believe in an easy path to progressive credibility through writing that announces our progressive bona fides. Unless the criterion for literary studies’ political legitimacy as a discipline is universal accessibility and non-exclusivity, I’m trying to indicate that I give the lie—and I’m not even a little bit alone—to the reactionary, self-aggrandizing social assumptions that flow beneath our disciplinary debates. I experience a unique brand of rage when I see someone challenge what is meant to be an argument, only to be met with a burst of moral one-upmanship.

Likewise, I didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton before attending Yale for graduate school (full disclosure, here). I went to a small liberal arts college that gave me a half-tuition scholarship, and I starting learning Russian, my first language love, from a 1970s CD-ROM I ordered online. But learn it I did, essentially through persistent obsession. Russian, as my gateway drug to comp lit, was not me, not my cause, nor was it glibly “other.” It was, rather, a masterfully laid out network of declensions and diminutives. Language, too, perhaps only rivaled by music theory, is an “abstraction” of a sublimely immediate sort.

All the same, this scholarly investment did stem from something else a lot of people might equally scorn as elitist or exclusive. Here is where I part ways, though: I don’t think every form of exclusiveness must be inherently bad (nor is indiscriminate inclusiveness a good). In studying comparative literature, I was motivated by an out-of-fashion addiction to feeling stupid and infinitely small in order to eventually prove myself as just slightly larger; to anxiously working out the dazzling entanglements of social and philosophical interpenetrations. Reading Tolstoy for the first time was nothing short of a conversion experience to a world whose meanings for me were yet to be determined as good or bad. In just the way that the Partisan Review writers Greif describes aspired to be taken seriously by their French counterparts, I wanted to be able to hold my own with people in Moscow, to earn the right to engage with them on something approaching their terms.

This is what comp lit is to me, then. It is the ongoing head-rush of feeling overwhelmed by forms, before you can begin to reckon with their implications: a feeling, I imagine, that is probably familiar to mathematicians and physicists, too. I suspect that at heart, if you didn’t grow up with hyper-educated parents and a straight path to the École Normale, this is what draws comparatists to do what we do. We cultivate a perennial imposter complex, toggling between a slight sense of superiority vis-à-vis our less-equipped (and better-employed) English department counterparts, and an almost crippling sense of inadequacy in relation to the native speakers on the other end.

This, I think, is the truly democratizing element that’s missing from any account of the relationship between academic and public-intellectual discourse right now. Comparative literature in a real sense has been a “safe space” for many precisely because it is so full of uncharted risk. We could just call this aspiration, I suppose, but it’s really something more like a profound need for approval—for “winnable” insider status. Basically, it is a privileging of the right kind of exclusivity (that is, the labor of having to live with indeterminacy as one acquires hard-won but forever-incomplete knowledge). Many of us live this as a path to a transposable ethics of inhabiting structures rather than adopting stances toward them.

This inclination is in large part wedded to a discipline that demands an appetite for abstraction, rather than an apologetics for it. Maybe what I’m describing is a bracing openness to other places’ most intractable problems, to the sense of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” that so often accompanies deep-seated knowledge of a difficult situation. This necessarily limits the extent to which you can shill for a cause unchecked within your scholarly work: the more you know, and the more multi-angled the problems you are able to discern, the more you are forced to doubt others’ certainties about them.

Of course, appreciating distant epistemological difficulty is, some would object, also a sort of “cause,” and the luxury of the self-assured, secure bystander. The virtues and limitations of this comparatist approach thus point to another and still bigger issue. Comparatist training offered me the closest thing I can imagine to a “pure” intellectual setting, a setting in which aspiring international scholars of Indian, Arabic, Serbian, and various other literatures (along with the usual suspects) would tacitly agree to sit down, for many hours, to work through shared readings and try on every hermeneutics possible for size. It was, in fact, “above” direct political pronouncement more often than not. But the willful embrace of terms-once-removed from a given situation, or a “separate space” in which structures and genealogies have meanings in and of themselves, does not imply that its participants are somehow apolitical. (Far from it, actually.) It simply means that there should be some space for the scholarly enterprise to model a kind of social utopia, in thoughtful partnership with our current urge toward social immediacy.

This will not seem provocative to people used to disciplines with clearer standards of evidence. But literary studies, in so many ways, drives the public intellectual life of small magazines and cultural commentary, and in comparison to, say, sociology, literary critics can say pretty much whatever we want. By this I mean that we don’t rely on survey data (well, these days some do, but it’s usually less than essential); we aren’t required to do field work (though comparatists might); and in world or transnational literary studies, political definitions are often muddled and made fungible by an abstraction more abstract (or possibly just vague) than the sort I am defending: “the political,” “the body,” and the like. They are also often rooted in the present and invoked in a way that’s meant to be self-evident but isn’t. In postcolonial literary studies, for instance, it remains more or less axiomatic that a “development narrative” is shorthand for imperialism of various sorts. It is also often implied, in some quarters, that to criticize highly subjective analytic vocabularies about embodied experience is to somehow deny the dignity of bodies as they exist.

I’m exaggerating a little, perhaps, but not as much as I wish I were. The reason that comparative literature as a discipline, and comparatists as an ad hoc community, somehow escape the intellectual trap of confusing redundant, self-congratulatory polemic with genuinely advancing thought is that, in having to build its own comparative apparatus, the discipline is forced to balance breadth against depth. It can’t escape either geographical reach or philosophical literacy. This is, at its outer reaches, a recipe for something like multicultural dignity, the kind that is achieved rather than avowed, at least in one’s reading and writing.

Ultimately, the seminar room is no microcosm of the wider social world. The activity it is distinctively suited to—the careful, dispassionate examination of phenomena—differs from the kind of practical formation and expression of ethical stances that other, equally vital spaces are most conducive to, spaces like the political rally, the town-hall meeting, the think-tank, and the NGO. This is not to suggest that the conceptual skills we hone in the study are not shaped by our experience outside of it, or that they don’t enrich the many spheres of engagement that exist beyond it. Obviously, they do, and that is a prime part of their value to us. It is, however, to insist both that an argument isn’t sound just because it is sounds good or is politically useful, and that the university, of all places, as an intellectual preserve, should hold firm to this distinction without fear of accusations of political complacency.

The best comparative literature departments today have held firm, and I can tell you it is driving rather than stymying social curiosity in those places. The problem is that there aren’t many of those places left. Which is to say that many of those faux-populist academic submissions Greif was lamenting in his Chronicle essay probably weren’t coming from comparative literature junior faculty members, for the simple reason that so few can find university posts these days.


[1] As the University of Chicago’s Haun Saussy puts it, “Comparatists will have to stand up for themselves in the next ten years, first by championing the so-called national language departments without which comparative literature will not survive except as a label for general-education literature-in-translation courses.”


Bio Pic

Jeanne-Marie Jackson is Assistant Professor of world Anglophone literature at Johns Hopkins, and received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale. Her first book, South African Literature’s Russian Soul, was published in late 2015. She is currently at work on a new project called The Transnational Novel of Ideas, and has work published or forthcoming in n+1, Bookslut, Africa in Words, Public Books, and The Literary Review.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 5th, 2016.