Campus & Community

Damrosch named professor of comparative literature

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David Damrosch, a scholar of world literature, has been appointed professor of comparative literature in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), effective July 1, 2009.

Damrosch, 56, was previously professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He was visiting professor of comparative literature at Harvard for the 2008-09 academic year.

“Professor Damrosch embraces a sweeping range of literature to find detailed connections across space and time,” said Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities in FAS. “He moves easily between languages and genres, linking history and culture to interrogate and re-imagine the study of world literature. We are delighted that he will join the community of scholars in the Department of Literature and Comparative Literature.”

Damrosch writes on a range of literature, from the ancient era to the modern; he works in a dozen languages, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, Nahuatl, and Old Norse. He is primarily interested in literary history and the way in which texts come to enter the modern construct known as “world literature.” Damrosch argues that world literature should be understood as a “mode of global circulation and reading,” rather than a specific set of texts. He has authored several books on the topic, including “What Is World Literature?” (Princeton University Press, 2003) and “How to Read World Literature” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

In “What Is World Literature?” Damrosch presents an array of literary “case studies” to discuss how works evolve as they cross national and historical boundaries. He finds that world literature gains in the process of translation, as texts move between cultural spheres. “How to Read World Literature” presents a set of critical tools for engagement with a variety of genres, including poetry, drama, and prose fiction.

Of all the texts he has studied, Damrosch has a special affinity for “Gilgamesh,” a celebrated epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia. The poem, written in cuneiform on clay tablets, is often taken as the starting point for studies of world literature. In 2007, Damrosch published a comprehensive history of the epic, titled “The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh” (Holt Paperbacks).

Damrosch is co-editor of “The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature: From the European Enlightenment to the Global Present,” forthcoming from Princeton University Press. He is currently at work on a study of global scripts and the formation of national literatures.

Damrosch received his B.A. (1975) and Ph.D. (1980) from the Department of Comparative Literature at Yale University. He taught at Columbia University from 1980 until the present, and served as chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature from 1996 to 1999. From 2001 to 2003, he was president of the American Comparative Literature Association.