Literature Department Chair Named

Last weekend, two thousand speakers from 50 countries, including Kyrgyzstan and Singapore, gathered at Harvard for the 2009 American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting, “Global Languages, Local Cultures.”

And while such an international crowd may not be foreign to Harvard, it was once to this field.

Comparative literature was for decades a conservative discipline that focused mostly on Western Europe, but it has recently expanded to include the study of world literatures. Conference co-organizer and Visiting Professor David N. Damrosch, who knows twelve languages, ranging from Nahuatl to Egyptian Hieroglyphics, has been at the vanguard of the transformation, and has served as the general editor of the six-volume Longman Anthology of World Literature.

This fall, he will leave Columbia, where he as taught for almost three decades, to take over as chair of Harvard’s Department of Literature and Comparative Literature. He says he hopes to encourage concentrators to study world languages and to increase the offerings of world literature courses to undergraduates.

Comparative Literature and University Professor Stephen Owen praised his new colleague.

“He brings expertise and fame, and he’s a very good teacher,” Owen said, adding that Damrosch holds a leadership position in the field of world literature at a time when it is flourishing.

Damrosch says he decided to move to Harvard, where he joins his English professor brother Leo Damrosch, in part because of “the exciting opportunity to help remake the department at a decisive new juncture.” According to Owen, the graduate program in comparative literature merged with the undergraduate concentration in literature three years ago, while he was still chair. Prior to the merger, the two programs had no tenure-track faculty of their own. In the fall, there will be four.

As Damrosch assumes control, he says he hopes to expose Harvard students to world literature from the beginning of their undergraduate education, through courses such as Literature 10 and 11, the two-semester introduction to world literature he taught this year, and will continue to teach in 2009-2010.

Pelin Kivrak ’11, a literature concentrator in Damrosch’s class this semester, praised the professor’s teaching style. “He acts out every part of the plays he teaches,” she says. “When we read British texts, he speaks with a British accent, and with Russian texts, a Russian accent.” Kivrak, a native of Turkey, said that she hopes that more classes in world literatures will be offered to undergraduates.

In addition to teaching, Damrosch says he plans to listen to the concerns of students and faculty as he considers possible changes in the undergraduate curriculum. “Right now the emphasis has been more on literary theory, not so much on language study,” he says. Damrosch says he believes theory can be studied together with works of literature, and favors more departmental encouragement of language study.

Damrosch says he loves to find unexpected connections between distant writers. The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, a recent publication that was his first book for a popular audience, called on the examination of cultural linkages as a response to the Iraq War. “I was impatient with the loose talk about a clash of civilizations,” he says. “I show that if you go back far enough, there is one civilization.”

Damrosch has also written frequently about teaching world literature. “I have a very evangelical feeling about this literature,” he says. “It is a creative area to work in, where rhetoric hits the road.”

­—Staff writer Alex McLeese can be reached at