Skip to main content

Literary Communities and Literary Worlds

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - LCLW (Literary Communities and Literary Worlds)

Reporting period: 2019-02-01 to 2020-01-31

Literary Communities and Literary Worlds (LCLW) is a project about the nature of and relationship between community, labour and belonging. At a time of increasing nativism and nationalism, it considers the fates of several mid-twentieth century authors who moved from one literary community to another. By tracking their efforts, and by connecting these with a host of other agents and institutions – publishers, editors, little magazines, book series, universities, writers’ groups – LCLW tells a story about the conditions of literary production and reception; about the horizons of expectation and possibility from which works emerge and which determine their meanings; and about the literary world of the mid-twentieth century.

Telling this story has involved developing two strands of research, each focused on a particular set of authors, and making use of a different conceptual lens. The first strand adopts Pierre Bourdieu’s model of the ‘literary field’, and examines the trajectories and practices of Vladimir Nabokov and Denise Levertov, all of whom succeeded in gaining entry to the American literary field, having begun their careers in the German, Russian and British fields respectively. This makes it possible to distinguish between citizenship and the kind of belonging achieved within a community of practice, and to trace the costs and demands of such belonging. It also makes it possible to identify the peculiar dimensions of, as well as the relationships between, the fields from which they departed and the one into which they arrived, and thus to build a picture of the structure of the literary world in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s – a period shaped by crises and conflicts whose shadows loom over those of the present.

The second strand of research begins with Theodor Adorno's notion of ‘literary material’, and considers a different set of authors: Richard Wright, Peter Abrahams, Guy Butler and Kamau Brathwaite. All four incorporated West African aesthetic materials into signal works of the 1950s and 1960s, and all encountered West African artists and intellectuals. IBut only Brathwaite seems to have made any real effort to engage with a West African community of letters. The trajectories of these authors open up a line of inquiry into the nature and portability of literary materials, and bring into view the differences between literary communities that are capable of enforcing submission to their codes, and those which may be treated simply as sites of material extraction.

From the outset, LCLW has had four primary research objectives. To advance an understanding of literary context by uncovering the dynamics of particular literary communities of the mid-twentieth century; to develop a comprehensive and detailed theory of the literary world, by identifying forms of literary community and by establishing the relationship between them; to contribute to the understanding of literature after 1945, and especially literature of the Cold War and of exile, by offering innovative readings of authors and works that are otherwise kept apart; and, above all, to determine the importance of literary practice and literary institutions to these communities, by and elucidating various strategies of integration and belonging.

These objectives have been largely met, albeit in sometimes unexpected ways. What has emerged over the course of the research is a sense of the literary world that is more multi-dimensional than the one with which the project began, and more attuned to structural inequalities governing the transnational dimensions of cultural production. This has been essential to one of the project’s principal achievements: the development of a methodology for a world literary criticism.
Work undertaken during the project has consisted of research into a range of methodological questions: how we theorize the literary world and transnational movement of authors, texts and materials; how we conceive communities of practice; and how we model a world literary criticism. Across both strands, work has also involved research into the lives, careers and practices of the central authors, and of other significant individuals and institutions (peers, periodicals, publishers, editors and intercessors). To these ends, I have drawn on published biographical and autobiographical accounts and volumes of correspondence; previous critical studies; extensive archival research; and original analyses of primary texts.

Findings have been disseminated through a range of activities and publications, including the following

• Zimbler, J. (2021). Working Conditions: World Literary Criticism and the Material of A. K. Mehrotra. In: F. Giusti and B. Robinson, eds., The Work of World Literature. Berlin: Institute for Cultural Inquiry.

• Bower, R. and Zimbler, J., eds. (2020). Materials of African Literatures, a Special Issue of The Cambridge Quarterly, 49 (3).

• Zimbler, J. and Bower, R. (2020). On the Making of African Literatures. The Cambridge Quarterly, 49(3), pp. 193-211.

• Materials of African Literatures (2019). CLEMT/DASA Workshop. University of Birmingham. 2nd May.

• Zimbler, J. (2019). Making it in America: Kipling’s Captains Courageous. Kipling Society Lecture. 11th September.

• Zimbler, J. (2018). ‘Transposed to a Strange Key’: Stefan Heym’s Entry into the American Literary Field. Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature Seminar, University of Minnesota. 26th October.

• Etherington, B. and Zimbler, J., eds. (2018). The Cambridge Companion to World Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

• Zimbler, J. (2018). Literary Worlds and Literary Fields. In: B. Etherington and J. Zimbler, eds., The Cambridge Companion to World Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 69-84.

• Zimbler, J. (2018). Literary Tourism in Pre-Independence West Africa: Travel as Constellation and Point of Departure. African Studies Seminar, Institute of African Studies, Emory University. 8th February.
LCLW was conceived as a means of addressing debates within the disciplines of world and comparative literature, and of developing my research skills and subject knowledge. It has done this and more. Through my secondments, it has allowed me to experience the research culture of a large American public university, and to acquire skills in archiving and preservation, as well as first-hand knowledge of the operations and challenges of a community-based cultural organisation; and it has also presented an opportunity for the University of Birmingham and the University of Illinois at Chicago to strengthen a previously existing relationship. In supporting exploratory research and high-level training, LCLW has also dramatically enhanced my career prospects, my network of collaborators and interlocutors, and the scope and ambition of my research and teaching. In addition to the papers, talks, events and publications outlined above, it has enabled me to develop two distinct but related book projects: Coming to America: Mid-Century American Literature and its Place in the World and African Horizons: Literary Prospecting on the Gold Coast. Work on these volumes will continue over the coming years. Taken together, they aim to make lasting step-change contributions to world literary studies, as well as to comparative literary studies, American literary studies, African literary studies, migration and diasporic studies, and mid-century and Cold War studies.