Current Research Projects


Herder - Goethe - Scott
A literary approach to the connection of globalization and locul cultural identity



In the late twenties of the nineteenth century Johann Wolfgang Goethe coins the term Weltliteratur and develops a concept of cultural globalization. This concept arises as a result of his critical perception of a modernisation that defines itself as an economic development of the world and homogenises local differences. In contrast to this Goethe stresses the value of local rooms of identification as basis for an intercultural exchange. His concept considers the contact with foreigners as a valuable broadening of one's own horizon, not as a threat.

Literature is an important element of this concept. Goethe takes up and elaborates a cultural theory developed by Johann Gottfried Herder during the eighteenseventies. According to this theory the peculiarities of a region and its people are expressed in their literature and the best way of getting to know them is communicating in a literary way.

The Scottish author Walter Scott wrote a number of novels - the Scotch Novels - which describe efforts to protect a local cultural identity. They deal with the struggle of the Scottish peoples against hegemonic attempts of the English.

Those novels will be in the centre of my interdisciplinary research project. They will be analysed and interpreted within the context of Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur - in order to reconstruct this concept and evaluate in how far it can show a way into a modernisation different from the one we know.



In the last twenty years of his life Johann Wolfgang Goethe devotes a great deal of his time to the literatures of foreign peoples. The conditions are favourable: Weimar as the most important place for German intellectuals with Goethe in its centre is a major attraction for artists, scientists and politicians from all over the world. They all come to the Haus am Frauenplan to communicate with a famous author. Moreover, a continually expanding book-market makes an increasing number of foreign texts available, some in the original version, the predominant part as translations. The great pleasure in translation in the century of Goethe[1] produces a growing distribution of texts of foreign literatures on which Goethe can fall back. Goethe shapes the contact with these texts as a literary dialogue, an intercultural communication. He integrates features from the foreign literatures into his own literary production and in this way creates something new. The most famous work created like that is the cycle West-östlicher Divan, published in 1819.

Besides the practical work as an artist Goethe also develops a theoretical approach about how to deal with literary texts of foreign cultures. The journal Über Kunst und Altertum, edited by Goethe, becomes the most important forum to discuss this topic. It is in this journal, where Goethe both elaborates and practices his concept of intercultural literature and literary cultural exchange. And it is there, where in 1827 this concept receives a name. »Everywhere, one hears and reads about the progress of the human race, about the further prospect of the world's and the people's terms. However it may be in its entirety, which to examine and determine is notmy duty, I do want my friends to notice that I am convinced there is coming up a general Weltliteratur[2]

There is a fundamental difference between Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur and today's general meaning of the term world-literature. Goethe is neither interested in creating a global canon of immortal masterpieces, nor in a literature, that claims a universal recognition. On the contrary, Goethe's idea of an upcoming Weltliteratur finds the value of literary texts not in a global, but in a local, not in a general, but in a particular meaning.

The basis of this concept is a certain knowledge about the relation between literature and culture. Goethe wins this knowledge as a young man and later on he develops and elaborates it. According to this knowledge, the cultural identity of a people finds its expression in their literature, and from this point of view Goethe tries to understand it. His concept of Weltliteratur wants to push forward the communication between different cultures, transcending linguistic, ethnic and national borders. It is a concept of cultural heterogeneity. In a letter to Thomas Carlyle, with whom he constantly discusses this topic, Goethe writes in 1827: »It is obvious, that the endeavour of the best poets and aesthetic writers of all nations since a long time is directed towards a general humanism. Transcending both nationality and individuality, this general aspect of human life will always show through any peculiarities, they may be historic, mythological, fairy-story-like, more or less arbitrarily devised. [...] If there is something in the literature of any nation that points to this general humanity, it is this, that all others ought to acquire. One has to learn about the peculiarities of each of them, only to leave it to them and to communicate with them in just this way. Actually, the peculiarities of a nation are like its language and its currency. They make communication easier, in fact they enable communication in the first place. [...] A real general toleration most certainly will be achieved, if the peculiarities of any human being and any people are left as they are and if one sticks to the conviction that the really estimable features belong to the whole mankind.«[3]

If Goethe searches something general he looks at the particular, and such a particular can be found in the work of Walter Scott. For the first time Goethe mentions this Scottish author in 1821. He gets to know him as the author of Kenilworth, a novel published in that year. Within the next years Goethe continues reading Scott. He reads The Fair Maid of Perth, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and Waverley, »which without a doubt can be put side by side with the best works ever written in the world.«[4] In 1827 Goethe and Scott start a correspondence, which is continued until Goethe dies. The last letter written to Scott dates from 10 March 1832.

Scott for his part meets the German literature in his early days. His favourite reading are romantic novels and poems. John Sutherland mentions in his biography of Scott, that Scott once declared he had almost been »German mad«[5] during the nineties of the 18. century. During his time at university he employs a German teacher, and he reads Goethe's Werther. In 1796 Scott translates ballads of Gottfried August Bürger and, in 1797, Goethe's Erlkönig. A translation of Götz von Berlichingen follows in 1799.

Scott is not yet known in Germany at this time. His continental success only starts with his historical novels. Scott is regarded as the inventor of this narrative form, and Goethe perceives him in this way, too. »Walter Scott is considered to be the master of this subject. He took advantage of choosing important, but little known regions, half-missing occurrences, peculiarities in manners, customs and habits, put them up ingeniously and in this way provided his small half-true worlds with interest and applause.«[6]

This is, what connects the novels of Walter Scott with Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur: »important, but little known regions, half-missing occurrences, peculiarities in manners, customs and habits.« He does not mean any kind of absurdity, a collection of strange stories recommending themselves to an interest in exotic phenomenons. What Goethe is talking about are local conditions, particular in each case, which form a cultural identity. It is the local shape of Scott's novels, especially his Scotch Novels, the peculiarity of the characters, the way they think, act and speak, that establishes Scott's reputation as a decidedly Scottish author. And this is the reason, why those novels can be considered as Weltliteratur in the sense of Goethe. They give an insight into the cultural identity of the Scottish people, enable the German reader Goethe to understand this foreign identity, and this understanding modifies his view upon his own culture 

In a letter to his friend Zelter Goethe outlines his idea of an intercultural learning process. As an example he takes a work of Walter Scott, not a novel, but The Life of Napoleon, a historic-political study of the Napoleon-era. Goethe reads the original version of this book in 1827 and he recommends it to Zelter, because in this book Scott examines and assesses the time following the French Revolution from a perspective different to the German point of view. »The way he expresses his opinion from his political-national viewpoint, the way he looks across the channel and takes a stand on this and that different to the perspective of our limited continental position, this is a new experience to me, a new world insight and -prospect.«[7]

Intercultural learning in the sense of Goethe means to take a look at a foreign identity, in order to understand it, and with a horizon broadened by this experience to go back and get a new insight into one's own cultural peculiarity. In the light of this experience the peculiarity will turn out to look different.

Not only the writing of the historian Scott is particularly well suited for making an experience like that, but also his literary work. The literary historian and Goethe-biographer Friedrich Gundolf emphasises in an essay he wrote on Goethe and Walter Scott (posthumously published in 1932) that it is one of Scott's most exceptional achievements that he transferred »the historic sense itself [...] from philosophy and science to literature, not as the first, but most continuously and, giving a great mass of tempting details, with the widest success.« And Gundolf specifies historic sense as »the gift to cope with phenomenons determined by space and time as what they are and not merely as carriers of unchangeable commands of god or general aims of the human race. It is the gift to imagine the irreplaceable individuals in terms of the laws of duration and change taking into account their irretrievable regions, traditional costumes, manners.«[8]

Gundolf speaks of phenomenons determined by space and time. Therefore, he allocates Scott's historical novels an approach to history that does not assume a continuous proceeding global historic development and does not regard local differences as different stages of development (Ungleichzeitigkeit). This approach considers history as local history. The cultural identity of all ethnic communities is regarded as a unique and equally valuable peculiarity.

The endeavour to perceive and to understand such local peculiarities is the special thing about Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur. This concept can be seen as an alternative not only to a globalization of literature, but to globalization in general. Goethe's concept in this way extends into politics and into the social system. According to today's experience it is of great value, as it can help us to understand a dialectical development that shapes the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century: an economic, social and political  globalization on the one side - bringing about a world-wide digital high-speed capitalism and the development of transnational political institutions  - and on the other side a renaissance of ethnic thinking and acting - presenting itself as a sometimes even militant nationalism (the latest military clashes in the Balkans and in the former Soviet Union are impressive examples) or in a form that can be described, as the Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall (University of Birmingham) suggests, as a new ethnicism. Hall means the acknowledgement that we all own a local ethnic identity with a particular historical and cultural background that determines our idea of what we are.[9]

Globalization homogenises local differences and blurs the contours of cultural identity. But apparently, there is a need for a local identity and the more it is threatened in its continual existence the more it pushes forward.

Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur is based on a thought that wants to promote a »free intellectual trade«[10]. It stands up for a globalization without any intention to homogenise the cultural identity of local communities, but rather respects it in its peculiarity and tries to preserve cultural diversity. On the basis of selected novels of Walter Scott, this concept of intercultural learning and mutual understanding could be reconstructed and possibly revived.

The Scotch Novels seem to be most suitable for this approach. The Scottish history can be seen as an age-long up and down between autonomy and heteronomy. The cultural identity of the Scottish people was permanently threatened and for several times had to be defended against hegemonic attempts to force it into line. The history of this fight against the foreign domination of the English can be found in Scott's novels, which in this way argues in favour of a maintenance of a cultural identity of the Scottish people.

Within this context Waverley, published in 1814, is of central importance, because the eponymous hero stands between his sense of belonging to the Scottish people and the loyalty to the English occupying power he is serving for. But also Kenilworth (1816), The Legend of Montrose (1819) and Redgauntlet (1824) belong to this group of novels, in which Scott in a literary way reflects the disputes developing over political autonomy and the maintenance of a separate cultural identity.

In the context of Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur it would be worthwhile to make an intercultural connection between those novels and some of Goethe's texts, dealing with local collective identity and heteronomy. In Egmont, Iphigenie auf Tauris, Hermann und Dorothea and in Part Two of Faust several passages can be found, which touch this topic. At best it would be possible to make clear that a local cultural identity is highly significant as a basis of an anxiety-free communication between foreigners. In this way one could hope to get a new »world insight and -prospect.«


Method of Proceeding

The described research project is oriented towards Goethe's concept of Weltliteratur. But it has no intention to present this concept as a theory and merely illustrate it with some novels of Walter Scott. Instead of this, a comparative study of selected literary texts written by two authors having a different cultural background is supposed to be the focus of attention. These texts contain drafts of society, which are to be interpreted and brought into relationship with the aid of the concept of Weltliteratur. The knowledge of this concept is a result of the already done preliminary work. The object of those efforts will be to discover, to what extend these selected texts show similarities in view to their basic opinion on the context of literature and culture, on the importance of local cultural identity and on the value of intercultural communication to a cultural diversity, which is threatened by the globalization process.

The starting point of a project like this cannot be a thesis. It will not be an aim of the study to scientifically prove an assertion set up before the reading, but it wants to try to understand literary texts and, in the light of the readers' changing social experiences, sharpen the awareness. The research project wants to explore literary drafts of society from a new perspective by reading them accurately, analysing them and bringing them into a general context.

An intercultural and interdisciplinary research project, whose aim is to explore the relationship between literature and cultural identity cannot limit the reception of literary texts to an aesthetic reception. It has to take into account knowledge, made available by Politics, Humanities and Social Sciences. Especially research in the field of Cultural Studies will be of great significance to push forward the envisaged project.

Attention has to be paid to theoretical approaches of cultural sociology like, for example, Stuart Hall has developed. The reception of this theory belongs to the groundwork for the project, which is already done. But, as far as it is of importance to a comparative analysis of the selected works, research specific to the local peculiarities has to be taken into account. To ensure this, it will be necessary to get into contact with the local department of Scottish Studies.


Select Bibliography


Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London 1991

Anderson, James: Sir Walter Scott and history, with other papers (Edinburgh 1981)

Anderson, W. E. K. (ed.): The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (Oxford 1972)

Bauman, Zygmunt: Moderne und Ambivalenz. Das Ende der Eindeutigkeit. Hamburg 1991

Boyle, Nicholas: Goethe. Der Dichter in seiner Zeit, vol. 1: 1749-1790 (München 1995), vol. 2: 1791-1803 (München 1999)

Eckermann, Johann Peter: Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, ed. Fritz Bergemann (Frankfurt/M. 31987)

Fontane, Theodor: Wanderungen durch England und Schottland, ed. Hans-Heinrich Reuter, 2 vol. (Berlin 21991)

Gamerschlag, Kurt: Sir Walter Scott und die Waverley Novels. (Darmstadt 1978)

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang: Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, ed. Dieter Borchmeyer et al., Frankfurter Ausgabe. (Frankfurt/M. 1985-1999)

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang: Schriften zur Weltliteratur, ed. Horst Günther (Frankfurt/M. 1987)

Goethes Briefe, ed. Karl Robert Mandelkow. Hamburger Ausgabe (München 1988)

Goethes Gespräche, Eine Sammlung zeitgenössischer Berichte aus seinem Umgang auf Grund der Ausgabe und des Nachlasses von Flodoard Freiherrn von Biedermann, ed. Wolfgang Herwig (Zürich, Stuttgart 1965-84)

Goethes Werke, ed. Erich Trunz. Hamburger Ausgabe. (München 1982)

Goethes Werke, ed. im Auftrag der Großherzogin Sophie von Sachsen. Weimarer Ausgabe (Weimar 1887-1919)

Gundolf, Friedrich: Goethe und Walter Scott. In: Die Neue Rundschau 43, vol. 1 (1932), pp. 490

Halbwachs, Maurice: Das kollektive Gedächtnis. Frankfurt/M. 1991

Hall, Stuart: Ausgewählte Schriften, ed. Nora Räthzel (Hamburg; Berlin 1989)

Hall, Stuart: Rassismus und kulturelle Identität, ed. Ulrich Mehlem et al. (Hamburg 1994)

Hall, Stuart: Cultural Studies. Ein politisches Theorieprojekt. Ausgewählte Schriften 3, ed. Nora Räthzel (Hamburg 2000)

Hansen, Volkmar (ed.): "Europa, wie Goethe es sah", Ausstellungskatalog des Goethe-Museums Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf 1999)

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Hewitt, David: Sir Walter Scott and Society. (Aberdeen 1969)

Hewitt, David: What Should We Do about Scott's Letters? In: Scottish Literary News 2, Nr 1 (1971), pp. 3

Hewitt, David (ed.): Scott on himself: a selection of the autobiographical writings of Sir Walter Scott. (Edinburgh 1981)

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Kreutzer, Leo: "WELTLITERATUR!" Weltliteratur? Zur kulturpolitischen Diskussion eines verfänglichen Begriffs. In: Welfengarten. Jahrbuch für Essayismus 6 (1996), pp. 213

Lauber, John: Sir Walter Scott (Boston 1989)

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Lukács, Georg: The historical Novel. (Harmondsworth 1969)

Mayer, Hans: Weltliteratur. Studien und Versuche (Frankfurt/M. 1994)

McMaster, Graham: Scott and Society. (Cambridge 1981)

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Muschg, Walter / Staiger, Emil (ed.): Weltliteratur. Festgabe für Fritz Strich zum 70. Geburtstag (Bern 1952)

Reitemeier, Frauke: Deutsch-englische Literaturbeziehungen. Der historische Roman Sir Walter Scotts und seine deutschen Vorläufer. Paderborn 2001

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[1] The subtitle of an exhibition catalogue from the Deutsches Literaturarchiv im Schiller-Nationalmuseum, that gives evidence of the growing importance of translations in the 18. and the beginning of the 19. century.  Zeller, Bernd (ed.): Weltliteratur. Die Lust am Übersetzen im Jahrhundert Goethes. (Marbach 1982)

[2] Über Kunst und Altertum. Sechsten Bandes erstes Heft. In: Goethes Werke. Hamburger Ausgabe, ed. Erich Trunz, vol. 12 (Munich 1994), p.361

[3] Letter to Thomas Carlyle. In: Goethes Briefe, ed. Karl Robert Mandelkow, vol. 4 (Munich 1988), pp. 236

[4] Goethe to Eckermann. In: Eckermann, Johann Peter: Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, ed. Fritz Bergemann (Frankfurt/M. 31987), p. 269

[5] Sutherland, John: The Life of Walter Scott. A Critical Biography (Oxford 1995), p. 43

[6] Goethe in his introduction to Don Alonzo ou l'Espagne by N. A. Salvandy . In: Goethes Werke. Herausgegeben im Auftrage der Großherzogin Sophie von Sachsen. part I., vol. 41.2, (Weimar 1893), p. 126

[7] Letter to Karl Friedrich Zelter. In: Goethes Briefe, ed. Karl Robert Mandelkow, op. cit., p. 262

[8] Gundolf, Friedrich: Goethe und Walter Scott. In: Die Neue Rundschau 43, vol. 1 (1932), p. 490

[9] Cf.: Hall, Stuart: Neue Ethnizitäten. In: Rassismus und kulturelle Identität (Hamburg 1994)

[10] Goethe in his introduction to The Life of Schiller by Thomas Carlyle (Frankfurt/M 1830). In: Goethes Werke. Hamburger Ausgabe, op. cit., vol. 12. p. 364