Comparative Literature, Modern Thought and Literature


Albert J. Guérard

In thinking about this article I have come to realize how much my father Albert L. Guérard influenced my approach to literary studies. He, not I, should be writing this article. He would have been witty, paradoxical, and irreverent. He wrote this in 1958 in an article entitled “Comparative Literature?”: “Comparative Literature?  I have been a comparatist all my academic life, under several different titles, and in four different departments; and in this faith I hope to die. My attachment to the principle of Comparative Literature gives me the right to express my opinion that the term Comparative Literature is useless, dangerous, and ought to abolished.” [1] He regretted that the term denotes “the foreign relations of national literatures” and therefore encourages the very chauvinistic concept of national literatures that it might seek to correct.

Literary studies and writing novels represent nine-tenths of my intellectual life. My father’s was infinitely richer. His liberalism and scorn for jingoistic patriotism were formed by the Dreyfus Case and the Boer War. A distaste for all forms of nationalism led to his study of international languages (A Short History of the International Language Movement, 1921), to his work on the Committee to Frame a World Constitution chaired by Robert Hutchins, [2] and, as one of the motives, to his leaving a professorship and chair of French at Rice to become Professor of General and Comparative Literature at Stanford in 1925. It also determined his lifelong commitment to democratic, not dogmatic, socialism and to his advocacy of a united Europe (Europe Free and United, 1945). He remained in many ways very French, and the interpretation of French thought and French politics constitutes the large share of his writings. [3] All the while, for more than fifty years in America, he remained intensely Parisian. His work in city planning (L'Avenir de Paris, Paris, Payot, 1929) was a labor of love, as were his many articles published in Urbanisme, honored there in a memorial editorial: “Aucun de nos lecteurs n’a oublié tous ceux que nous avons publiés depuis vingt ans. Que de conseils judicieux, que de propos pertinents! Comme il était attentif à nos problemes, à la manière dont nous les abordions .... D’une magnifique écriture, pétillant d’esprit, éminemment constructif.” [4]

A distaste for the excesses of Germanic scholarship and philology is the burden of one of his early articles, “L’Enseignement supérieur du français aux États-Unis.” [5] He had been agrégé ranked first in French and English literature, and was distressed, when interviewed at the MLA, to be asked at which German university he had studied French literature. He noted that in one prestigious American university, not named, all the advanced courses in French were in Old French, in another six of seven, in another three of four. The library of one of the richest universities in the world, again unnamed, though “bien équipée pour la philologie romane ... ne contenait, l’année dernière, rien des auteurs suivants: Agrippa d’Aubigné, Regnier, Bossuet, Montesquieu, Taine, Renan, Michelet.” [6] No doubt “the philological ring” (strong at Stanford when he was assistant professor there, 1907-13) were among the first words I heard at the breakfast table. The general inadequacy of French studies in America led to “une incompréhension de la France moderne inexcusable” and to “une indifférence presque incroyable pour notre meilleure littérature.” [7] Amusingly he attributed the Germanic influence in part to population: “Dix millions d’Allemands ou de demi-Allemands aux États-Unis, qui ont germanisé l’enseignement supérieur, contre cent mille Français, dont beaucoup sont des excentriques, des ratés, des aventuriers. Et, il faut le dire aussi, la plus grande hospitalité des universités allemandes, leur vie corporative plus active et plus attrayante, leurs diplômes à la fois faciles et prestigieux.” [8]

My father had long been restless in French departments (Williams, 1906-7, Stanford 1907-13, Rice 1913-24, UCLA 1924-25) and when invited back to Stanford in 1925 came as professor of General and Comparative Literature. As such he was attached to the English department, although each quarter teaching one course in French and from time to time advanced courses cross-listed in history: “Reflections on the Napoleonic Legend” and “The Spirit of ’48.” By “general literature” he meant what might be called applied theory: the study of all the social and other forces that affect literary creation, the classification of literary works, the concepts of period and genre, all the influences that transcend nationality. He developed new courses: a nominally elementary “The International Study of Literature” (with each student choosing the classics in translation he would read), a seminar on International Literature (language and national psychology, effects of polyglottism, problems of translation, etc.) and advanced courses on “Types of Criticism,” “Art for Art’s Sake,” and “Literature and Society.” Two of these led to books of theory (Literature and Society [1935], Art for Art’s Sake [1936], and a basic and comprehensive Preface to World Literature [1940]).

These books, full of witty and (for American readers) often elusive allusion, lack the power, depth, and ultimate seriousness of his writings on French history and international relations, but they are rich in wide-ranging, skeptical, often paradoxical insights. They delight in advancing, then nimbly demolishing familiar categories and assumptions, and are far indeed from the deadly seriousness of much literary theory of the last twenty years. The study of ideas, he argued, was essential to a mature appreciation of literature, but informed unpedantic love of literature was the ultimate objective. A recent article by Sholhom J. Ehan, “Albert Léon Guérard (1880-1959): The Styles of a Humanist,” praises these books: “In terms of intellectual culture and excitement they seem almost like a lost Paradise, from which we have since departed—if not necessarily in all ways ‘declined.’” [9] An early article by Margaret L. Hartley, “The Courageous Idiosyncrasy of Albert Guérard,” [10] assesses more general qualities of mind and usefully complements Khan’s.

My father was a superb linguist (and tried to read each month a book in four or more languages, reviewing many of them for the New York Herald-Tribune Sunday Books or for Books Abroad). But he was a strong proponent of literature in translation. He preferred the term World Literature (the study of great books from whatever source) to Comparative Literature, but his ultimate preference was for the broadest possible term for literary studies: Literature. When David Packard endowed a Stanford chair in his honor it was given the title: “Albert L. Guérard Professor of Literature,” with the understanding that it could float among literary departments.


1. Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature No. 7, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1958, 1-‑6. See also “The Quick and the Dead: ‘English’ or ‘Literature’?” Supplement to The CEA Critic XIII (February 1951), No. 2, 1-8. “Beyond the limits of this vast Republic, we should take in, not merely English literature, but all literature in English, and all great literature wherever found. Our domain ignores political, racial, linguistic boundaries. It is not national, but human: homo sum. Art is that which enhances the consciousness of life; and in literature, we recognize only two divisions, not the ancient and the modern, not the home-grown and the foreign, but the quick and the dead.” Op. cit., 2.

2. Preliminary Draft of a World Constitution, proposed and signed by Robert M. Hutchins, G. A. Borgese, Mortimer J. Adler, Stringfellow Barr, Albert Guérard, Harold A. Innis, Erich Kahler, Wilber G. Katz, Charles H. McIlwain, Robert Redfield, Rexford G. Tuxwell; in Common Cause: A Monthly Report of the Committee to Frame a World Constitution, Vol. I (March 1948), No. 9, 321-360.

3. To increase American understanding of France was the intention of hundreds of articles and reviews and at least a part of the intention of his eleven books on French history, from French Prophets of Yesterday (1913) to France: A Modern History (1959).

4. Urbanisme: Revue Française, 29e. Année, No. 66, unpaginated.

5. Revue Internationale de L’Enseignement (Paris 1908), 5-11.

6. Op. cit., 7.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 65 (Summer 1989), no. 3, 454-472.

10. Southwest Review 45 (Autumn 1960) No. 8, unpaginated.

SOURCE: Guérard, Albert J. “Comparative Literature, Modern Thought and Literature,” in Building a Profession: Autobiographical Perspectives on the History of Comparative Literature in the United States, edited by Lionel Gossman and Mihai I. Spariosu (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), Chapter 8, pp. 89-97. This excerpt (beginning of essay & endnotes, about author’s father), pp. 89-91, 96-97. Balance of essay concerns the author’s own career.

A Short History of the International Language Movement (1921)
by Albert Léon Guérard

Esperanto in the Anglophone Scholarly Literature of ‘World Literature’?
compiled by R. Dumain

Anna Balakian on misbegotten intertextuality

‘World Literature’: A Bibliography

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Esperanto-Gvidilo (kun interlingvistiko)

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography


Albert J. Guerard - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Albert Léon Guérard - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Albert Léon Guérard (1880-1959): the Styles of a Humanist
by Sholom J. Kahn

Preface to World Literature by Albert Léon Guérard

A Short History of the International Language Movement
by Albert Léon Guérard

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