Literature, Colonialism, and the Nobel Prize: W.B. Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore
How are literary reputations made—and kept? How, and why, do certain writers achieve lasting literary fame, as others fall into obscurity? The poets Rabindranath Tagore and W.B. Yeats met at a dinner party in London, a meeting that came to be known in literary circles as the “Tagore Evening.” Their literary friendship would go on to produce not just fruitful translations, collaborative writings, lectures, and even theater productions, but would lead to two Nobel Prizes in literature: the first to Tagore in 1913, and the second to Yeats a decade later in 1923. One hundred years on, Tagore remains an iconic figure in South Asian literature. But in the West, his fame has been dismissed as a “craze”—Thomas Hardy called it “practically a production of Yeats”—and his readership has dwindled. Given the diverging fates of Yeats and Tagore’s Western reputations, two questions arise: what counts as canon, and how do canonical judgements, particularly cross-culturally, get made? Is Tagore’s poetry “world literature”? Is Yeats’s—and if not, why not? How does a writer from the global South become “obscure?”
In this course, we’ll explore questions of literary reputation, obscurity, and representation alongside themes of postcolonial translation, authorship, and voice. We’ll read Yeats’ introduction to Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning Gitanjali, Yeats’ translation of Tagore’s Daak Ghar (Post Office), the two writers’ correspondence, and archival material from the Nobel Prize committee itself, in order to rethink the politics of representation and to ask: how can we think about postcolonial “critical intimacies” and radical friendships? We will also read some of Tagore’s radical critiques of colonialism and nationalism—writings largely ignored by a Western framing that instead emphasizes his “spirituality.” How can we understand the politics of literary fame and representation? What does it have to do with the market imperatives of contemporary publishing? What would it mean, as a literary public, to “reclaim” Tagore?
Course ScheduleSunday, 3:00-6:00pm EST
March 13 — April 03, 2022