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Department: Comparative Literature

Remnick Comparative Literature

David Remnick ’81

Writer and Editor, The New Yorker

Examining life through literature

Like anyone who thinks about majoring in comparative literature, the Wondering Sophomore will likely encounter the usual jibes about the department. No parent will ask, “What is history?”—historians have, repeatedly, but that is another matter—and yet I well remember mine asking, “What exactly are you comparing literature to?” “World literature” might work better for you; “fancy English” worked best for my father. No matter. What the department offered then, and offers now, was an unparalleled introduction to, and deep journey into, the greatest, most complex, and enigmatic expressions of human feeling and thought in nearly all imaginable languages from Homer onward. In my time, I was drawn to the department first by its “great books” introductory courses (Comp Lit 205 and 206) and then by a course known as “the organic chemistry of the humanities,” Robert Hollander’s Dante course. It seems absurdly glib, but it is true; from the first, I got a first glimpse of the breadth of things, from the second a sense of the possibilities of reading deeply. Over the years the department has only grown more diverse (more languages studied, more literatures given serious consideration) and certainly more flexible. There are majors who work in two or more foreign languages; majors who work on a creative thesis (a translation of a foreign text, for example); and majors whose comparative theses embrace the visual, as well as the written, arts. And while some of the founding giants of the department—Hollander, Robert Fagles, and others—are retired, a new generation of extraordinary scholars—scholars who teach—have replaced them.

Traveling many paths

I’ve kept up with any number of comparative literature majors and they have gone on to any number of fields: film, finance, law, medicine, scholarship, journalism. There is no end to it. After graduating Princeton and spending a year teaching in Japan and traveling in Asia, I worked for 10 years as a reporter at The Washington Post—the last four living in Moscow and covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not only was Russian of obvious and daily value in Moscow; so, too, was my reading in Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, Brodsky, and all the other classics of Russian literature that had been banned and were now returning to everyday life under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. It was just as valuable to have a sense of those works in understanding that revolutionary period as it was to know something about the inner machinations of the Kremlin.

A return to literary criticism

Since 1993, I’ve been a writer at The New Yorker and, since 1998, the magazine’s editor. It is not quite accurate that my sole function as editor is to be the world’s leading connoisseur of talking-dog cartoons. This is only partly true. Sometimes there are desert-island cartoons, two-drunks-at-a-bar cartoons, and whimpering-employee-officious-boss cartoons. I didn’t write a junior paper on the French avant-garde for nothing.

The magazine is one that strives, in its best weeks, to publish the best of what can be found (or generated) in contemporary fiction, criticism, humor, and journalism. And essential to the idea of the magazine is that it is not market-tested, that we don’t try to anticipate the reader’s desire but rather rely on the judgment and taste of a small group of editors—and we then hope that there is an audience for that weekly offering. Which there seems to be. “The difference between journalism and literature,” Oscar Wilde once remarked, “is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.” As it turns out, my job at The New Yorker is to play some small part in the overall quest to make both the former and the latter a little less true. The teachers and scholars of the comparative literature department provided me a set of examples. So next time you are puzzled by a cartoon or a short story, please: blame them, not me.