What was Comparative Literature?

Comparative literature as an intellectual field arose in the nineteenth century, a counterpart of the equally new fields of comparative anatomy, comparative law, and comparative philology. These fields sought to locate what they postulated as the larger whole that united the various differences of specific languages, laws, species, and (national) literatures. Comparative literature presumably acquired its name as such from a series of French anthologies for the teaching of literature; published in 1816, they were entitled Cours de littérature comparée.

The intellectual field and later the academic discipline of comparative literature, then, circulated and developed in nineteenth century Europe as a gentlemanly and evaluative inquiry into what constituted the worthy contemporary literatures of Europe, the exchanges between those literatures, and their links to presumably shared traditions of the past. It is noteworthy that this development was concomitant with the emergence and consolidation of nation states in Europe and their legitimation through cultural claims to national literary and popular traditions. It is as noteworthy that the circulation and institutionalization of the concept of comparative literature was also concomitant with the continuing colonial expansion of European states throughout the globe and with the intra-European contest over who would control which colonies. In 1886, one of the `map-makers' in the burgeoning field of comparative literature, Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett (in his Comparative Literature, published in London by K. Paul - Trench as part of their “International Scientific Series”) defined “the proper order of our studies in comparative literature” as the pursuit “ of causes which can be specified and described.” Those studies were to reveal the socio-cultural development of “man” from clan to city, from city to nation, from both of these to cosmopolitan humanity (85-6).

Posnett’s formulation was decisively modified by others in the years that followed. But the field and discipline of comparative literature continued to postulate and pursue the shared past and the boundaries of a unified yet distinct European community and its national cultures and literatures. If in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century anti-colonial resistance from without and the rise of fascism from within redefined its parameters, Posnett’s “cosmopolitan humanity” remained one of its central concerns.

If you're interested in the history of Comparative Literature as a discipline, while there are many and diverse books on the subject, any of the following are a good starting point:
• Susan Basnett, Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction (Basil Blackwell, 1993);
• Robert J. Clement, Comparative Literature as Academic Discipline (MLA, 1978);
• Claudio Guillen, The Challenge of Comparative Literature (Harvard, 1993);
• Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Death of a Discipline (Columbia University Press, 2003).
• The American Comparative Literature Association periodically issues reports on ‘The State of the Discipline’ you can read the three past reports (1965, 1975, and 1993) on-line at the ACLANet website under “Comparative Literature Studies”:
http://www.umass.edu/complit/aclanet/ACLASyll.html

For personal accounts from the founding figures of the academic discipline of Comparative Literature in the United States, see:
Building a Profession: Autobiographical Perspectives on the History of Comparative Literature in the U. S. (SUNY, 1994).

From there, you can find your way through what Comparative Literature was.

Here is what it is now at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.