The term Weltliteratur (world literature) was first coined by German author Johann Wilhelm von Goethe in the late 1820s. Writing during a period of great political upheaval in Europe, he hopefully noted:
There has been talk for some time of a general world literature, and indeed not without justice. For the nations, after they had been thrown into confusion by the most terrible wars [ie, the Napoleonic Wars], could not return to their independent life again without noticing that they had unconsciously adopted some foreign ways. (note 1)
The idea that literature had a special ability to transcend national boundaries and could potentially lead to a greater understanding among peoples is what led to the establishment of the field of comparative literature in the late nineteenth century. World literature, which has recently grown beyond a concept into a discipline, is an outgrowth of comparative literature—but one that carries with it an expanded geographic mandate.
1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes Gespräche: 1811–1818, ed. Woldemar Freiherr von Biedermann, vol. 3, 192. (Leipzig: F. W. v. Biedermann, 1889–1896), 192.