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Digital Currents

Semper Ardens forskningsprojekt | 01/08/2016

Georg Brandes’ (1842-1927) magnum opus Main currents in 19th Century Literature, published 1872-1890, was a momentous event in contemporary culture not only in Denmark, but also on a global scale, and was translated into ten languages (German, English, Russian, Chinese etc.). Around 1900, Brandes was one of Europe’s leading intellectuals, both as a scholar, a cultural critic, and a political activist. In recent years, Brandes has re-emerged as a pivotal figure in world literary studies, attracting new attention to his comparative method and his concept of “world literature”. The research and scholarly edition project Digital Currents (Digitale Hovedstrømninger) aims to explore Brandes’ work as a major contribution to the formulation of a modern European identity and a pioneering effort in the development of the internationalisation of literary studies. The interdisciplinary research team consists of literary scholars, textual critics, and computational linguists from a number of institutions. A major output will be a new multilingual digital scholarly edition of Main Currents, aimed at a broad audience, also outside of Denmark, where the interest is growing. Additionally, the team will investigate the genesis, content and international reception of Main Currents in 19th Century Literature.

“In his own time Brandes was one of Europe’s leading intellectuals, both as a scholar and a cultural activist, and he has re-emerged in recent years as a key figure in world literary studies. His exceptionally wide-ranging body of work inspired generations of scholars – and writers themselves – and helped set the terms for our explorations today of literary relations across national borders … Altogether this is an excellent project, very well formulated in its conception and its plan of work, and it is sure to be of great value to scholars both in Denmark and around the world”.
David Damrosch Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature and Chair,
Department of Comparative Literature,
Harvard University

Main Currents as a Modern “Bible”

Georg Brandes’ (1842-1927) six-volume work on modern European literature, Main Currents in 19th Century Literature (Hovedstrømninger i det 19. Aarhundredes Litteratur), 1872-1890, has had a far-reaching and profound impact both as a scientific work and as a critical intervention in contemporary culture. The work is based on the legendary lectures Brandes delivered at the University of Copenhagen from 1871 to 1887, marking a watershed in modern Danish history. With the book edition, Brandes influenced the European agenda and eventually reached a truly international audience. “I have my readers in Europe, Asia, and America,” Brandes self-consciously announced in 1924.

Upon Brandes’ death in 1927, the German author and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann labelled Main Currents in 19th Century Literature: “a bible for young European intellectuals 30 years ago”, which will “remain a classical document in the history of the culture of the nineteenth century”. In this respect, Mann was right. The significance of Main Currents in 19th Century Literature transcends national, historical and professional borders. It has, indeed, become a classic text and also, in recent years, a key reference in global literary studies due to Brandes’ theoretical thoughts upon “world literature” and the comparative methodologies developed in the work.

Georg Brandes at the University of Copenhagen by Harald Slott- Møller (1889) (The Detroit Institute of Arts).

A Highly Innovative Digital Edition

The research project Digital Currents, which is supported by the Carlsberg Foundation with a Semper Ardens research grant, will investigate Main Currents in 19th Century Literature as a major contribution to the formulation of a modern European identity as well as a pioneer work in the comparative turn of literary studies. The research team behind the project will, for the first time, publish the work in an online scholarly edition with annotations and translations into German, English, and French, making it digitally available to an international audience.

“This edition will bring together critical scholarly annotation, philological annotation, and cultural historical annotation into one unified reading and research environment. Similarly, the proposed environment will allow scholars to trace the development of ideas in Hovedstrømninger through numerous translations and later revisions to the work. As far as I know, this has never been done before with a work as central as Hovedstrømninger for any national or regional literature. Consequently, this project has the potential to have a significant impact on the field of Digital Humanities and the realm of historical critical editions. Indeed, it is quite fitting that an approach to critical editions that is as ground-breaking as Hovedstrømninger was itself will be applied to that work”. 
Timothy R. Tangherlini
Professor of Scandinavian Literature,
Associate of the Center for Digital Humanities,
Affiliate of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics,
University of California, Los Angeles


Furthermore, the team will equip the new digital edition with a number of features providing help to the modern reader and enhancing the understanding of the work. The translated versions of Main Currents in 19th Century Literature will be anchored in the original Danish text, affording the work to be shown in parallel versions. The annotations will include information on persons, works, quotes, and sources. Moreover, the edition will be linked to a digital edition of the Dictionary of the Danish Language (Ordbog over det Danske Sprog), offering lexicographical support.    

The first editions of the six tomes will provide the basis for the re-established text, which will be supplied with a critical apparatus recording the most significant changes that the text underwent in later revisions by the author. Some of these changes were rooted in the early translations of the work, which will also be involved in the making of the new scholarly edition of Main Currents in 19th Century Literature. The textual dynamics will be displayed in the digital edition offering innovative chromatic illustrations of the different historical layers of the work.

The International Impact of Main Currents

Digital Currents will supplement the multilingual digital edition of Brandes’ work with literary and cultural research into the genesis, content, and reception of Main Currents in 19th Century Literature. A team of prominent literary scholars will provide introductions to each of the six volumes as well as a general introduction to the complete work. In accordance with the over-arching interest of the research project, the introductions will put a special emphasis on the transmission and international reception of the work.

Digital Currents will provide us with both the textual and contextual basis and the tools for taking Georg Brandes research into a new stage and give us fresh insight into his thinking and writing about the grand challenges of his time. Responding to the contemporary wave of globalisation, Brandes transformed literary studies in ways that are still relevant for us today living in a new era of rapid globalisation”.

Lasse Horne Kjældgaard
Professor of Danish Literature,
Director of Digital Currents,
Roskilde University


Digital Currents will especially investigate the effect of the translations on the international dissemination of the work – and the institutions, networks and people assisting with this enterprise. A case study in point will be the work of the German translator Adolf Strodtmann, who served as the main intermediary between Brandes and the German-speaking literary world. The investigation into these processes will be theoretically guided by Professor David Damrosch’s definition of world literature as ”writing that gains in translation”. Consequently, Main Currents in 19th Century Literature will be studied as a work of world literature in its own right.

Main Currents, World Literature, and the Challenges of Globalisation

Within the contemporary field of world literature, Georg Brandes is considered a vital and highly inspirational figure. Brandes’ views upon world literature can still stimulate the large and challenging cultural encounters taking place during the current wave of globalisation – and the theoretical understanding of the many issues they entail.

As a literary scholar, Brandes used the tools of his discipline in the service of big causes, such as the promotion of freedom, peace and modernity. As a Danish citizen, he constantly challenged any national narrow-mindedness and worked to establish a dialogue between nations and cultures. He became an influential European intellectual, who put not only Denmark, but also the entire Scandinavian region on the global literary map. All of this was made possible by the publication of Main Currents in 19th Century Literature, which will enter a new digital life in the 21st century with the advent of Digital Currents.

The Research Team

Lasse Horne Kjældgaard, Professor of Danish Literature at Roskilde University, will be the principal investigator and director of the research team, which includes experts in philology and scholarly editing, literary scholars and computational linguists. Dr Jens Bjerring-Hansen, The Danish Society of Language and Literature and University of Copenhagen, will be co-directing the project and serve as the general editor of the new version of Main Currents in 19th Century Literature. Among its contributors, Digital Currents counts employees from an array of research institutions: The Danish Society of Language and Literature, Roskilde University, University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, and University of Southern Denmark.

Lasse Horne Kjældgaard about the Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation

The Semper Ardens Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation has allowed me to assemble a transdisciplinary team of excellent scholars, who will lay a new and firm groundwork for Georg Brandes research, while also setting novel directions in the field of digital publishing. Members from several institutions and countries will take part in the project and contribute to the exploration of the publication and reception of Brandes’ Main Currents as a transnational event in many respects.

Peer-Reviewed Papers Relevant to My Research Supported by the Carlsberg Foundation

  1. Lasse Horne Kjældgaard: ”Out of Africa, into World Literature”, in: Dan Ringgaard & Mads Rosendahl Thomsen (eds.): Danish Literature as World Literature, London: Bloomsbury Press, 2017 (in press), app. 20 ps.
  2. Lasse Horne Kjældgaard: Meningen med velfærdsstaten. Velfærdsstatsdebat og dansk litteratur 1950-1980 [The Meaning of the Welfare State: The Welfare State Debate and Danish Literature, 1950-1980], forthcoming, 2016, app. 600 ps. (monograph)
  3. Lasse Horne Kjældgaard: ”Humanistisk forskningsinfrastruktur” (co-authored with Jens Bjerring-Hansen), in: Frederik Stjernfelt; Simo Køppe; David Budtz Pedersen (ed.): Kampen om disciplinerne: Viden og videnskabelighed i aktuel humaniora, Copenhagen: Hans Reitzel, 2015, pp. 101-110.

Other Relevant Papers

  1. Annie Bourguignon et al (ed.): Grands courants d’échanges intellectuels : Georg Brandes et la France, l’Allemagne, l’Angleterre. Main currents of Intellectual Exchanges: Georg Brandes and France, Germany, Great Britain. Bern: Peter Lang, 2010.
  1. Peter Madsen, 'World Literature and World Thoughts: Brandes/Auerbach' in David Prendergast (ed.): Debating World Literature. London: Verso, 2004, pp. 54-75.

  1. Pascale Casanova: La République mondiale des Lettres. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1999.