|Map of the World as a "Tube" Map © Michael Tompsett|
The idea that literature, like food or music or dance, should possess or embody a national culture, is quite a recent one in terms of world history. The older dream was of a universal literature, written in Greek or Latin and readable around the world and for all time. This dream, for better or worse, faded with the collapse of the ancient empires, particularly that of Rome. It wasn't until some centuries later, when nations were beginning to emerge from the medieval checkerboard of duchies and domains, that the idea of writing literature in one's own native language, and expressing the natural and national character of its speakers, began to emerge. It was this vernacular writing with which national literatures were born, and with them the sense that each nation ought to have its own pantheon of literary and artistic giants.
Today, while we can use terms like "American Literature," "Irish Literature," or "Japanese Literature," it's not always easy to separate them off. People emigrate from country to country; most nations contain many languages, ethnicities, and faiths; the most successful literature is translated and read around the world. Still, each country's literary heritage has something of the essence of the nation in it, both as it might be perceived internally, and as it might be seen by others.