Sociology and literary studies combine to re-envision Transylvanian modernism

Anca Parvulescu is the co-author of a new study that reframes Transylvania’s place in world literature from a literary-sociological perspective.

Anca Parvulescu

When 19th-century novelist Bram Stoker needed to place the central character of Dracula as far away from the center of European culture as he could, he chose Transylvania. Throughout the 20th century, Transylvania would remain characterized by its conflicting relationships with multiple empires. New research from Arts & Sciences asks what globalization looks like from this unique and complex vantagepoint.

Transylvania provides an important test case for understanding the relationship between rural communities and globalization, according to Anca Parvulescu, professor of English and the interdisciplinary humanities at Washington University. With Manuela Boatcă, a sociologist at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Parvulescu is the co-author of a new study that combines sociological and literary methods to reframe the question of globalism. The co-authored book is forthcoming in three editions and three languages — English, German, and Romanian.

Parvulescu and Boatcă use the term “inter-imperial” to describe the literature produced in Transylvania, texts that defy existing literary categories by crossing multiple cultural barriers. Parvulescu works in the field of world literature, but recognized that understanding Transylvanian literature in the early 20th century would require concepts from outside of literary studies. Boatcă studies Transylvania from the perspective of world-systems analysis in sociology.

“We often talk about interdisciplinarity,” Parvulescu said, “but we rarely collaborate with colleagues outside our discipline whose work we admire and read.” The collaboration has led to surprising answers to long-standing questions about rurality and the modern novel in East Central Europe.

Liviu Rebreanu, author of Ion

Parvulescu and Boatcă’s forthcoming book focuses on Ion (1920), a Transylvanian novel written by Liviu Rebreanu. Ion follows two characters: a peasant named Ion, who desires to own land; and a lower middle class young man named Titu, who becomes a poet. Despite being written at the height of European modernism, Parvulescu said that the novel feels more like a realist text written 30 years before. Like many other modern novels written in regions on the periphery of European culture, the story features a set of female characters that embrace traditional gender roles. Understood through a sociological lens, the novel is depicting traditional gender roles as a way of working through its inter-imperial predicament.

In Ion, the character of Titu learns the three languages of Transylvania and becomes a poet, while his sisters do not attend school. For Parvulescu, the significance of the difference in schooling is unclear without a sociological context. The two authors’ research on rural communities in Transylvania revealed that the difference in education is indicative of the kind of schools available in Transylvania at the time.

The schools available to Romanian Transylvanian girls in the 1900s would have conducted instruction in Hungarian instead of their native Romanian, as Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Parvulescu and Boatcă argue that by emphasizing the fact that the sisters stayed home to avoid learning Hungarian, Ion depicts them as spiritual anchors for a nation at risk of losing itself to the cultural demands of whatever empire it found itself a part of at any given moment in history.

“Transylvania is a multi-ethnic society with competing forms of nationalism and inter-imperial power relations,” Parvulescu said. “There isn’t much space for feminism. The novel implies that the woman question has to wait until the national question gets resolved.”

Without the sociological perspective, Ion might look like it is lagging behind developments in other European modernisms. Parvulescu and Boatcă offer an alternative theory. Modernism in Transylvania is not behind anything. It’s just rearranging ideas of progress to tell a distinct story about global integration from the perspective of a small village in East Central Europe.

“Instead of positing a model of delay,” Parvulescu explained, “we’re thinking of a mixing of formal elements that draw from multiple aesthetic movements with an eye towards creating a specific form of modernism for this region.”