Ústav pro českou literaturu AV ČR Institute of Czech literature of the CAS
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History of the Institute of Czech Literature

The idea of establishing a non-university research centre for research on Czech literature was first raised in the 19th century. Literary research was supported at that time by the Czech Foundation (Matica česká) and the Emperor Franz Josef Czech Academy of Sciences, Literature and Arts, founded in 1890, whose name would later be changed to the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts (CASA) in 1918. Within the Academy, the Third Class dealt with philological disciplines, which naturally included Czech literary studies. The Fourth Class dealt with the performing arts, including fine arts, music, and literature. In 1899, in spite of the fact that the Academy already supported research trips and professional publications, literary historian Jan Jakubec proposed the foundation of a new central institution with regional branches that would publish critical writings by Czech writers, collect bibliographic information in a systematic manner, and hold archival and museum functions. It would thus create a context for further literary research. Jakubec’s proposal, however, would not be realised in his time.

In the late 1940s, CASA began preparing for restructuring. The existential threat posed to the nation by the Nazi occupation (1939–1945) had emphasised the need to ground the scholarly conservation of national literature and culture within a new institution. Answering to this need, the Institute for Czech Literature was established, shortly following the foundation of the Institute of the Czech Language. In cooperation with the Czechoslovak Literary Historical Society, established in 1934 on the initiative of Albert Pražák, a commission was set up at the beginning of 1946 to lay groundwork for the new institute. The ICL rules of procedure were approved by a special meeting of the Third Class of the CASA on 11 June 1947. Chairing the Literary Theory Department at the new institute was aesthetics and literary theorist Jan Mukařovský, while the Slavist Frank Wollmann was in charge of Comparative Studies, and the History of Czech Literature was run by literary historian Albert Pražák. In addition to his work in literary history, Pražák was also to arrange the publication of Czech literature in critical editions, as well as systematic bibliographical work. However, the new institute faced a lack of funding and staff. Starting in autumn 1952, when the ICL recruited its first three research assistants, it began to participate in the education of new generations of literary scholars.

The Czech literary canon

In 1953, the ICL was transferred to the newly established Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (CSAS). The new director was Jan Mukařovský, one of the leading personalities of the Prague school, or ‘Prague linguistic circle’, which had forged new ground in structuralist literary analysis over the previous two decades. The deputy director was Mukařovský’s younger colleague, and founder of structuralist literary historiography, Felix Vodička.

In the same year, the ICL moved from Valentinská Street in Old Town, where it had been operating since 1951, to the premises of the Strahov Monastery, which was under reconstruction to accommodate the Memorial of National Literature (Památník národního písemnictví). The ICL was commissioned by the government to create the texts for a permanent historical exhibit, which would take the form of a ‘textbook’ of Czech literature for schools and the public. The prescriptive role of the ICL, together with the considerations and preparations during the German occupation led to the decision to commit a considerable share of resources to the editorial care of the Czech literary canon. In the following decades, ICL staff prepared critical editions presenting the collected writings of important figures of Czech literature (Karel Hynek Mácha, Josef Kajetán Tyl, Božena Němcová, Jan Neruda, Jiří Wolker, Stanislav Kostka Neumann, F. X. Šalda) and classic works of older Czech literature (Anthology of Czech Literature up to the Hussite Period, Anthology of Czech Literature from the Hussite Period, 1 & 2). They also helped to publish the National Library and Library of Classics.

Meanwhile, ICL staff was also preparing the edited volume The History of Czech Literature. From the early 1950s to the end of the 1960s, ICL staff prepared four works covering the development of national literature, from the earliest (9th century) Old Slavonic literature in Great Moravia up to WWII. The main editor on the project was Jan Mukařovský. The first volume of The History, edited by Josef Hrabák, was an early example of the application of Marxist historical materialism to the development of medieval and early modern literature (Older Czech Literature, 1959; authors: Jiří Daňhelka, Eduard Petrů, Emil Pražák, and Jaroslav Kolár). Other volumes, under the direction of Felix Vodička, adopted a methodology based on structuralist starting points (Literature of the National Revival, 1960), or else, in the case of a book project led by Miloš Pohorský, aimed at a broader sociological conception of literature (Literature of the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century, 1961).

An analogous task was given to the Cabinet for the Study of Czech Theatre, which was established as part of the ICL in 1956. The History of Czech Theatre was developed there under the editorial leadership of František Černý, published in four volumes (1968–1983), of which the third was co-edited by Ljuba Klosová, the fourth by Adolf Scherl.

The rehabilitation of structuralism

Communist Party cultural policy attached considerable importance to the role of the social sciences, which meant the ICL would conduct its work under continuous ideological supervision. In the late 1950s, against the background of fading Stalisnism, there was a growing awareness among literary scholars, especially the new generation, that the official Marxism was fraught with ambiguity, and they began looking for a more precise theoretical basis for literary scholarship. They drew inspiration from the legacy of interwar structuralism personified by Jan Mukařovský (director of the ICL, and in many cases their teacher) and his deputy Felix Vodička. With the help of Milan Jankovič, they founded the Aesthetic Theory Club (ETELKA), where Miroslav Červenka, Mojmír Grygar, Aleš Haman, Jiřina Táborská and Miroslav Kačer met to discuss the methodology of literary studies.

In 1959, after a scandal caused by the publication of Josef Škvorecký’s novel The Cowards, the ICL was compelled to dismiss Josef Vohryzek, who had garnered some attention by that time as a prominent literary critic. A media campaign was then launched against Mukařovský, and in 1962, he was replaced as director by the pre-war Marxist critic, literary publicist, and ideologue Ladislav Štoll, who was still rector at that point at the Institute of Social Sciences of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Jan Petrmichl, a critic and publicist, was appointed as his deputy.

In the 1960s, the main task of the ICL was to produce a fourth volume for The History of Czech Literature. The book would deal with literature in the late 19th century up to 1945. It would also seek to combine structuralist thought with efforts to revise Marxist dogmas of the previous decade. However, for political reasons, the book was not published until November 1989 (Literature From the End of the 19th Century to 1945, eds. Zdeněk Pešat and Eva Strohsová, 1995). The Dictionary of Czech Writers (1964) was a significant cultural and political act even before the mid 1960s. This foundational work of scholarly literary lexicography was created under the direction of Jiří Opelík and Rudolf Havel, who also managed to push through selected entries on exiled writers.

ICL scholars Milan Jankovič and Miroslav Červenka gained international respect  as representatives of what came to be called the second generation of the Prague school. Jankovič was a literary theorist and scholar of literary aesthetics, writing his pivotal work, The Work as a Process of Meaning, in the late 1960s (though he was not able to publish until 1992). Červenka was a theorist and versologist, whose study, The Semantic Construction of a Literary Work, was published in German in 1978 (the Czech edition would not be published until after the democratic revolution). The second generation of the Prague school also included the literary historian Zdeněk Pešat, and later, narratologist Lubomír Doležel, founder of the theory of fictional worlds, who worked at the ICL for a short time in the late 1960s before leaving for North America. Like Doležel, Mojmír Grygar and František Svejkovský were ICL researchers in the 1970s and 1980s who later lived in exile, and helped to raise awareness of Czech structuralism.

A number of scholarly figures who were prominent in the context of the 1960s wrote books that changed the image of Czech literary studies and history, some based on Czech structuralism, others on aesthetic, philosophical, and literary topics, including Přemysl Blažíček, Jiří Brabec, Miroslav Kačer, Ludmila Lantová, Jiří Opelík, Mojmír Otruba, Břetislav Štorek, Zina Trochová and Radko Pytlík. Some wrote monographs on individual writers: Mojmír Otruba (Božena Němcová, 1962), Jiří Opelík (Josef Čapek, 1980), and Zdeněk Pešat (Jaroslav Seifert, 1991). Others created interpretive studies: Přemysl Blažíček (Haškův Švejk, 1991) and Milan Jankovič (Chapters from the Poetics of Bohumil Hrabal, 1996). The handbook Editor and Text (1971) assesses the work of the ICL in the field of practical textology. Here, a team of authors led by Rudolf Havel and Břetislav Štorek combined the experience of publishers of modern Czech literature with the inspiration of Prague school editology.

The dispute between the structuralists and proponents of trivial Marxism came to a head during Prague Spring. In 1968, Ladislav Štoll was forced to leave the ICL, and Zdeněk Pešat appointed Felix Vodička as the new director. The implementation of Vodička’s new, scientifically distinct concept for the ICL was prevented by political changes after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

Lexicography against the ‘normalisation’

In 1970, the novelist Vladimír Brett was appointed director of the ICL, with the task of ridding the institute of theoretical approaches based on structuralism. The ICL was merged with the Institute of Languages and Literatures and renamed the Institute for Czech and World Literature of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Sixteen staff members were forced to quit for political reasons. In 1972, Ladislav Štoll once more took over the position of director; Hana Hrzalová was made deputy, heading the institute after Štoll’s death until the end of 1989. While the institute was adversely affected by personnel changes, it nonetheless retained a more liberal atmosphere than other organisations working in the social sciences. And if, on the one hand, the prominent researchers who survived these changes were forced to withdraw into the background, this had the paradoxical effect of reorienting the institute towards the production of reference works.

The completion of Opelík and Havel’s Encyclopedia of Czech Writers was followed up by the monumental Lexicon of Czech Literature, 1–4 (1985–2008). In four parts and seven volumes, the Lexicon offers 3,500 entries on individual developments in the history of Czech literature, from its Old Slavonic and Latin origins to the mid 20th century. In addition to literary figures, the Lexicon features entries on a variety of individual subjects, including magazines, publishers, associations, and anonymous works of older literature. Under the leadership of Vladimír Forst, Jiří Opelík and Luboš Merhaut, three generations of ICL employees worked together on the Lexicon, along with dozens of student interns.

In spite of the circumstances, communication was regularly maintained between ICL members and those who had been forced to quit for political reasons. We see this, for example, in the case of the Medvědáři (‘bear tamers’) group, which held informal discussions organised by Jaroslav Kolár, and projects like the Encyclopedia of Poetry Books, 1990). Its authors included ICL members Vladimír Macura, Zdeněk Pešat, and Jaroslav Med, but also Miroslav Červenka, who had been expelled during the ‘normalisation’.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a younger generation of scholars searching for new methodologies outside the theoretical framework of the Prague school – and for their own essential role at the ICL –, turned to a number of other fields of research, including cultural semiotics, thematology, historical poetics, and narrative theory. Daniela Hodrová, Jiří Holý, Pavel Janoušek, Václav Koenigsmark, Vladimír Macura, and others met in the Theory Department of what was then the Institute for Czech and World Literature, their research culminating in the Encyclopedia of Literary Theory (1977, revised edition 1984). Published under the name of Štěpán Vlašín, its final form was in fact anonymously influenced by Jiřina Táborská and Miroslav Kačer, who had been dismissed from the ICL. Two works were created under Macur’s leadership: the Encyclopedia of World Literary Works (1988) and the Companion to World Literary Theory (1988, published under the name of department chair Milan Zeman). Historical poetics made up another line of inquiry in the Theory Department. Its first output was the groundbreaking collected volume Poetics of Czech Interwar Literature, dealing with the genres characteristic of this period (1988, ed. Daniela Hodrová). The department also produced important individual monographs, including Vladimír Macura’s Signs of Birth (1983), Pavel Janoušek’s The Dimensions of Drama (1989), and Daniela Hodrová’s In Search of the Novel (1989).

Work in the field of theatrology was also carried out within the Institute for Czech and World Literature, by such scholars as Eva Šormová, Vladimír Just, Adolf Scherl, and Jan Pömerl. Bohemicists engaged in ongoing discussions with scholars of other literary traditions, in particular with younger researchers in the department of Western Literatures who focused on the issue of Romanticism (Zdeněk Hrbata and Martin Procházka).

After the democratic revolution

After November 1989, Zdeněk Pešat was made director of Institute for Czech and World Literature, with Vladimír Macura as his deputy. Their intention was to integrate research on Czech literature and Czech theatre with research on world literatures. A number of institute staff who had been persecuted (Miroslav Červenka, Milan Jankovič, Jiří Brabec, etc.) returned to the institute and the centre was able to incorporate various new theoretical orientations. At the same time, however, the institute was confronted with the consequences of downsizing the Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 1992–1993. Thirty researchers were let go from the institute, and the Departments of World Literatures and Theatrology were dissolved without compensation. As a result activities at the institute, under its restored title of Institute for Czech Literature, were forced to ‘Bohemicise’. With its organisation of the First Congress of World Literary Czech Studies (1995), the ICL established itself as the natural centre of activity in its scholarly field. The Congress brought together, for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czech scholars from all parts of the previously divided world.

Over the following decades, under the direction first of Vladimír Macura (1992–1999), followed by Pavel Janoušek (1999–2010), the institute took on the extensive collaborative project, Lexicon of Czech Literature. During this same period, two more works were undertaken dealing with post-war literature, neither of which could be fully implemented until after the democratic revolution due to censorship, as well as cultural and political restrictions. The first of these was the Encyclopedia of Czech Writers Since 1945, 1 & 2 (ed. Pavel Janoušek, 1995 and 1998), and a related reference work with the title Encyclopedia of Czech Literary Journals, Periodic Literary Anthologies and Almanachs, 1945–2000 (ed. Blahoslav Dokoupil, 2002). These works on the literature during the period of state socialism were followed by the four-part History of Czech Literature 1945–1989 (2007–2008), as well as a one-volume summary with the title Synoptic History of Czech Literature 1945–1989 (2012). Under the leadership of Pavel Janoušek, the authors focused on the history of literary communication in the broader historical context, with discrete chapters focusing on individual literary forms (poetry, prose, and drama), but also on forms of literary life, popular literature, and literary broadcasts on television and the radio.

Research on historical poetics culminated in a three-volume work with the title The Poetics of the Literary Work in the 20th Century, elaborated by the Department of Theory during the second half of the 1990s and turn of the millennium (Daniela Hodrová et al.: On the Brink of Chaos, 2001; Miroslav Červenka, Milan Jankovič, Marie Kubínová and Marie Langerová: Views from Close Up: Sound, Meaning, Image, 2002; Miroslav Červenka, Daniela Hodrová, Zdeněk Hrbata et al.: On the Way to Meaning, 2005).

The publication of several books at the end of the oughts (especially of the three-volume collection by Milan Jankovič, Marie Kubínová, and Jan Matonoha, Text in Motion, 2009) completed the research project on textual poetics. This completed the last of the research projects initiated in the 1990s (and in the context of the Lexicon of Czech Literature, in the 1970s).

Open to the public

Since November 1989, the ICL – while continuing to conduct its own research – has opened its doors to the public, offering both its specialised library collections and several of its digital archives, databases, libraries, encyclopaedias, and other online services. The number of visits to these servers in 2013 exceeded 1 million per year.

In 1996, in consultation with the British team that created The English Poetry Full-Text Database, the ICL began work on the Czech Electronic Library. Under the leadership of Blanka Svadbová, a full-text library was selected and processed, including books of Czech poetry from the late 18th century until the First World War. In addition to providing free access to more than 1,700 books, the Czech Electronic Library provides online tools for running text searches, etc.

An even more advanced set of software tools is currently offered by the Corpus of Czech Verse, the largest automated collection of national poetry texts in the world, which has been under development by the ICL since 2012, using Czech Electronic Library data (theoretical design and programming by Robert Kolár and Petr Plecháč).

The online Encyclopedia of Czech Literature after 1945 (Michal Přibáň et al.), dealing with the period following that covered by the Lexicon of Czech Literature, currently contains more than 1,500 entries from writers, magazines, publishers, samizdat editions, and literary institutions.

In the period after 2010, the ICL Literary Studies Information Centre digitised the Retrospective Bibliography of Czech Literature 1775–1945, converted its bibliographic collections and library catalogues into the Aleph integrated library system, retroactively filled out the literary bibliography on excerpts from 1945–1960, began processing the samizdat article bibliography, and expanded excerpt profiles from the field literary bibliography on internet publishing platforms.

The tradition, scope and quality of bibliographic activities performed at the ICL were recognised with an award from the Ministry of Education. This included a set of databases, collections, software tools, and personnel capacities that are part of the bibliographic and archival department of the Literary Studies Information Centre, with the title Czech Literary Bibliography on the Roadmap of Large Research Infrastructures in the Czech Republic for the Period 2016–2022.

The ICL today

In 2010, during the Fourth Congress of World Literary Czech Studies, Pavel Janáček was appointed director of the ICL. The following year, the institute completed restructuring, with three departments covering different historical periods (older literature, 19th century, 20th century & contemporary literature), and with specialised departments for literature theory, textology, lexicography, and literary sociology. Each of these departments began work on new collective and individual projects around the same time.

The ICL established itself in the new structure with a series of ‘big books’, published successively since 2013: Guide to World Literary Theory of the 20th Century (second, expanded and revised edition, ed. Alice Jedličková), a critical edition of Hájek’s Czech Chronicle (ed. Jan Linka), interpretive dictionary of contemporary literature Coordinates of Multiplicity (ed. Alena Fialová), the historical-bibliographical compendiums Czech Literary Publishers 1949–1989 and Czech Literary Samizdat 1949–1989 (both edited by Michal Přibáň), the Critical Hybrid Edition book series (with individual titles including, to date: The Work of František Gellner, Silesian Songs by Petr Bezruč, and K. H. Mácha’s May), critical anthology The Dvůr Králové and Zelená Hora Manuscripts in Culture and Art, 1817–1885 (Dalibor Dobiáš et al.), The History of Czechoslovak Comics of the 20th Century (Pavel Kořínek et al.), and an edited volume on the history of literary censorship from the Enlightenment to the present, In the General Interest (Michael Wögerbauer et al.).

Sources and literature:

The outline of the history of the institute presented on this website is based on the text of the free brochure ‘Literary Czech Studies and the ICL’ (2015; a Czech version in PDF can be downloaded here, and an English version here).

The history of the institute, its scholarly activities, and organisational changes are discussed in detail in the book On the History of the Institute for Czech Literature of the CAS, published in 2012 and available as a free e-book (EPUB format). This is a corrected and updated edition of the book collection of the Institute for Czech Literature of the CAS, v. v. i. (2010).

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary, the ICL published 11. 6. 1947. Establishment of the Institute for Czech Literature in Documents.