Book Spotlight “Creolizing the Modern: Transylvania across Empires, Ithaca 2022”

Born in 1885 into a modest Romanian-speaking family in Transylvania, Liviu Rebreanu needed to learn both Hungarian and German to acquire a basic education in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After getting higher education, he also learned the “foreign languages” taught through the imperial school system. To become a Romanian-language writer, he therefore needed to relearn Romanian. Following his migration to Romania, he wrote Ion, which literary critics celebrated as the first modern Romanian novel, centered on struggles over land ownership in rural Transylvania. In our book Creolizing the Modern. Transylvania across Empires, we show how Rebreanu put his childhood multilingualism to transimperial use as a means of survival and aspirational social mobility in an inter-imperial local situation shot through with the possibility of social mobility on a worldly scale. Pripas, the fictional village where Rebreanu’s novel is set, is a composite of two real villages where he grew up, both of which are located in the region of Năsăud/Nassod/Naszód. Part of Transylvania, the region was historically at the crossroads of several empires: Ottoman, Russian, Habsburg, and Austro-Hungarian. It constituted the eastern border of the Habsburg Empire and functioned as a separate administrative unit between 1762 and 1851. Empress Maria Theresa offered land to Romanian Transylvanian villagers living there, who became free if they were willing to defend the border and convert to Greek Catholicism. Land was collectively owned by peasant households and could not be alienated. Schools were opened for the children of soldiers on the border—the first schools where Romanian was the language of teaching in Transylvania. After the 1867 Compromise, which established the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, the former border region was reconfigured administratively, and former soldiers had to renegotiate their land rights.

Our book offers thick descriptions of transimperial positioning and transimperial agency. We develop such descriptions through a multilayered engagement with Rebreanu’s novel Ion, published in 1920. Throughout, we place the small scale of the textual detail in relation to the large scale of the world; we trace a link between macroscale politics emphasized in world-systems analysis and microlevel interactions and cultural production.

Engaging the novel as an extended case study allows us to place our theoretical arguments alongside the novel’s narrative, which offers consequential details for both literary and sociological analysis. We analyze Rebreanu’s novel, written by a trans-imperial subject, whose biographical and professional trajectory we trace, both as a product of inter-imperiality and as its chronicle.  

Creolizing the Modern theorizes a relation between interimperiality and transimperiality. Our aim is to offer a framework for the analysis of world regions—like Transylvania—that have been controlled by various colonial and imperial powers throughout their early modern and modern history. We turn to Transylvania’s history to argue that its location at the crossroads of several empires is structurally comparable with that of other multilingual and inter-imperial locales (Galicia, the Caribbean, Taiwan, South Sudan). We build on Laura Doyle’s concept of inter-imperiality, where inter- refers “both to multiple interacting empires and to the multiple subject positions lived within, between, and against empires.”[1] We thus examine the constant tension between Habsburg, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian imperial formations and their afterlives as inter-imperial tensions and rivalries. We resist, however, the reification inherent in the assumption that empires interact with each other only as state formations by revealing connections, exchanges, and mobilizations across empires as well as below the state level. In distinguishing between inter-imperial rivalries and trans-imperial processes, we build on Kristin Hoganson and Jay Sexton’s work on trans-imperial connections. While focusing on the inter-imperial dimension draws attention to state formations rivaling and sometimes preceding the nation-state, trans-imperial communication, resistance, and negotiation by imperial subjects eschewed, undermined or, on the contrary, instrumentalized existing state structures. We untangle the fact that the actors who were engaged in anti-imperial struggles in Transylvania, in Hoganson and Sexton’s words, “positioned themselves inter-imperially (meaning between empires), but they also navigated [. . .]  layered empires so as to advance their own interests”[2]—that is, they acted trans-imperially.

Both before and long after the failed Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, Armenian, Greek, and Jewish merchants passed through Transylvania following Ottoman commercial routes; they sometimes settled in Transylvania. While border military regiments purportedly protected the region against an ever-present Ottoman threat, there were exchanges with Romanian-speaking populations in Ottoman-dominated Moldova and Wallachia. Part of the Jewish population migrated to the region following persecution in Russian-dominated territories. Within the religious field, Orthodox believers taunted Greek Catholics as papists, while the latter insulted the Orthodox as Muscovites—both with inter-imperial connotations and yielding political tools of transimperial agency. In the book, we emphasize throughout that Hungary had its own imperial ambitions; Austro-Hungary was, among other things, a project designed so that Hungary might become equal with Austria as an imperial power. Transylvanian nationalisms, of all flavors, developed inter-imperially and retained an inter-imperial dimension while mobilizing transimperially, pitting different permutations of these religious, ethnic, and linguistic identities against each other. The European East, and Transylvania specifically, was thus a forcefield in which empires fought for control, often violently, impinging on each other’s policies.

In chapter 1, we frame the transimperial agency of peasants who pit the Austrian and Hungarian sides of the dual monarchy against each other. In chapter 2, we trace both banking and the rail system as trans-imperial methods of capitalist integration. In chapter 3, we position the enslavement of Roma people in Moldova and Wallachia within the Ottoman Empire in relation to the regulation pertaining to Roma in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In chapter 4, we develop the concept of interglottism as transimperial linguistic and literary strategy. Chapters 5 and 6 work through the question of women’s labor, women’s citizenship and violence against women at the crossroads of empires that produced nationalisms which enlisted women’s transimperial agency. Finally, chapter 7 traces concepts like religious conversion as a form of transimperial positioning.

We imagined the project as an experiment, even a bit of a provocation. We ask two questions: What does it mean to see the world from the perspective of a small village in Transylvania? And what does it mean to see world literature from the perspective of the first Romanian-language modern novel, set in a fictional village in Transylvania, itself modelled on a real village? One of the most exciting things about this project is its collaborative dimension—one of us is a scholar of Comparative Literature; and one a sociologist of the world-system. Writing about Transylvania, we aspired to develop a methodology—requiring transnational, transregional and often transimperial interpretative lenses—at the intersection of our two disciplines.

[1] Laura Doyle: Thinking Back through Empires, Modernism/modernity 2/4 (2018), np.

[2] Kristin L. Hoganson, Jay Sexton: Introduction, in: Kristin L. Hoganson, Jay Sexton (eds.): Crossing Empires: Taking U.S. History into Transimperial Terrain, Durham 2020, pp. 1-22, quote p. 10.

Author profile

Anca Parvulescu is Liselotte Dieckmann Professor of Comparative Literature at Washington University in St Louis. She received her BA in English Literature from University of Timișoara and her PhD from University of Minnesota. Her research fields include international modernism, affect theory, Eastern Europe, and the history of comparatism. She is the author or Laughter: Notes on a Passion (MIT Press, 2010), The Traffic in Women’s Work: East European Migration and the Making of Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2014), and, with Manuela Boatcă, Creolizing the Modern: Transylvania across Empires (Cornell UP, 2022). Creolizing the Modern received the 2023 René Wellek Prize for Best Book in Comparative Literature; the 2023 Barrington Moore Award for Best Book in Comparative and Historical Sociology offered by the American Sociological Association; and an Honorable Mention from the Political Economy of the World System Section of the American Sociological Association.


Author profile

Manuela Boatcă is Professor of Sociology and Head of School of the Global Studies Programme at the University of Freiburg, Germany. She has published widely on world-systems analysis, decolonial perspectives on global inequalities, gender and citizenship in modernity/coloniality, and the geopolitics of knowledge in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. She is the author of From Neoevolutionism to World-Systems Analysis (Leske+Budrich, 2003), Global Inequalities Beyond Occidentalism (Routledge 2016), Laboratoare ale modernității. Europa de Est și America Latină în (co)relație (IDEA, 2020) and co-author, with Anca Parvulescu, of Creolizing the Modern. Transylvania Across Empires (Cornell UP 2022).


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