Revising the Literary Canon

Revising the Literary Canon Essay - Critical Essays

Revising the Literary Canon


Revising the Literary Canon

The literary canon of a country or a group of people is comprised of a body of works that are highly valued by scholars and others because of their aesthetic value and because they embody the cultural and political values of that society. Works belonging to the canon become institutionalized over time by consistently being taught in the schools as the core curriculum for literary study. As critic Herbert Lindenberger, among others, has pointed out, the process of canon formation and evolution is influenced by cultural and historical change, and the English and American canons have regularly undergone revision throughout the centuries. In the twentieth century, for example, the English and American canons in the United States were challenged in the 1920s by Jewish intellectuals like Lionel Trilling and Oscar Handlin who became important Ivy League scholars, and again in the 1960s, when sweeping cultural change brought the concerns of women, minorities, gays, and Marxist liberals to the forefront of literary study.

Most recently, a reexamination of the American and English literary canons took place in the 1980s. Within academe, the European white male author model had already been thoroughly criticized during the 1960s and 1970s. Many works by women, gays, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and non-Europeans had made their way into college literature courses. However, the question of their permanent status as canonical works still remained to be decided: should they become a required and consistent part of the college curriculum, informed by the literary canon? This question has been hotly debated both by academics and non-academics since the early 1980s. The Modern Language Association sponsored special sessions on the canon during their annual conventions; scholars hotly debated the issue in the New York Times and the London Times; former Secretary of Education William Bennett made his reactionary views about the canon nationally known; English departments across the country undertook reevaluations of their English curriculum, guided by such key texts as Paul Lauter's Reconstructing American Literature (1983), Sacvan Bercovitch's Reconstructing American Literary History (1986), and A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward Jr.'s Redefining American Literary History (1990); the contents of new anthologies of literature became an acutely discussed issue; and Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind (1987) and E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy (1987) remained on best-seller lists.

While the issue of which works belong in the English and American literary canon has not been permanently settled, a spectrum of opinion has gradually emerged. Some conservative scholars insist that the classics of English and American literature taught since the beginning of the nineteenth century must remain at the core of the canon since they represent the notion of tradition. These critics would exclude noncanonical works on the basis that they are marginal and do not represent the best literary achievement of the culture. On the other end of the spectrum are radical scholars who would almost completely replace the classics of the canon with noncanonical and documentary works. They argue, for example, that the diary of a female garment worker from the early part of the twentieth century is more pertinent to today's students of English than is the poetry of T. S. Eliot. The majority of scholars fall somewhere in the middle, however, in that they advocate keeping a modest core of classics in the canon but supplementing it with the best of literature by women and minorities. With the aim of carrying on and refining this debate, critics have written much about inclusion criteria for both American and English works. Scholars like Lillian S. Robinson, Nina Baym, and Anette Kolodny have injected questions of gender and empowerment into the canon debate. There has also been discussion about the political aspects of the canon, with critics such as Patrick Williams and Karen Lawrence focusing on postcolonial aspects of minority literature.

Representative Works

Houston Baker, Jr. and Patricia Redmond, eds.
Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s (nonfiction) 1989

Sacvan Bercovitch, ed.
Reconstructing American Literary History (nonfiction) 1986

Allan Bloom
The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (nonfiction) 1987

Harold Bloom
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (nonfiction) 1994

Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn, eds.
Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (nonfiction) 1992

John Gullory
Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (nonfiction) 1993

E. D. Hirsch
Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (nonfiction) 1987

Jay B. Hubbell
Who Are the Major American Writers? (nonfiction) 1972

Peter Hyland, ed.
Discharging the Canon: Cross-Cultural Readings in Literature (nonfiction) 1986

Paul Lauter
Reconstructing American Literature (nonfiction) 1983

Karen Lawrence, ed.
Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century “British” Literary Canons (nonfiction) 1992

A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds.
Redefining American Literary History (nonfiction) 1990

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Cornel West (essay date Fall 1987)

SOURCE: “Minority Discourse and the Pitfalls of Canon Formation,” in Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 193-201.

[In the following essay, West discusses some of the factors that have influenced the Afro-American literary canon since the 1960s, noting that many of the works included actually reproduce and reinforce traditional cultural models.]

What does it mean to engage in canon formation at this historical moment? In what ways does the prevailing crisis in the humanities impede or enable new canon formations? And what role do the class and professional interests of the canonizers play in either the enlarging of a canon or the making of...

(The entire section is 3517 words.)

Joe Weixlmann (essay date March 1988)

SOURCE: “Opinion: Dealing with the Demands of an Expanding Literary Canon,” in College English, Vol. 50, No. 3, March, 1988, pp. 273-83.

[In the following essay, Weixlmann argues for a balanced approach to curriculum planning—one which combines canonical, “high culture” works with multi-ethnic, noncanonical ones.]

Until recently, some would have us believe, it was easy. A literary pantheon existed (in metaphorical stone), and worship of the enshrined was required of any critic or other student of literature seeking to earn his or her wings. Today, most of us know better—as most, I suspect, have known all along. To consider carefully the concept of an...

(The entire section is 5034 words.)

Hazard Adams (essay date Summer 1988)

SOURCE: “Canons: Literary Criteria/Power Criteria,” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 14, No. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 748-64.

[In the following essay, Adams sets out the theoretical bases for the debate between historical and aesthetic approaches to literary canon formation.]


W. B. Yeats' poem “Politics” has as its epigraph Thomas Mann's remark, “In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms.”1 Yeats chose the epigraph in 1938, just before World War II, for a poem proclaiming that sexuality holds his interest more than politics. This still may be true for poets, but by the looks of things, not...

(The entire section is 7662 words.)

Herbert Lindenberger (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Normality of Canon Change,” in The History of Literature: On Value, Genre, Institutions, Columbia University Press, 1990, pp. 131-47.

[In the following excerpt, Lindenberger studies three separate instances of canon change, noting that the process is a continual one in the humanities and commenting on some circumstances that drive canon change.]

I propose to look at three instances of canon change from widely separated times and places.

The first may well be a familiar scene—a meeting of an English department graduate committee that has been called to update the master's degree reading list for the first time in two decades. The...

(The entire section is 7066 words.)

Karen R. Lawrence (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Introduction: The Cultural Politics of Canons,” in Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century “British” Literary Canons, edited by Karen R. Lawrence, University of Illinois Press, 1992, pp. 1-19.

[In the following essay, Lawrence discusses some of the sociological, cultural, literary, historical, and political currents at play in determining and changing the literary canon.]

It seems that everyone is talking about canons today, but the debate has entered a new phase. On the one hand, we have reached a point where canonical reconsideration has become fashionable within academe. A colleague who is editing a book on canons recently wrote to...

(The entire section is 7869 words.)

James S. Baumlin (essay date Fall 2000)

SOURCE: “Reading Bloom (Or: Lessons Concerning the ‘Reformation’ of the Western Literary Canon),” in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall, 2000, pp. 22-46.

[In the following essay, Baumlin explores Harold Bloom's landmark work Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, criticizing Bloom for deliberately obfuscating the difference between religious and literary categories.]

He will observe this rule concerning the canonical Scriptures, that he will prefer those accepted by all catholic Churches to those which some do not accept; among those which are not accepted by all, he should prefer those which are accepted by the largest...

(The entire section is 11042 words.)