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.
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
The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (nonfiction) 1987
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
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
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.
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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 multiple, conflicting canons? I shall address these questions in the form of a critical self-inventory of my own intellectual activity as an Afro-American cultural critic. This self-inventory shall consist of three moments. First, I shall locate my own cultural criticism against a particular historical reading of the contemporary crisis in the humanities. Second, I shall examine my own deeply ambiguous intellectual sentiments regarding the process of canon formation now afoot in Afro-American literary criticism. And third, I shall put forward what I understand to be the appropriate role and function of oppositional cultural critics in regard to prevailing forms of canon formation in our time.
Any attempt to expand old canons...
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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 artistic canon is, necessarily, to eschew pat answers and address the troubling critical and curricular issues that surround the topic. Like artistic production, a concept which, until recently, tended more often to be discussed in mechanical or ethereal terms than in political ones, canon formation as a concept has lost whatever innocence it might ever in reality have possessed. In exploring issues related to canon formation in this essay, I have foremost in my mind the complex, highly politicized, and too often reflexive process used to determine those literary works that “deserve” to be taught.
Since the world's literary corpus is far from static, the need for canon reformation should be self-evident. At the very least,...
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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 for many contemporary critics, who, if they do not choose one over the other, subsume one under the other. For them everything is political (no more so than when it is sexual), which is to hold that everything is reduced to questions of power. So it is, in their eyes, with canons.
The first canonization of note for western culture seems to have been that of the Hebrew Scriptures; and although there is much dispute about the whole matter of how that occurred, it is interesting to observe that in a 1971 book entitled The Shaping of Jewish History: A Radical New Interpretation Ellis Rivkin presents the development of that canon in political terms, arguing that production of the Hebrew Scriptures “was not primarily the...
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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 committee, like any self-respecting university body these days, contains two student members and a group of faculty carefully selected to represent both the earlier and later periods of English and American literature as well as the interests of women and ethnical minorities. The students have succeeded in persuading the faculty representatives not to increase the amount of reading on the list no matter what changes are ultimately legislated; in addition, the faculty in the earlier fields have persuaded the committee as a whole not to decrease the reading within any single literary period.
In the course of its long and sometimes heated deliberations the committee finds that the need to abide by these rules at the same time...
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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 me, “Canons to the left of us, canons to the right. I'm used to being in the vanguard and not on the bandwagon.” Indeed, the genesis of this collection is a certain legitimation in the American academy of the kind of discourse it proposes, for a number of essays gathered here were presented at three sessions on “Reconsidering the Canon,” sponsored by the Modern Language Association Division of Twentieth-Century English Literature. On the other hand, one can say that within the academy critique of the canon is both established and still urgently seeking a foothold. Recent academic transformations of the canon have succeeded perhaps in establishing a new list of great works rather than in keeping open to question the process of canon...
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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 number of important Churches to those held by a few minor Churches of less authority. … The whole canon of the Scriptures … is contained in the following books. …
(St. Augustine 1958, 41-42)
All canonizing of literary texts is a self-contradictory process, for by canonizing a text you are troping upon it, which means you are misreading it. Canonization is the most extreme form of what Nietzsche called Interpretation, or the exercise of the Will-to-Power over texts.
(Bloom 1975, 100)
My own religious experience and conviction is a form of Gnosis, and in some sense all of this book … is a...
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Criticism: Canon Change In American Literature
SOURCE: “The Major American Writers,” in Who Are the Major American Writers?, Duke University Press, 1972, pp. 271-88.
[In the following excerpt, Hubbell questions the reasoning behind some academic reassessments of the literary canon, as well as the results of a New York Times poll on the subject, noting the absence of American authors among those deemed the most important.]
If it is difficult to get a consensus among critics as to who the great nineteenth-century writers are, it is almost impossible to get them to agree on which of the writers of the present century should be admitted to the canon of the great American writers. The various polls and critical ratings that I have noticed show continual changes in the status of the later writers on every level whether their merits are appraised by booksellers, book collectors, literary journalists, or academic specialists. It was many years before T. S. Eliot was generally ranked as a major writer, and it was still longer before William Faulkner was widely regarded as a great novelist. During the Depression era the immensely popular Joseph Hergesheimer lost ground, and so did Edith Wharton and Scott Fitzgerald; but there has been a Fitzgerald revival and Mrs. Wharton is now more highly regarded than she was a decade or two ago. There are no signs, however, of a Hergesheimer revival.
Academic Appraisals. The 1920's and...
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SOURCE: “The Literature of America: A Comparative Discipline,” in Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., The Modern Language Association of America, 1990, pp. 9-34.
[In the following essay, Lauter suggests that the very idea of a mainstream literary canon is not appropriate to the heterogeneous society of the United States, and that a comparative approach is more useful in studying American literature.]
An image has long haunted the study of American culture. It limits our thought, shapes our values. We speak of the “mainstream,” implying the existence of other work, minor rills and branches. In prose, the writing of men like Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne Melville, James, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Bellow constitute the mainstream Others—writers of color, most women writers, “regional” or “ethnic” writers—might, we said, be assimilated into the mainstream, though probably they would continue to serve as tributaries, interesting and often sparkling but, finally, less important. They would, we assumed, be judged by the standards and aesthetic categories we had developed for the canonical writers. We acknowledged that including in the canon writers like Wharton, Cather, Chopin, and Ralph Ellison might, at best, change somewhat our definition of the mainstream, but the intellectual model based on the Great River theory of American...
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SOURCE: “In the American Canon,” in Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., The Modern Language Association of America, 1990, pp. 62-72.
[In the following essay, Hemenway calls for broader criteria for the inclusion of African American literature into the canon of American literature.]
Once upon a time I was asked to speak at a summer meeting of English department chairpersons. I accepted the invitation with solemn allopathic purpose, sure that I could offer restorative therapy to this honorable group of ex-idealists, these staff officers regularly battered by occupational hazards. I planned to energize those slipping toward ennui and levitate those seeking higher ground amidst that alligator-infested swamp known as “The Department.”
Then a funny thing happened on the way to therapy. In what was viewed by some as co-option, by others as the university's death wish, I was ambushed into a chairmanship before I could begin ministrations.
Today, after five years as a department chair, three years as a dean, and one year as a chancellor, I find that although my own idealism may have begun a long, slow slide toward that dismal slough known as “administrative responsibility,” the perspective of administration has helped me understand better than ever before the importance of a literary canon. I find that I...
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SOURCE: “The Price of Diversity: An Ambivalent Minority Report on the American Literary Canon,” in College Literature, Vol. 18, No. 3, October, 1991, pp. 15-29.
[In the following essay, Parker recounts his own attempts to enlarge and expand the American literature canon to include more nontraditional works, but cautions that mainstream authors should continue to play an important role in the education of students.]
This is a version of the talk I gave at the 1990 Chicago MLA for the American Literature Section session organized by James Justus on anthologizing American literature. I spoke as the editor of the 1820-65 section of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (1979, 1985, 1989); the other two speakers were Martha Banta, an editor of the Harper Anthology of American Literature (1987), and Paul Lauter, general editor of the Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990). In adapting what I said in Chicago for an issue of College Literature on teaching minority literature, I acknowledge my vested interests (aesthetic, scholarly, and economic) in the NAAL. But here I write more personally as an American with close ancestors of two races, an American who had cherished some literary works as private scriptures for more than a quarter of a century before becoming an editor of an anthology and who has taught the great works of mid-nineteenth-century American...
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SOURCE: “What Is the Early American Canon, and Who Said It Needed Expanding?”, in Resources for American Literary Study, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1993, pp. 165-73.
[In the following essay, Mulford surveys some recent studies regarding the early American literature canon and concludes that not only its works, but even the type of textual analysis used on those works, is still a matter of heated debate among American literature scholars.]
The title question of my essay underscores the differences, even among Americanists, that still seem to remain among scholars in the literary profession regarding the study of early American materials. That is, although the topic of this special issue of Resources for American Literary Study assumes that the early American canon can—and should—be expanded, it is likely that some who see the title of this issue will wonder how it is that early American materials can be said to have a canon in the first place, let alone a canon that deserves expansion.
Well might some scholars wonder, given one of the newest volumes in the Modern Language Association's series of publications about the profession of literature, Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (1992), edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. From its title and its editors, one might suppose this volume would fashionably—and...
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SOURCE: “Cultural Valorization and African American Literary History: Reconstructing the Canon,” in Sociological Forum, Vol. 12, No. 2, June, 1997, pp. 173-203.
[In the following essay, Corse and Griffin explore the process of forming the African-American literary canon by analyzing the critical history of a key text—Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).]
Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937. It was Hurston's third book and made significant use of her work as an anthropologist and folklorist in its setting, dialect, and tone. Due to Hurston's stature as a Guggenheim fellow and minor figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the novel was reviewed in a range of publications. Their Eyes Were Watching God received mixed reviews, many of which failed to take the novel seriously. Sixty years after the publication of the novel, however, an amazing reversal has occurred. In 1990, Mary Helen Washington was able to describe Their Eyes Were Watching God as “perhaps the most widely known and the most privileged text in the African-American literary canon” (xii). The research presented here is an attempt to explicate processes of cultural evaluation and valorization by investigating the circumstances surrounding the movement of Their Eyes Were Watching God from its initial position...
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Criticism: Gender And The Literary Canon
SOURCE: “Introduction: Gender, Theory, and the Crisis of the Canon,” in Gender, Theory, and the Canon, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, pp. 3-23.
[In the following excerpt, Winders discusses the influence of gender and theory on canon formation, suggesting that canonical works should be read by the postmodern critic in terms of history, culture, and gender.]
Être à la fois un universitaire et un intellectuel c'est essayer de faire jouer un type de savoir et d'analyse qui est enseigné et reçu dans l'université de façon à modifier non seulement la pensée des autres mais aussi la sienne propre. Ce travail de modification de sa propre pensée et de celle des autres me paraît être la raison d'être des intellectuels.
By feminist, one understands a way of reading texts that points to the masks of truth with which phallocentrism hides its fictions.
—Peggy Kamuf, “Writing like a Woman”
Reading as a lesbian is not necessarily what happens when a lesbian reads. … The hypothesis of a lesbian reader [is what] changes our apprehension of a given text.
—Jean E. Kennard, “Ourselves behind Ourselves: A Theory for Lesbian Readers”
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SOURCE: “Woman and the Twentieth-Century Spanish Literary Canon: The Lady Vanishes,” in Anales de la Literatura Espanola Conteporanea, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1992, pp. 301-24.
[In the following essay, Bieder examines some reasons for the shrinking role of women, as both authors and protagonists, in the twentieth-century Spanish literary canon.]
To observe that female protagonists and women authors are strikingly absent from the canon of Spanish fiction in the first third of the twentieth century is to state the obvious. Nevertheless, the shift away from the nineteenth-century feminocentric novel and the concurrent disappearance of women authors have received surprisingly little attention from critics and historians of Spanish literature. Even the most comprehensive formulation of the twentieth-century canon includes no women's names and no novels that center on female characters in the decades that separate Emilia Pardo Bazán from Carmen Laforet. My inquiry into this vanishing act will follow two different paths, pursuing both woman as text (the fictionalized woman in works of male authors) and woman as author (women writers and their fictions).
How do we account for this disappearance of women from the canon of pre-civil war Spanish fiction? Addressing the lack of women in the canon of American writers, Nina Baym reminds us that canon formation is an anachronous process that does not...
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Criticism: Minority And Third-World Literature And The Canon
SOURCE: “Difficult Subjects: Black British Women's Poetry,” in Literary Theory and Poetry: Extending the Canon, edited by David Murray, B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1989, pp. 108-26.
[In the following essay, Williams discusses approaches to the work of Black women poets in Britain and the possibility of including them in the British literary canon.]
How many people today live in a language that is not their own? Or no longer, or not yet, even know their own and know poorly the major language that they are forced to serve? This is the problem of immigrants, and especially of their children, the problem of minorities, the problem of a minor literature, but also a problem for all of us: how to tear a minor literature away from its own language, allowing it to challenge the language and making it follow a sober revolutionary path? How to become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one's own language?1
With this statement, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari set out a two-part problem: the complex relation to a dominant form of language of people who are in some way distanced from it or disadvantaged by it, and, perhaps no less importantly, the simultaneous desirability and difficulty of a particular strategy of language use by ‘native’ speakers of that language. Although the distinction is a rather difficult one to draw, this essay...
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SOURCE: “Decolonizing the Canon: Considerations of Third World Literature,” in New Literary History, Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 505-24.
[In the following essay, Gugelberger seeks to identify some common traits of “Third World Literature” and comments that, rather than being integrated into the traditional literary canon, it should be read for the insight it can provide into canonical texts.]
One of our basic political tasks lies precisely in the ceaseless effort to remind the American public of the radical difference of other national situations.
With revealing reference to Brecht, Ngugi wa Thiong'o in Barrel of a Pen stated what it is he considers to be the task of the Western writer in regard to “Third World Literature”: “He must expose to his European audience the naked reality of the relationship between Europe and the Third World. He has to show to his European reader that, to paraphrase Brecht, the water he drinks is often taken from the mouths of the thirsty in the third world and the food he eats is snatched from the mouths of the hungry in Asia, Africa, and South America.”2 And closer to home, to the heart of the empire, the United States, the only major industrialized country which borders directly on a Third World country, Carlos Fuentes has increasingly...
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SOURCE: “English Is a Foreign Anguish: Caribbean Writers and the Disruption of the Colonial Canon,” in Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century “British” Literary Canons, University of Illinois Press, 1992, pp. 261-78.
[In the following essay, Wilentz examines the writings of Caribbean authors who write in English in relation to the British canon.]
You taught me language; and my profit on't Is, I know how to curse.
Caliban, The Tempest
The issue of canon revision and reconstruction goes well beyond the selection of texts, for as Cary Nelson states in “Against English: Theory and the Limits of Discipline”: “The literary text is defended so as to distract attention from the real object to be protected—the profession of literary studies” (47). To examine Caribbean writers who write in English in relation to the British canon we must understand one of the basic tenets of this canon—that of colonialism and cultural domination. The authors of Rewriting English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class comment that the whole construct of canon formation was developed “in the establishment of curriculum for imperial dominations. For ‘English Literature’ was born, as a school and college subject, not in England but in the mission schools and training colleges of Africa and India” (Batsleer et al. 23). This “academic...
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Anderson, Earl R. and Gianfrancesco Zanetti. “Comparative Semantic Approaches to the Idea of a Literary Canon.” Journal of Aesthetics and Criticism 58, No. 4 (Fall 2000): 341-60.
Discusses how the semantics of the underlying discourse used by critics in their debate over the literary canon influences the debate itself.
Brown, Joan L. and Crista Johnson. “The Contemporary Hispanic Novel: Is There a Canon?” Hispania 78, No. 2 (May 1995): 252-61.
Examines reading lists from various graduate programs and concludes that there is very little consensus about which works belong to the Hispanic literature canon.
Direnc, Dilek. “Eudora Welty on Writing an American Quilt: Justifying Women's Work in the American Literary Canon.” Centennial Review 40, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 587-600.
Discusses Welty's use of quilting and other domestic imagery to pay tribute to the creative contributions of women in her fiction and in the American literature canon in general.
Dugaw, Dianne. “Dangerous Sissy: Gendered ‘Lives,’ John Gay, and the Literary Canon.” Philological Quarterly 75, No. 3 (Summer 1996): 339-60.
Explores the treatment of eighteenth-century writer John Gay through various time periods in order to demonstrate “how ideas of gender have...
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