The Literary Canon Analysis

At Issue

Of making books, declares Ecclesiastes, there is no end. But, in a finite life, which books should one read? With almost 50,000 new titles published in the United States alone every year, even the most voracious reader cannot keep up with all of contemporary publishing, let alone the libraries of what has already been published. Readers are obliged to make choices, to set priorities among the vast supply of texts competing for attention. The canon is the body of writings endorsed as most worth reading. It is a weighty response to the question: Which ten (one hundred, one thousand) books would one take to an uninhabited island? More serious forms of this question include: Which books merit humanity’s most immediate and enduring interest? Behind such a question lie two more questions: Who makes that decision? On what basis?

The Controversy

The canon, along with other institutions and practices in North America and Western Europe, has been subject to question and attack. Many argue that the canon is too narrow, that it is almost exclusively the product of dead white European males and needs to be opened up to authors from different backgrounds. Feminists fault anthologies and curricula for failing to include more than a few token women, and multiculturalists criticize the Eurocentric bias they find in the canon. The traditional canon seems almost entirely devoid of blacks, Asians, Latinos, and American Indians, for example. The existing canon is also charged with homophobic bias.

Liberal critics who attack the canon for being too narrow and who fight to reconfigure it to include previously excluded groups often nevertheless assume the basic validity and value of canonization. A more radical challenge to the canon comes from those who reject the concept of a canon, who argue that canons are inherently undemocratic and coercive. Instead of merely tinkering with the components of the canon, they call for a leveling of literary hierarchies, for a culture in which no text or reader is privileged over any other. There are no great books, they charge, because greatness is a political construction, one that gets in the way of analyzing all cultural activity. The remedy for Eurocentrism is elimination of all centers.

Conservatives respond to attacks by liberals on canonical choices and to attacks by radicals on the institution of canon by reaffirming the esthetic and moral value of those literary masterpieces that have managed to withstand the test of time. They insist that not all works merit an equal claim on humanity’s limited attention, and they refuse to reduce assessments of artistic achievement to a political algebra. Regardless of Milton’s race, gender, class, or sexual biases, Paradise Lost (1667), they maintain, is a masterpiece, and time spent studying it will enrich its readers. Because of the values that it embodies and its exemplary craft, the traditional canon, conservatives argue, ought to be the common heritage of every educated reader. For a student of literature, to be unversed in the canon is to be culturally illiterate.

Implications for Identity

Canon formation is neither as conspiratorial as some fear nor as democratic as others wish. It is the product of collective preferences expressed over time by critics, teachers, editors, publishers, and general readers. Some people manage to exert more influence than others. The biblical canon was determined by an ecclesiastical elite at a particular place and time, but the literary canon develops more gradually and openly, and it is never entirely settled. Otherwise, masterpiece anthologies would not be revised with such startling frequency. Comparison of a compilation of major poets published in 1900, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was still in high repute, with one published in 1950, when John Donne provided the ambiguity and complexity then thought to be the defining qualities of great poetry, reveal as much change as continuity. Herman Melville, among others canonized in the 1930’s and 1940’s as geniuses, was unknown a few years earlier. In the last decade of the twentieth century, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novella The Awakening became the most widely taught literary text in American universities; it was out of print a few years before. The vagaries of literary reputation ought to give pause to those who either champion or scorn the canon as a permanent body of timeless classics.

The Canon in the United States

Within the United States, the controversy over canon has been part of a larger anxiety over cultural identity, which became particularly acute at the conclusion of the Cold War, when, with the end of a common public threat, consensus over national purpose and character eroded. A massive increase in immigration, especially from Asia and Latin America, challenged traditional assumptions about the European cultural heritage of the United States. Divisions over whether Americans could share a common set of values and even a common language multiplied. The canon was a casualty of increasing fragmentation and polarization; if Americans could no longer agree on their histories and principles, it became difficult to identify a body of texts that all could esteem.

Within high schools and colleges, the canon wars, often as militant as if waged with cannon, became a special case of disputes over the purpose and pattern of a liberal arts education. Advocates of a core curriculum, like champions of the canon, insisted that a central body of knowledge be required of every student. What constitutes that irreducible essence—mathematics and Latin but not microeconomics and music?—became as moot as the question of what are the great books. The position that, in a truly free society, all courses should be elective and none required echoes claims that any attempt at fixing a canon is oppressive. If a nation cannot agree on who its people are and what it wants to be, it is unlikely that it can agree on priorities for what to know and what to read. In such a lack of consensus, the idea of a core curriculum and...

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Suggested Readings

Arnold, Matthew. “The Study of Poetry.” In Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, edited by Stefan Collini. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. An influential Victorian’s attempt to develop criteria for greatness in poetry by using lines from earlier works as touchstones of excellence.

Berman, Paul, ed. Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses. New York: Dell, 1992. Reprints essays by Irving Howe, Edward W. Said, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Katha Pollitt that advance varied positions in the canon controversy.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1994. An ambitious attempt to define and review the canon question and to argue for the centrality of twenty-six authors to what Bloom calls the Aristocratic, Democratic, and Chaotic Ages.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Discussions of literary canon, with particular reference to race, by a prominent African-American scholar.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English. New York: Norton, 1985. An influential argument for and demonstration of an alternative English literary canon, consisting exclusively of works written by women.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. Argues the need for a canon of general knowledge for contemporary Americans and outlines what it might be like.

Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954. An opinionated attempt to define the tradition of the English novel.

Von Hallberg, Robert, ed. Canons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Essays, reprinted from the scholarly journal Critical Inquiry, that examine the concept and practice of canon formation.