Revising the Literary Canon Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.