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.)

Criticism: Canon Change In American Literature

Jay B. Hubbell (essay date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 4158 words.)

Paul Lauter (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 15055 words.)

Robert Hemenway (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5822 words.)

Hershel Parker (essay date October 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 7576 words.)

Carla Mulford (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 3569 words.)

Sarah M. Corse and Monica D. Griffin (essay date June 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 12499 words.)

Criticism: Gender And The Literary Canon

James A. Winders (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 9719 words.)

Maryellen Bieder (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 9662 words.)

Criticism: Minority And Third-World Literature And The Canon

Patrick Williams (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 7477 words.)

Georg M. Gugelberger (essay date Summer 1991)

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.

Fredric Jameson1


(The entire section is 8172 words.)

Gay Wilentz (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 7270 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 462 words.)