What is This American Canon?

Whose American Literature?

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Readers, teachers, and other scholars have debated the question of what belongs in the American "canon" almost as long as writing has been published in America.

One reason it is so difficult to answer this question because of the complex nature of America itself. You can only decide what belongs in the American canon by thinking about the nature of the American identity and the nature -- and function -- of American literature.

Below you will find a short list of links to important articles on the subject of the literary canon that can provide a starting point for your own thinking about reconstructing the canon. Of course, as you proceed with your thinking and investigations, you will also find it useful consult other resources available online, through academic databases, and through library catalogues.


A Few Places to Start

The Concept of Literary Canon: An Overview--

This site is hosted by The Victorian Web, which is devoted largely to the study of nineteenth century English Writing. However, you will find here some useful definitions of some issues that affect canon formation. It also emphasizes feminist responses to the traditional canon.

Courses and Pedagogy--

This web-page composed by Georgetown's Randy Bass offers a few thoughts for professors trying to decide how to teach the American canon.

APAP Archives 1997 Re canon--

This informal message written by a professor in an on-line discussion group to a Polish professsor unfamiliar with the idea of a "canon" gives you an easy-to-understand sense of what the term means to teachers.

Negotiating the American Identity--

One particularly good way of learning about the difficulties one encounters when trying to assemble an American "canon" is to visit this site at the National Portrait Gallery. It describes the types of issues that arise when trying to construct a gallery of portraits intended to represent the American identity.


A Sample of Respected Canon Critics from Earlier Periods

 

Irving Howe

The Value of the Canon

Read Howe's article on the canon that was distributed in class for a wonderful introduction to a traditional way of thinking about this subject. 

 

Henry Nash Smith

Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth

 

T.S. Eliot

Tradition and the Individual Talent. Eliot, T. S. 1920. The Sacred Wood--

T.S. Eliot is the "granddaddy" of all of today's canon commentators. This text, available online through Project Bartleby, was first published in 1920 and so is relatively ancient as far as scholarship is concerned. However, it is classic rather than dated. It is an essay I have thought of often over the years since first encountering it in graduate school.


Some"BIG GUNS" in the Recent Canon Wars

 

Nina Baym

Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors.

Baym's title gives you a good idea of her thesis. In case you missed the point she restates it in her opening paragraph when she asserts: "My concern is with the fact that the theories controlling our reading of American literature have led to the exclusion of women authors from the canon."

 

Houston Baker, Henry Louis Gates, and Joyce A. Joyce

This triumvirate of prominent African-American critics speak out on the unique questions and problems posed by African-American writers and critics in a collection of essays entitled "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism.

 

Harold Bloom

Excerpts from The Western Canon and Several Reviews of the Book:

The Western Canon, despite the limitless idealism of those who would open it up, exists precisely in order to impose limits, to set a standard of measurement that is anything but political or moral. I am aware that there is now a kind of covert alliance between popular culture and what calls itself "cultural criticism," and in the name of that alliance cognition itself may doubtless yet acquire the stigma of the incorrect. Cognition cannot be placed without memory, and the Canon is the true art of memory, the authentic foundation for cultural thinking. Most simply, the Canon is Plato and Shakespeare; it is the image of the individual thinking, whether it be Socrates thinking through his own dying, or Hamlet contemplating that undiscovered company. Mortality joins memory in the consciousness of reality-testing that the Canon induces. By its very nature, the Western Canon will never close, but it cannot be forced open by our current cheerleaders. Strength alone can open it up, the strength of a Freud or a Kafka, persistent in their cognitive negations.

HomeArts Harold Bloom -- A Western Canon, Jr.

This is an interview with Harold Bloom, one of the most outspoken supporters of is a supporter of the "great tradition." Here is an excerpt:

When we talked with Bloom in his home near the Yale University campus, he showed all the enthusiasm of a child as he spoke about his past and present as a reader. He was deeply concerned, however, with our first question about how to encourage children to read. "I may begin to weep," he said. "There is nothing I despair about more. I'm old-fashioned enough and romantic enough--and absurd enough, I suppose--to believe that children, by and large, are natural readers until this is destroyed for them by the media--by horribly overloud rock and by hideously endless television."

This site presents an overview of Bloom's history as a critic, and links to summaries of his more important books and articles.

Marjorie Perloff Responds to Bloom

A scholar argues back.

 

Frederick Crews

"The New Americanists"

Here is Crews on the canon:

I am thinking of such cultural nostalgics as William Bennett, Allan Bloom, Lynne Cheney, and Roger Kimball-- people who conceive of the ideal university as a pantheon for the preservation of great works and great ideas. All of those commentators implicitly subscribe to a "transfusion" model of education, whereby the stored-up wisdom of the classics is considered a kind of plasma that will drip beneficially into our veins if we only stay sufficiently passive in its presence. My own notion of learning is entirely different. I want keen debate, not reverence for great books: historical consciousness and self-reflection, not supposedly timeless values; and continual expansion of our national canon to match a necessarily unsettled sense of who "we" are and what we ultimately care about. Literary culture, I believe, ought to be an instrument not of fearful elitism but of democracy--and this means a certain amount of turmoil surrounding the canon should be taken in stride.

"Whose American Renaissance?"

Crews is back and he's still spoiling for a fight: "While we have all been debating which nineteenth-century works 'have lasting appeal,' most of us have forgotten to ask: appeal to whom? As the academy has come to dominate what is published and taught about premodern literature, the whole notion of making a diffuse 'educated public' into an arbiter has become ever more implausible."

 

Cathy Davidson

"Texts as Histories"

This essay is actually a chapter from Davidson's important book, The Rise of the Novel in America. Here's an excerpt:
Literature is one way in which values are taught in a society, and canonization is the mechanism for that larger enterprise. By focusing on fiction, I have attempted to re-place the standard literary syllabus of the new Republic by adding another voice to the history of America's postrevolutionary epoch. But making history is only one reason to read early novels, and, borrowing here from New Criticism, I hasten to emphasize that fiction is not history and that literature can never be simply "reduced" to history.

 

Jane Tompkins

Masterpiece Theater: The Politics of Hawthorne's Literary Reputation

In this excerpt from her widely-cited book, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, Tomkins talks about how Hawthorne came to be--and stay-- "canonized."

 

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

Between Individualism and Fragmentation: American Culture and the New Literary Studies of Race and Gender

Genovese argues:

More sharply than any other ethnic culture, the African-American tradition exposes the tensions that bind discrete American peoples to the dominant culture. For more than any other ethnic group, African-Americans have been individually and collectively stigmatized first by the experience of slavery and then by race.

Additional Resources for Research 

 

"The New Canaan, the Old Canon, and the New World in American Literature Anthologies" by Raymond F. Dolle in "College Literature" 17.2/3 (June/October 1990, pp. 196-208)

"Students must realize that a canonical text may be included not because of its eternal beauty and truth or because it represents the best that has been thought and said, but rather because it serves someone's political or ideological interests."

 

"John Winthrop and the Origins of American Multiculturalism: A Plea against Balkanization" Dr. David R. Williams English Dept. George Mason University

"Not simply the oldest American dead white European male, nor the authoritarian Puritan patriarch, nor a sainted Pilgrim Father, John Winthrop needs to be rescued from all of those who would paint him either as an American saint or a demon. At themoment, he particularly needs to be rescued from those, making roomin their anthologies and surveys for new voices, are tempted toabandon him as irrelevant or as downright harmful.

These current efforts to bring previously marginalized voicesinto our classes are a healthy movement long overdue. But, as itscritics fear, the multicultural challenge to the canon doesrequire, to accommodate the recovery of neglected texts, thereplacing of some older chestnuts. Anthologies are already toolarge to consume entirely in any one course, and undergraduates arereading less not more in our finite fourteen week semesters. Hence,before the new voices overwhelm the old, it may be time todetermine within the context of the academic concerns of thepresent which of the older, traditional texts ought to be retained.

 

The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism

 

PAL: Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide--Appendix K: American Literary History & Theory

 

Voice of the Shuttle Cultural Studies Page:

There is a link on this page to a collection of materials on debates about the canon. Taking a look at this site might offer one way of thinking about the kinds of issues that are currently in contention. It might allow you to collect additional resources once you have selected a focus.

 

A Selected Bibliography Compiled Using FirstSearch

 


The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and directed by Dr. John McClymer (Department of History), and Dr. Lucia Knoles (Department of English) of Assumption College. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.