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
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
This web-page composed by Georgetown's Randy Bass offers
a few thoughts for professors trying to decide how to teach the American
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.
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
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
Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth
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
Some"BIG GUNS" in the Recent Canon Wars
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.
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.
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.
Perloff Responds to Bloom
A scholar argues back.
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.
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."
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.
Theater: The Politics of Hawthorne's Literary Reputation
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."
Individualism and Fragmentation: American Culture and the New Literary
Studies of Race and Gender
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
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."
Winthrop and the Origins of American Multiculturalism: A Plea against
Balkanization" Dr. David R. Williams English Dept. George Mason
"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.
John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism
Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide--Appendix
K: American Literary History & Theory
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
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