Canon Formation, Canon Revision

Posted: September 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

Rembrandt von Rijn
Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer (1653)

Dear Students, we have already this semester discussed canon and canonicity with respect to the critical writings of T. S. Eliot. By “canon,” we mean at least two things:

1) the established and understood (though not necessarily written) set of rules whereby a given work of art can be recognized as valid and great, or the set of standards according to which an artist might produced a work of art which aspires to greatness.

2) the set of individual works (explicitly enumerated or otherwise) which have been accepted and set forth as exemplifying artistic greatness, and which function as standards against which all new works can be judged.

Canons, where they have been established, generally function to create a sense of collective identity, to draw together and maintain groups whose members are united by a common appreciation and respect for a body of works they view as authoritative. Most of the literature you read in high school – or are reading in college Humanities courses – will be have been taken from out of the established canon of great European and American literature – generally collected and presented in the form of anthologies. For many years, the Norton History of English, or American, Literature – currently edited by preeminent Shakespeare scholar and Harvard professor Steven Greenblatt – have been considered definitive. (In opposition to this, the modern Sciences, though they do have their own body of canonical writings, tend rather to be taught though textbooks – something about which you’ll hear me speak later.) But where there are group norms there are bound to arise disputes over what constitutes the norm and how one conforms to it properly, and where this is inclusion there is bound also to be exclusion. Since canons first began to appear, there have been disputes over what they do and ought to contain.

Today is no exception with regard to canon debates. Over the last decades, and particularly since the 1980s, a great debate has arisen in American universities regarding what taught ought to be taught to students (CLICK). As this country becomes increasingly diversified, and increasingly aware of its social diversity, many scholars have complained that the English literary canon canon is either too restrictive, insufficiently relevant, or entirely obsolete. Consequently, various efforts have arisen either to expand, revise or destroy the canon. In an effort to address these issues, the Norton company has in recent years begun to issue a series of “alternative” or supplementary anthologies, each representing a group of writers whose identities, interests and styles were thought grossly underrepresented in the dominant canon, which was composed predominantly of white males. These new volumes, though received well for the most part, have no emerged without controversy, and much of what is taught in Literature departments in colleges today involves not only the books contained in these modern canons but also the fiery debates surrounding their production.

Recently, I heard on the radio a broadcast featuring Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans, general editor of the most recent addition to the Norton family of literary anthologies – The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature.


The Accents of Latino Literature
NPR – On Point – Monday, September 13, 2010

Stavans, in his remarks, discussed the diverse group of cultures and historical periods from which he drew the texts he found representative of Latino literature. As in all prior cases of canon expansion and revision, Stavans will have made choices that will choice various parties either to rejoice or protest. This is almost inevitable, and these reactions are worthy of investigation and discussion. For now what should matter to us however, is the simply fact that standards do change, however gradually or rapidly, and that to remain culturally relevant ourselves we must be aware of these changes – both past and present.

What are your experiences with canons and canonicity? Has your education thus far taken the form of an inculcation into canonical literature, or has your education avoided the canon? If you have received such an education, do you feel that process represented an initiation into great culture, or rather a form of ideological indoctrination, or simply a waste of your time? Does your awareness of the literary canon, however recently acquired offer you comfort or distress?

I welcome and encourage all thoughtful responses.

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