Sunday, August 26, 2012

Canon to the Left of Me

As Chaucer said, more or less, there is nothing new that is not old.

We had a canon discussion this week.  Yes, that canon.

Some people felt that our students don't read enough canonical works, especially by 20th century USian authors.  They meant (in this discussion) that our students aren't reading enough Eliot, Hemingway, Fitzgerald.

And the argument wasn't coming only from where you might expect, either.

But the argument was coming from a sense that there's this unchanging marker of "real" and "value" in literature, and it's centered (in the US, anyway), on a bunch of men writing mostly between the wars (those wars being WWI and II, not Iraq I and II).

Amusingly enough, from the point of view of someone who loves dead white guys, one of those white guys was part of a movement that drastically changed the canon.  Yes, there was a time when Donne and the other metaphysicals weren't the center of the poetry canon.  And then people such as Eliot made Donne and the gang vitally important, and they were.  And now it's hard to think of not reading Donne in any 17th century British context.

On the other hand, it's easy to think of not reading Hooker or Andrews; and Shirley, Beaumont, and Fletcher aren't nearly as important as Marlowe and Jonson these days, though they once were.

I have a feeling that in the next 50 years, there's going to be a fair bit of reshuffling of the canon, and the WWI-WWII folks are going to feel way less important and take up less room in anthologies.

We need to think of the canon as something under revision.  That's scary, of course, because we all spent a load of time learning our field, and the canon in our field, and we don't want that ground unstable.  And it's pretty easy to say that as a Shakespeare person, because I'm guessing he's not dropping out any time soon.  But the people who spent a lot of time reading Dreiser may feel that their time could have been spent doing something else.  (Or is it only me who feels that way about Dreiser?)

And also, how is it that the canon doesn't now include Morrison, Hurston, and Hong Kingston?

We, people who teach English literature, contribute to making the canon through our teaching and research choices, as do editors and publishers (especially of anthologies), testing folks (the folks who test for high school teaching licenses, especially), school boards, and yes, readers.  Of these, there's no reason we who teach in colleges (and who get to develop curricula and make teaching choices) need to be a conservative force in this array.

I'm pretty much on the fringe of the USian canon discussion here, but I have to say, it's amusing to watch the US scholars get on about how we need to teach the canon and know that we don't teach Beowulf, Pope, Dryden, or a bunch of other folks central to a certain British canon much at all.


In amongst this discussion was a colleague of mine who's been spending a fair bit of time over in the administrative fort and has picked up this habit that annoys the dickens out of me.  (Get that, dickens?  Hah!)  Subject X gets mentioned, and zie says, "I'd be happy to engage in a dialogue about X in the future," and goes on.  Seriously?  You're willing to engage in a dialogue?  You and who else?  Can there only be two voices?  And you get to generously decide what we get to talk about?

I feel defeated this semester, and the semester hasn't begun.  I got assigned to a committee (one I can't decline for very good reasons) and zie is also on this committee. 


  1. What a prime example of administrative-speak! It is funny, but also sad.

    We aren't currently teaching Hemingway at either of my institutions, but everyone graduates having read at least one Morrison. Just sayin'. :-)

  2. But Hurston, Morrison, and (less so) Maxine Hong Kingston ARE the canon now, at least for high school students beginning to take college lit courses. All the high school students have read _Their Eyes Were Watching God_ or something by Morrison. Of the DWG (dead white guys), they've read Fitzgerald's _The Great Gatsby_ and that's about it.

  3. At Heartland U, we hand out our traditional canon readings in the Humanities classes. In there, I'm teaching Genesis, Gilgamesh (I know I'm out of order), The Iliad, a couple of Seneca plays, Beowulf, Inferno, The Prince, Marlowe's Edward II, and Shakespeare's Henry V. It's heavy on drama this year because that's my field. (I feel like drama isn't taught enough, besides Shakespeare, so I'm hitting it hard.) No women writers, of course.

    It's not my fault, really. There are about fifteen standards that Humanities repeats yearly, and I chose mostly from those. The wild cards that I insisted on were Seneca, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. The rest were the standards. The second class goes from the Restoration to 20th century, and has some choices of women writers, but not many. I do know, though, that most of the women writers who are taught on this campus are white, heterosexual women. It was a little bit of a surprise to my women playwrights class last year when I taught a couple of plays by lesbians (Eve Ensler and Jane Bowles) and non-white women (Alice Childress and Elizabeth Wong).

    Tomorrow, I lecture on Gilgamesh, and I'm trying to get something of the gender tensions in there. We'll see how it works out.

  4. As long as I don't have to ride into the valley of death, I'm good with challenging canon!

    One of the ways I've also tried to shake matters up is by ensuring I give a good account of modern women scholars when picking monographs for my seniors. There are a wealth of fabulous women working in my field but it's easy for students to only see the men, especially as they dominate the textbook & documentary end of things.