Preserving the literary canon
by Anna Cain; illustration by Kelsey Skordal
Someone on a quest for immortality should not search 16th century Florida for the Fountain of Youth, but find a quiet room and write The Next Great Novel. The books of the literary canon will outlive not only the authors who wrote them, but the very societies that shaped them. Constantly reprinted and disseminated, classic novels are texts that have evolved into shared cultural experiences. Two complete strangers can find common ground by complaining about reading “The Scarlet Letter” in high school.
For all its power and immortality, the literary canon has blurry edges. Yes, we accept that a well-educated person should read Dante and Milton, and we expect liberal arts students to quote Nietzsche on demand. However, artists like Toni Morrison and Robert Bolaño may be pushed from the already nebulous canon into hazier off-shoots like the counter and shadow canons. There is no official list of humanity’s required reading, as different social groups and academic disciplines naturally differ on such judgments. Though the canon still holds power as an unwritten agreement, there have been numerous attempts to formalize it.
In the early 20th century, the president of the University of Chicago decided that “uncultured” businesspeople needed the equivalent of CC's unique intellectual adventure. The result was a 54 volume series that formally transformed the great books into the Great Books.
In theory, a bland professional with an obscene amount of free time would read all 37,000 pages and blossom into a refined specimen of the liberal arts. The series modestly aims to span the whole of Western civilization, from Homer and Sophocles to Tolstoy and Freud.
Though the 54 leather-bound volumes look magnificent on a book shelf, they are, to say the least, impractical. Literary anthologies have since attempted to present the canon in a more portable form.
Even confined to a single volume, the Norton and Oxford Anthologies of English Literature are still intimidating. Their microscopic text serves as a do-it-yourself vision test, and they are heavy enough to be the murder weapon in a creative CSI episode. These collections are notable not just for packing 6,000 years of literature into a single book, but also for their immutability. The Norton Anthology I can buy on Amazon today is only slightly different than the Norton Anthology my mom read in college. Its text contains have earned the approval of countless critics and professors. This, the introduction confidently informs us, is the best of English writing.
Outside the ivory tower are other, more populist, definitions of the literary canon. “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” does overlap with the Norton Anthology, though it lists less Chaucer and more graphic novels. Bookstores and publishers also select and reprint famous works of literature. Given the financial incentives, these tend to better reflect the reading tastes of the general public. The Barnes and Noble Classics series, for example, includes all six Jane Austen novels and the entire Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, but snubs Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
What’s more, the literary canon is not an arcane institution that only affects professors and critics. It takes another form, one that touches almost every person in the United States: the high school syllabus. Virtually every student has been forced, at some point, to read “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” The canon’s flaws are therefore not just fodder for academic debate, but a legitimate social concern.
The original Great Books series, published in 1952, showcased 332 unique works. Of those, 328 were written by white men. Only four female authors (Willa Cather, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf) were inducted into immortal readership. There was not a single text by a person of color. This collection, which aimed to recount the entire history of Western civilization, drew from authors who were wholly white and mostly male.
The Great Books series was naturally criticized for its discriminatory selections. However, decades later, the canon was still not egalitarian. When my mother was in college, she and other students used the 3rd edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, originally published in 1974 (my mother would like it to be known that she attended college many years after 1974). Somehow, this collection was even less inclusive. Of the 638 poems and short stories in this volume, every one, without exception, was written by a white man. Norton recognized the literary contributions of the Bloomsbury Group but excluded Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was ignored, but the anthology reprinted dozens of poems by her husband, Robert.
Today’s canon has made progress, but still privileges one perspective. The Barnes and Noble Classics series should, in theory, be more inclusive, as its selections are driven not by three or four critics, but by the tastes of a diverse clientele. However, of the acclaimed novels reprinted by Barnes and Noble, 140 are by white men, 25 by white women. There are seven books written by men of color, and a grand total of two by women of color. This racial disparity is, if possible, worse than it might first appear. The nine books by authors of color are all nonfictional memoirs, not literature in the traditional sense. We have none of the poetry of Langston Hughes, none of the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, none of the novels of Zora Neale Hurston.
Yes, television has arguably replaced the written word as the dominant story-telling method, and yes, anthologized literature will rarely be read on beaches or airplanes. However, contradictory as it may sound, declining reading rates can actually strengthen the power of the literary canon. An overworked high school English teacher facing a dreaded standardized test will inevitably assign canonical texts. If you read anything from the Renaissance, it will be Shakespeare. If the class touches the early 20th century, it will be through “The Great Gatsby.” Classics of world literature like “The Tale of Genji” will be replaced by well-known American novels like “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” David Damrosch, professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, compares this phenomenon to “a post industrialist economy.” The classroom might be a person’s sole exposure to great literature, and when there is only space for four of five texts in a syllabus, “the rich get richer while the rest just scrape by.”
These classroom time constraints have led to a peculiar phenomenon, wherein a single token author embodies a diverse body of work. “I would not say that the canon does not include women or minority writers. The issue I see with the canon is that it’s the same ones. In other words, there is one woman who gets promoted and stands in for all women writers,” said Colorado College Comparative Literature professor Corinne Scheiner. Toni Morrison, for example, may come to represent all writing by people of color. A literary anthology could reprint “Pride and Prejudice” and meet its quota of women authors. “You’re likely to graduate high school having read ‘Things Fall Apart’ four or five times,” Scheiner said. “And it may be the only African text you’ll ever read.” Even when a handful of selected minority authors are ushered into anthologies, the fabric of the canon remains largely unchanged.
Even if, as fear-mongering critics love to predict, the book is dead and we have become a mass of illiterate, tweeting heathens, the literary canon still holds power in the classroom.
For many people, high school and college are painful, transformative times. These years often witness the solidification of one’s personal identity. School takes up a sizeable portion of the day, and homework bleeds into everyday life. While reading the canon, students may be exploring their sexuality or learning what it means to be a woman or a person of color today. During this tumultuous period, classic literature can exert a real influence.
An English major disparaging the classics would likely face a lawsuit. Obviously, this literature has survived because it is culturally relevant and aesthetically sublime. However, when there are more great books than one could possibly read in a lifetime, it seems a pity to study only “lots of dead white guys.” In fact, in many disciplines, the canon is becoming increasingly obsolete. “We use the term somewhat uncritically. I’m even uncomfortable saying there is a canon,” Scheiner said. However, while comparative literature and other disciplines have changed in “recent decades what counts as an object of study,” my brother has been assigned “The Scarlet Letter” every year of his high school career. Until their readings lists grow more inclusive, he and his friends will continue to read canonical literature… on SparkNotes.
The most dangerous facet of the literary canon is not that it is overwhelmingly patriarchal, but that it has been crystalized as the pinnacle of the English language. These books, we are reminded, have withstood the centuries. The books, we are informed, have won the acclaim of readers far more educated and intelligent than ourselves. And, of course, we see that these books are all from a single perspective.