American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 23

Teaching the Humanities:

Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Development Project


Moving to the Other Side of the Desk:
Teachers’ Stories of Self-Fashioning

Linda Wells


Edward L. Rocklin

Shaping the Multicultural Curriculum:
Biblical Encounters with the Other

Lois Feuer

Nationalism, History, the Chicano Subject, and the Text
Darlene Emily Hicks

Ms. Higgins and the Culture Warriors:
Notes Toward the Creation of an
Eighth Grade Humanities Curriculum

John G. Ramsay

History and the Humanities:
The Politics of Objectivity and
The Promise of Subjectivity

Eve Kornfeld

Toward a “Curriculum of Hope”:
The Essential Role of Humanities Scholarship
in Public School Teaching

Paul A. Fideler

Works Consulted

Transforming Canons, Transforming Teachers

Edward L. Rocklin
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Prologue: Initiating Questions and Shaping Experiences

In the last decade, one central topic of educational reform has been the debate over the canon, and over efforts to “open up the canon.” As is true with other hot issues, the debate has not only aroused fiercely divided responses but prompted discussions that have sometimes produced more heat than light. The complexity of the issue is illustrated and one source of that heat is illuminated by Wendell Harris’s essay on “Canonicity,” perhaps the best introduction to the debate, which offers 10 definitions of canon and distinguishes seven functions that canons may perform. The opening of the essay demonstrates how easily we can generate apparent paradoxes simply by use of different meanings and functions:

The canonical facts about the canons of English and American literature are, first, that there are no canons and never have been; second, that there have necessarily always been canons; and third, that canons are made up of readings, not disembodied texts. What is contradictory in that statement results from play on different connotations of the word canon — a critical strategy that is constantly, though often more subtly, abused. As with many another critical term, the first step in understanding canon is to unpack its meanings. The “canon question” then proves much more complex than contemporary ideological criticism admits. (Harris, “Canonicity” 110)

Thus the starting point for this essay, as it is for Harris, is indeed to unpack what a canon is and does. However, I will suggest that for teachers — and I take it that it is participation in the act of teaching that provides the common ground for all members of the ACLS Teacher and Curriculum Development Project — the issue is not simply to answer the question “What is a canon?” but rather the questions “What does a canon do?” and “What do we do through forming, employing, and reforming canons?” Furthermore, I will also suggest that just as “canons are made up of readings, not disembodied texts,” so also transformations of the canon must be carried out by individual teachers. Thus it is imperative to recognize that opening up the canon entails not only revising our reading lists but also revising our designs and practices ways that, while they offer us great opportunities for growth as readers and greater effectiveness as teachers, also make sharp demands of us. Confronting these demands is exactly what ACLS Teacher and Curriculum Development Project has given us the time and space to do — and it has thereby made clear that canon reformation and curriculum development does indeed demand that school districts offer teachers adequate time and support if they want those teachers to own such transformation, as they must own any new canon they set out to teach

Let me say something about the route I have taken in writing this essay because it is clear, as Linda Wells makes clear in her essay, that how each of us comes to a question shapes the answers we compose. I am in my 21st year as a college teacher, and my seventh year working in the English and Foreign Languages Department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Like many of those in my generation of Ph.D. candidates, I am a hybrid creature in that I have been trained not only to teach literature but to teach writing. I have taught at least one composition course in every term, as well as teaching 71 writing workshops for the United States Government, and these workshops were important in shaping not only how I teach but my belief that we must pay much greater attention to the relation between what we teach and how we teach. My dissertation was on that most canonical of English literary figures, Shakespeare, whose plays I teach using performance approaches — which is to say approaches that are canonical in theater departments but still contested and, in most cases, marginal in literature departments. In addition, I teach courses in drama from 1390 to 1990; courses in Renaissance literature; general education literature courses; and graduate courses in Shakespeare, drama, and Renaissance literature, as well as in pedagogy.

More immediately, as one of the post-secondary fellows in the ACLS program, I have spent the past 10 months working with eight teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District, all members of the Humanitas program within the district, discussing canon reformation, multi-cultural education, and curriculum revision. Our immersion in these topics has been intense — during the fall quarter we read 30 novels and books of criticism, as well as over 60 other stories, essays, and critical studies. Nonetheless, I am not an expert on canons or on multiculturalism. But this work has taught me about the process of revising the canon and the curriculum, and I have learned, thanks especially to the generosity of the teachers in our team, about the specific demands such a revision places on those who must enact it — and about the constraints within which they must perform their transforming magic. It is this work with teachers that shapes what I have written here.1

But what also shapes what I have written is my conviction that the debate over the canon is, in fact, part of a larger and more fundamental argument, in which we are engaged in the task of reconceiving the nature of English as one of the humanities. Employing a metaphor, I would suggest that the canon debate forms one of three dimensions in which this reconception is being enacted. The canon debate is over what we will teach, but the other two dimensions — although they are phrased and inflected differently by those working in the public schools and those working in colleges and universities — are defined by debates over the connections between reading and writing, and debates about the relation of what we teach to how we teach. My own efforts over the past 10 years have been focused on these latter two dimensions. My work with performance approaches in teaching drama in general and Shakespeare’s plays in particular (the ACLS fellowship has enabled me to complete a book embodying this approach) is concerned with the third dimension of rethinking how we teach — and it connects with the work of Eve Kornfeld, whose essay in this volume suggests how we can use performance approaches in teaching history. At the same time, this work connects with the essay by Lois Feuer since, like Professor Feuer, I suggest non-canonical ways and contexts in which to teach canonical texts. Furthermore, the performance approach I propose also aims to integrate reading and writing in a number of ways. But while my efforts as critic and teacher have been and are primarily in these second and third dimensions, I also find myself necessarily engaged in rethinking the canon directly, and this essay is the result of turning my attention to this question, both because that was a way I could contribute to the seminar and because it is a step in my own project.

This way of situating the canon debate has consequences, furthermore, not only in terms of the purposes I set myself but also in terms of the way I have imagined my readers — or invited them to situate themselves. For as several readers have noted, in what follows it may seem that I am addressing public school teachers more than the university faculty who are the members of the ACLS or its constituent societies and the audience for this collection. Of course I certainly am addressing public school teachers, attempting to capture the experience of one group of such teachers in order to provide other teachers with a map to the territory of canon reformation. Nonetheless, my audience is also very much the university faculty who comprise the primary constituency of the ACLS, though I am speaking to them first of all as teachers rather than as researchers.

By addressing my readers as teachers, I am seeking to foreground what we share in our professional identities, hence what we share in the debates over reforming the canon. But as the experience of participants at all four first-year sites of the ACLS Project demonstrated, the effort to define common ground must also acknowledge the differences that occur when teachers in universities and teachers in public schools set out to reform the canon. This is a crucial point that is developed in John Ramsay’s fine essay. What Ramsay shows us is how a teacher, having been transformed herself by encounters with new literature and new theory, and having decided to transform her local canon, begins to enact the transformation not simply of her reading list but of her curriculum and her pedagogy. Even more important, John’s essay begins to articulate many of the dimensions of such a transformation that are usually invisible to university faculty, whose efforts do not automatically have to confront the developmental issues of their students nor the pressures exerted by state frameworks, district policies, and local administrative choices, and can therefore transform their local canons largely by transforming their reading lists, digesting the appropriate criticism, and exploring some new ways of framing the texts they ask students to read. While this way of phrasing the matter may make it seem that I am understating the obstacles that can confront university faculty — for example the intense hostility of colleagues who do not want the canon reformed — the urgent issue here is to be(come) aware of differences that, left unacknowledged, tend to subvert the efforts of university faculty to work with public school teachers, who will quickly sense when university faculty do not have any conception of the pressures and the opportunities that the teachers face.

This need to understand differences as well as similarities in our shared identity was acknowledged in the address with which Stanley N. Katz, President of the ACLS, inaugurated the project:

The underlying premise of the program in which we are engaged is that there is an unnecessary and counter-productive fracture within the teaching profession, between those who teach youngsters in the K through 12 years and those who teach grades 13–16. We should share the same concerns for the education of our students, although of course our strategies, techniques, and interim goals will frequently be quite different. . . .

What happens educationally in the schools is important to post-secondary educators not only because precollegiate teachers prepare some of their students for us, but also because they have both experiential and theoretical knowledge about pedagogy (both teaching and learning) to impart to us, though we have seldom taken their expertise with sufficient seriousness. Conversely, the disciplinary professionals of the colleges and universities have subject matter expertise which is essential to school teachers. Both need to learn from each other, but until fairly recently there were few institutional mechanisms for the sharing of knowledge and experience across the high school-college crevasse. (2–3)

Arguments about these issues have been a major element in the ACLS Project, and perhaps they will be taken up in another volume of ACLS essays. Certainly, it is a topic vital to this particular project, especially if one believes, as I do, that it is not just the public schools but the universities which need to transform both what they do and how they do what they do.

Some of the differences come into focus, it seems to me, if we shift to the phrase more commonly used in the general public debate, opening up the canon. For university faculty, this means opening up the list of texts read and taught. But for a public school teacher, the act of opening up the canon may entail opening up some or all of the following: the state-mandated curriculum framework; local district policies; the school-site administration’s policies; the department’s curriculum; and the minds of students and their parents. For example, most university faculty have never had to ask themselves what they would do if a group of students complained to an assistant principal about a new reading list, nor have they had to think about what they would do if a group of students went to a guidance counselor to complain they were being forced to try performance activities in class, activities in which they are compelled to do things they had never done before — both situations encountered by high school teachers in the districts in which my university is located. It is in the context of becoming aware of the similarities and differences of our situations — our material conditions, to use another vocabulary — that I write this essay, and those conditions are among those implied in my title.

I would add, then, that my essay complements John Ramsay’s in another way, for John presents dramatically what I (re)present more analytically. Indeed, in his very choice to dramatize the problems of creating a revised humanities curriculum John enables us to learn crucial lessons about the complex, reciprocal — not unidirectional — relation of theory and pedagogy. Furthermore, his models offer one possible movement by which a K–12 humanities teacher can not only join the conversation but also find common ground across the differences that can easily isolate university and public school teachers from one another:

At that moment, I realized I was no longer a reading teacher. At that point, I knew I had become a humanities professional, on an equal footing with the scholars and policy makers I have been reading. I realized that the culture warriors had won at least one battle: I had become one of them. (Ramsay 102)

I would suggest that the essays in this volume invite readers to reflect, on how they too “become” different because they become transformed when they set out to transform the canon.

Let me stress that I will not be offering “answers” to the problems examined in this essay. Answers or solutions are what participants in the dialogue must produce through their own engagement, discussion, debate, and choices. What I will be offering are some categories and concepts that can help in confronting these issues, and perhaps even help to establish some common ground from which to discuss different points of view and different options for action. Furthermore, while there are general theoretical issues to be debated, canon formation and the use of canons is an affair of individuals and local institutions, of teachers in school districts making choices, testing those choices out in their classes, discussing results with each other, and so on. In that sense, the whole ACLS project itself is participating in the process of opening up the canon — and not just the canon of literature but the canons of teaching as well.

This essay is divided into three parts. Part I unpacks the concept of canon by looking at the etymology of the term and laying out a spectrum of positions in the debate about the canon. Part II uses that spectrum to explore the different routes by which the canon may be changed, and to analyze some of the consequences of taking those different routes. Part III looks at how transforming the canon is likely to demand that teachers transform themselves, in terms not only of learning about new authors and new works but in terms of reconceiving some aspects of our discipline as “English” teachers.

I. Canons: An Etymology and a Spectrum

“Opening Up the Canon”:
A Spectrum of Positions in the Canon Debate

It is surely no coincidence that there is a canonical way to begin any discussion of the canon, and since I do not want to appear heretical, I will begin with this canonical move, which is to trace the etymology of the word. Here, for example, is the tracing offered by M. H. Abrams in the entry for “Canon of Literature” from The Glossary of Literary Terms (6th edition, 1993):

The Greek word “kanon,” signifying a measuring rod or a rule, was extended to denote a list or catalogue, then came to be applied to the list of books in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament which were designated by church authorities as comprising the genuine Holy Scriptures. A number of writings related to those in the Scriptures, but not admitted into the canon, are called apocrypha; eleven books which have been included in the Roman Catholic biblical canon are considered apocryphal by Protestants.

The term “canon” was later used in a literary application, to signify the list of works accepted by experts as genuinely written by a particular author. We speak thus of “the Chaucer canon” and “the Shakespeare canon,” and refer to other works that have sometimes been attributed to an author, but on evidence judged to be inadequate or invalid, as “apocryphal.” In recent decades the phrase literary canon has come to denote — in world literature, or in European literature, but most frequently in a national literaturethose authors who by a cumulative consensus of critics, scholars, and teachers, have come to be widely recognized as “major,” and to have written works often hailed as literary classics. These canonical writers are the ones which, at any given time, are most kept in print, most frequently and fully discussed by literary critics, and most likely to be included in anthologies and taught in college courses with titles such as “World Masterpieces,” “Major English Authors,” or “Great American Writers.”

The social process by which an author comes to be tacitly and durably recognized as canonical is often called “canon formation.” The factors in this formative process are complex and disputed. It seems clear, however, that the process involves, among other things, the wide concurrence of critics, scholars, and authors with diverse viewpoints and sensibilities; the persistent influence of, and reference to, an author in the work of other authors; the frequent reference to an author within the discourse of a cultural community; and the widespread assignment of an author or text in school and college curricula. Such factors are of course mutually interactive, and they need to be sustained over a considerable period of time. . . .

At any time, the boundaries of a canon remain indefinite, while inside those boundaries some authors are central and others marginal. Occasionally an earlier author who was for long on the fringe of the canon, or even outside it, gets transferred to a position of eminence. Once firmly established as a central figure, however, an author shows remarkable resistance to being disestablished by adverse criticism and changing literary preferences and criteria. (19–20)2

Even if you have not followed it, you could probably infer the nature of the debate about the canon just from the etymology, with its focus on measures and evaluations, rules and rulers, authorized texts and authorized interpretations. And indeed the heated public debate has been cast in polarized terms between those claiming to defend the canon and those who are portrayed as attacking that canon. Those who proclaim themselves as defenders of “the canon” are usually, in fact, employing two different concepts of a secular canon: for they conflate the canon of classical, that is Greek and Roman, writings (which constituted the core of the non-theological texts employed in the rhetorical model of education which endured for a thousand years), with the vernacular or national canons that emerged starting in thirteenth century Italy. Thus they tend to propose a canon which actually merges the classic and vernacular canons of European literature, starting with Homer and Plato, continuing through Dante, Cervantes, and Shakespeare, and concluding with a selection of what we now recognize as the modernist writers. (Similarly they tend to downplay or ignore another major topic about the emergence of vernacular canons, namely the place of canon-formation as an element, some would argue a constitutive element, in the process of nation-formation in early modern Europe. To take a familiar example, even a cursory reading of English authors from the early modern period writing on the subject of education and literature reveals just how (self-) conscious they were in articulating the need to elevate the English language as part of the elevation of the English nation, and to do so by the creation of English literature that could equal the achievements of classical literature and of the more developed continental vernaculars. Sidney’s claims for the potentials of English as a poetic language in “The Defence of Poesie” and Spenser’s nation-building purposes in The Faerie Queene are among the best known of such claims.)3 Those opposing this standard list argue for “opening up the canon.” In fact, we can distinguish what might be would called horizontal and vertical models of opening up the canon.

Opening Up the Canon Horizontally: One challenge to the canon can be called “horizontal” because it takes the logic of the canon as creating inside and outside, center and margin, and argues that this logic has had pernicious consequences in what has been included, what has been marginalized, and what has been placed outside the canon. This horizontal attack on the standard canon starts from the charge that it is overwhelmingly composed of works by white, male, European or European-descended authors, the majority of whom were — or have been represented as being — heterosexual. Put schematically, then, those making this challenge argue that the problem is either the exclusion of some authors who do not fit this paradigm, or, more fundamentally, that whole categories of writers have been excluded. And the proposal is to add individual writers or to add to the canon selected writers from groups marginalized or placed outside the canon — groups that include women, Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian-Americans, and gays and lesbians. (The overlap between categories is itself a source of other elements in the debate.)

Opening Up the Canon Vertically: The vertical challenge, in contrast, focuses on the logic of the canon as having higher and lower echelons. The bias challenged here is not only the distinctions between center and margin within the canon — Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton as the central three in English literature, for example, entitled to a course each — but again with larger categorical problems by which only high culture seems eligible for the canon, so that Moby Dick is canonical and Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not. Those proposing this challenge seek to dissolve the high-low distinction.

Pushed far enough, the impulse to open up the canon can lead to proposals to abolish it, and in fact you can seek to abolish the canon in two senses: this can mean either abolishing the standard canon and replacing it with writings by those previously considered marginal and low; or, more radically, with abolishing the very concept of a canon altogether. Although I cannot develop the point, many critics argue that abolishing a canon or canons is in fact impossible — and I think most readers can immediately think of several very practical reasons why, at least in the public schools, this should be the case. (For arguments as to why there must be a canon, see Harris; Kermode; and Felperin.)

II. Moving Through the Spectrum of Ways to Open the Canon

We can summarize this debate about the canon, then, as a spectrum of five major positions:

  1. Defense of the standard canon as it is (or seems to have been).
  2. Adding new texts, while defending the standard canon, or its logic.
  3. Widening the canon by adding new categories of authors and works: expanding horizontally, adding works by women, Native American, African-American, Hispanic American, Asian-American, gay and lesbian authors; expanding vertically, adding different “classes” of works.
  4. Transforming the canon: not only multiple new classes as in widening, but recognition of new bases and new functions.
  5. Abolishing the canon: either breaking the high-low distinction, or arguing for no canons at all.

I propose that we use this spectrum as a map of the territory we plunge into when we enter the debate, especially when we enter the debate as teachers who find themselves rethinking the canon in the form of our own selection of readings for our students. This spectrum will provide an itinerary for the route I follow in this segment. Moreover, in terms of the metaphor of mapping a territory, I will assume that neither of the extreme positions is going to prevail, so that defense of and abolition of the canon mark the borders of the territory I explore. That is, I think we can take it that while the canon debate is not over — and will never be over — the question of whether the canon will be, in the simplest sense, opened has been settled in the affirmative. What I want to do in this segment of my presentation is to look at what happens when we move from polarized debate to the reality of change: as in the first part, I want to continue to unpack the complexities that emerge when we stop thinking in oversimplifying polarities and false binaries, and, as Wendell Harris suggests, look at the multiple types of canons and the different, even divergent, functions for which we employ them.

In this description of how these different challenges open up the canon, I will be drawing extensively on the collective experience of the teachers in the Los Angeles ACLS workshop. In essence, what I am offering is a highly schematized account of the odyssey of the workshop as we explored the debate about the canon in the context of working out some of the challenges inherent in constructing a wider or multicultural curriculum. My claim here is that this spectrum does accurately represent some dimensions of the structure of the problem itself, and thus represents one analysis of how this debate will unfold for others because there is an underlying logic to that debate. What I offer here is a map that features some of the larger landmarks for this territory, and some of the main routes people are likely to travel as they enter and move through this territory. Such a map, I hope, can help you recognize where you are when you find yourself in this territory. At the same time, there will be unique landmarks, obstacles, and constraints, for each school district, each discipline, each group of teachers, or teachers and parents and students, who cross the border into this territory. You will have to refine the map for yourself, based on your local geography, articulating your own local knowledge, and responding to your own scene of learning.

Adding New Authors and Works to the Canon

The first route is to acknowledge some limits to a present canon, and to add new or rediscovered authors and works, while leaving that canon largely undisturbed. This seems like a sensible solution, furthermore, because as all but the most extreme defenders of the status quo acknowledge it is what is always happening to secular canons. At first this looks like a simple task, a task that can be met by the sort of maneuver offered by Harold Kolb, Jr., in his essay on “Defining the Canon” (which appears in the important collection dedicated to Redefining American Literary History). In proposing to add new works, Kolb argues for what he calls a tiered canon:

My suggestion is that we think of the literary canon not as a single authoritarian list and not as a pluralistic cacophony of innumerable voices but as a tiered set of options, relatively stable at one end, relatively open at the other, joined by the possibility of change. We might start at the first level of authors whose acquaintance we find necessary for educated Americans in our society at this time, no matter what their ethnic or religious or gender identification. The membership in this pantheon would be small, restricted to those authors who profoundly represent their times and yet whose vision, amaranthine, seems to transcend time; authors whose popularity is long-standing with both general and specialist readers; authors whose style is so memorable that is has changed the language in form and expression. . . . Here, then, is one definition of the literary summit, using Western European literature as an illustration:
First Level (Western European literature): The Bible, Homer, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes

We could construct a first level for literature in English, or separately for British literature, or for American literature, though, aided less by the winnowing of time, these categories become more controversial. Here is one possible top level for a canon of American literature:

First Level (American literature): Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Richard Wright, Faulkner

Then we might construct a second tier . . . consisting of those authors who, while not as predominant as the first group, have made a significant contribution to our culture. Educated Americans should be generally acquainted with all of these writers, specifically familiar with some:

Second level (American literature): Franklin, Irving, Cooper, Poe, Douglass, Howells, Stephen Crane, Henry Adams, Dreiser, Cather, Chopin, Frost, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Jewett, O’Neill, Pound, Stevens, Ellison, William Carlos Williams, James Baldwin, Momaday

Finally, we can add a third level, which combines two groups: older writers whose work continues to be of interest; and newcomers, massed like the Boston Marathon runners at Hopkinton, in the race but with endurance yet to be tested. Our hypothetical educated American should know some of these writers. . . . Here is a representative selection of a small fraction of this large group.

Third level (American literature A-C): Oscar Zeta Acosta . . . J. V. Cunningham (Kolb 40–41; emphases added)

At first glance, Kolb’s proposal for tiers has a certain plausibility and even seems to play out the analogy of sacred and secular canons. It may even remind us of the way that the apocryphal books were nonetheless conceived of as having some authority: as when Luther (cited by E.R. Curtius 256) says “that the apocryphal books are ’not held equal to Holy Scripture and yet are profitable and good to be read’.” However, Kolb’s proposal contains assumptions (some of which I have tried to indicate by italicizing key phrases) which are challenged by those who seek not merely to add to but to widen canon.

Widening the Canon:
Adding New Categories of Authors and Works

Critics who seek to widen the canon argue that the real problem with the standard canon is not the absence of a particular author but rather the way in which the canon has almost completely excluded whole classes of authors, members of groups other than white European and American male writers. The point is not simply to have, say, Richard Wright and James Baldwin added to the canon, but to recognize that the very principles upon which that canon is constructed function to exclude African-American writers as a group, and thus replicate the ways in which the dominant culture has excluded African-Americans in almost all spheres of life — or, as Toni Morrison and others have recently argued, repressed any recognition of the African-American presence in areas where that presence has been not just pervasive but constitutive.4 The argument is that an adequate canon must add texts by women, Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian-Americans, by gays and lesbians, and by members of classes whose work was previously considered as low or popular culture. For example, in “In the American Canon,” Robert Hemenway offers this argument against the tiered model proposed by Kolb:

Possibly drawing a parallel with the academic rank structure, where the work of full professors is assumed by definition to be of greater value than that of assistant professors, these scholars have suggested a ranked canon in which some authors are more important than others. All qualified applicants, regardless of race, enter the canon, but most minorities cluster at the lowest levels, while the upper ranks remain predominantly white, male, and relatively free of the coming and going of literary reputations. In the lower ranks, meanwhile, because they are more inclusive, a good deal of substitution occurs — a situation analogous to the coming and going of assistant professors in the search for tenure. Under the merit-system canon, Melville’s place is secure, Hemingway is good but not in the first rank (an associate professor presumably), and Langston Hughes has a precarious hold. . . .

While such efforts may be well meaning, and while they do have an effect on the classroom — since black writers are more likely to be taught under an inclusionary rule than not — the ranked canon seems an attempt to preserve the power of traditional value determination without confronting the fundamental interrelationship between social class and aesthetic value. (67–68)5

As Hemenway’s distinction between social and aesthetic value suggests, those who want to widen the canon also tend to open up the very bases by which works are chosen, and, more fundamentally, the very bases on which canons are composed.

Thus Hemenway’s argument against proposals such as Kolb’s brings us to the point where we must also recognize how widening the canon almost inevitably means transforming the canon as well. Indeed, what I want to explore now is how a widening of the canon leads to transforming the canon in terms of functions and criteria, and in particular in terms of compelling us to recognize the multiple and perhaps divergent aesthetics involved in the newer canons.

Transforming the Canon: Multiple Aesthetics

As Hemenway makes clear, in articulating the argument for widening the canon by classes of excluded writers, another and in some ways more radical challenge to the canon emerges. Now we find ourselves asking if we have to rethink one of the bases on which we select the individual texts, because the different classes have written in part on the basis of different aesthetics. That is, in the early phases of the canon debate, and in a proposal like that by Kolb, it appears that the criteria for entry into the canon may be agreed upon. Specifically, it looks as if we can agree on aesthetic criteria, which were presented as being simultaneously specific to literature and universal. The problem seems to be that whole classes of authors who might meet these criteria had been neglected and now must be examined, the justice of their merits compelling entry into the canon. But as scholars and critics begin not only to restore works to the accessible canon but then to project these works into the critical canon as well, what they discover is that to study these texts is to develop new forms of criticism based on the principles these works embodied.

The argument here is made not only by students of African-American literature, but with at least equal force in relation to women’s writing and the writing of Native American authors. That is, the claim that women have developed or embodied different ways of knowing, leads to an argument that some, although not all, literature by women in fact embodies a different aesthetic or aesthetics, and that its high quality, the quality that makes it a successful candidate for inclusion in the canon, can only be adequately judged by first accepting the contrasting assumptions of this different aesthetic.

This argument is also very clear with Native American literature, especially literature produced before the arrival of Europeans. For it is obvious, or rather it has become obvious to those of us who are not Native Americans and have only lately begun to study this immense literature, that Native American peoples lived and live within a radically different cosmology or world-view, and that precisely insofar as their aesthetics corresponded with that world-view, their criteria for what we call their literature was or were in many ways incompatible with, if not opposed to, the world-view of the colonizers. The very features that would make a Native American poem, song, tale, narrative seem great, hence canonical — or canonical, hence great — within that culture might be features that the aesthetic of a European canon either might not value or might not even be able to perceive. This is especially important in learning to “read” oral poems and narratives: these pieces were performed, and frequently performative, in their cultures of origins, but we are much more likely to read them on the page — and find them “flat” in terms of modernist aesthetics, without recognizing many of the dimensions which would be realized in performance, and without being aware of the functions that they would enact.6 And the argument holds also for at least some contemporary literature by Native American authors, who in fact make the problem of conflicting cosmologies and aesthetics the subject of their work even as they embody attempts at transformation within those same works.

A parallel argument is offered by those who propose the inclusion of works from popular culture or from classes of people who were previously believed not to create literature. So Paul Lauter, one of the major proponents of rethinking the canon in terms of class, as well as race and gender, offers this example:

Another way of thinking about the different concepts of artistic function may be provided by the distinction (or relationship) nicely embodied . . . between the “exchange value” and the “use value” of art. An especially moving example of “use value” is offered by the Kentucky mountain songs sung at the funeral of “Jock” Yablonski and recorded with great majesty in the film “Harlan County, U.S.A.” In a larger sense, all marginalized art (all art) must be explored precisely in terms of its use. Partly that is a function of marginality itself . . . But partly, I think, this phenomenon is explained by the fundamental character of marginalized (in this instance specifically working class) culture, what Raymond Williams called “solidarity.” Solidarity is not simply a slogan or an abstraction that happens to appeal to many people who work. It is, rather, a way of describing the culture of people who have been pushed together into workplaces and communities where survival and growth enforce interdependence. In this context, the work of an artist while it may in some respects be expressive and private remains overwhelmingly functional in his or her community. And an approach to it cannot strip it of this context without ripping away its substance. (67–68)7

That is, in terms of solidarity, the very criteria that make a good marching song, whether for soldiers or pacifists, for strikers or strike-breakers, are precisely the sort of single-pointed focus which seems to be antithetical to the emphasis placed on tension, ambiguity, irony, and complexity dominant in high modernist ideas about the canon. Certainly they are not the criteria by which we judge Ariel’s “Full fathom five,” they are not the criteria by which Eliot argued for making John Donne’s poems a central rather than a marginal part of the canon, and they are not the criteria by which Eliot’s own poems, such as “The Waste Land,” were judged to be at the core of the modern(ist) canon.

Transforming the Canon:
Do We Produce a Single Canon or Parallel Canons?

Arguments such as those offered by Hemenway and Lauter thus bring us to the next step in the process by which widening the canon may be seen to transform it. For if we widen the canon by categories of authors and texts, based on gender, race, and class, then we soon find ourselves asking “Are we transforming the very basis on which the canon is conceived in the first place?” and “How many canons will we have?” This challenge to the logic of a single canon finds expression in “Thoreau’s Last Words — and America’s First Literatures” by Jarold Ramsey, specifically in a proposal for publication of a Native American canon:

I will leave off with one final project, the undertaking of which would signal more clearly than anything else I can think of that the American literary establishment had actually accepted, belatedly, its intellectual and artistic obligations to America’s first literatures. Nothing less than a native counterpart to the monumental collaboration that has produced the Center for Editions of American Authors series, it would call for the systematic preparation and publication of a “standard” dual-language edition of the surviving Native American repertories — proceeding tribe by tribe, with full textual apparatus as needed. The task I propose is formidable, and no doubt at present far beyond either our scholarly or our financial capabilities, but in light of the historical barriers between Anglo and native literatures, the missed chances and literary rootlessness of Americans writing in the European tradition, the continuing loss among the Indians of stories and storytellers and the continued inaccessibility to them of scholarly texts, can we afford to do anything less now? (59–60)

This proposal seems breathtaking not only because of its scope but because it seems intended to jolt those trained in the standard canon, as it certainly jolts me, into awareness of the discrepancy between what Wendell Harris (following Alastair Fowler) distinguishes as the potential and the accessible canons. Clearly, one of Ramsey’s points in proposing to transform a part of the potential canon into a part of the accessible canon is to remind us of how much literature we have been oblivious to.

Thus Ramsey’s proposal is one of a number which compels us to confront ways in which widening the canon may seem to propose new problems even as it seems to resolve old ones. That is, if we seek a multicultural model are we going to find ourselves operating with multiple canons as well? Do we have a European-American canon, a Native American canon, an African-American canon, an Hispanic or Chicano canon, a canon of woman’s literature, a canon of gay literature? Surely this sort of “separatism,” as it is sometimes called, runs at least two grave dangers: first, as already noted, the danger of ghettoization; and second, the danger of seeming to reduce literary works, as it can seem to reduce people, to nothing more than their membership in various classes and categories.

When we reach this point, it seems to be the case that we do not have anything like a single coherent set of criteria for constituting or reconstituting the canon. And yet if there are not standards that can cross some lines of difference, then logically it would seem impossible to share judgment across those lines. Can we articulate a position that allows for difference and valuing differences, and yet also offers some shared criteria? If we can, what position or positions might we formulate? If we cannot, what will be the consequences for our proposals for a new canon or canons?

Transforming the Canon: Does Multicultural Mean Multilingual?

Another challenge emerges in Juan Bruce-Novoa’s “Canonical and Noncanonical Texts: A Chicano Case Study.” This essay raises issues which were crucial in our workshop.8 For Bruce-Novoa takes the issue of multiculturalism a step further, claiming that the presence of American literature in Spanish offers a radical challenge to the nature of the traditional canon:

Two of the essential biases of culture in the United States are a general anti-Hispanism and a specific anti-Mexicanism. Thus the recent emergence of a multifaceted cultural identity — which bespeaks an American experience, but speaks sometimes in Spanish and at other times with a Hispanic accent — has been received with nothing short of alarm. The new literary expression represents itself as a legitimate product of this country and, as such, demands a place in the canon. This literature apparently also demands, or at least implies, a radical change in the ideal of one common language and culture. While it is still relatively small in the number of texts it has produced, the literature constitutes the most significant challenge to Anglo-American chauvinism to date. The repressed pluralism lamented by Whitman has begun to surface as a threat to the very material of the canon, language. . . .

When contextualized in this way, what Hispanic literature and history infuse into the canon is radical dialectics. It could be argued, of course, that black, Jewish, feminist, and even mainstream American writers challenge the paradigms of identity, but it is the language difference — a difference present even in Hispanic texts written in English — that makes Hispanic literature a more general threat to the canon. The literary canon and its academic-commercial support are faced with a dilemma. It is no longer a matter of absorbing “foreign” expressions within a national literature but of heeding an insistent, multi-voiced call for the restructuring of the canon into a polyglot, pluralistic expression of the many nations within a common frontier. The canon is under egalitarian pressure to melt itself down and include more in the next recasting. (198–199, emphasis added)

This claim is extremely provocative, and it opens up questions which would be or would seem unthinkable to some defenders of a traditional canon: Is a canon always in a single language? Must the canon for American literature be in English? If we push this logic further, it seems evident that if we truly want to widen the canon we, the teachers, must learn to speak and read other languages ourselves — which is, of course, the exact situation of many of the students in Los Angeles. Conversely, for the proponents of multiculturalism, the challenge can go the other way: if we truly mean what we say, can someone who does not speak the original language teach that text? that culture? These, then, constitute some of the main questions that the debate on opening up the canon has impelled critics to begin asking and exploring, and that the members of the Los Angeles workshop found ourselves rehearsing as we immersed ourselves in this debate. I think these questions emerge out of the very logic of the canon debate itself, and that they are the questions any group of people are likely to find themselves engaged in discussing who start down this road. At this point, I will turn to Part III of the presentation, and look at a few of the implications for teachers.

One way to summarize this exploration of the spectrum of challenges and the alternate routes those challenges seem to project is to formulate another question, namely “Is opening the canon an additive or a transformative process? And if it turns out to be a transformative process, then what is the nature of the transformation(s) we need to enact?” What the spectrum suggests is not so much an either/or but a both/and situation, in which all the routes are being tried simultaneously. If we look at recent anthologies for college and university courses in English, for example, we see both single-canon and multiple-canon strategies being pursued simultaneously, whatever the logical clashes and theoretical incompatibilities. On the one hand, there is the Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990) edited by Paul Lauter and his colleagues, which includes numerous writers and dozens of genres not represented in earlier, more traditional anthologies. On the other hand, there is The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (1985) edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature (1990) edited by Henry Gates and others. And the publishers, whose logic is to try to cover all the possibilities, are also reaching back to the classical canon, with The Norton Book of Classical Literature (1992) edited by Bernard Knox.

In this third part of my essay, I want to sketch out how these questions take on urgent and concrete form when we move to the task of teaching a revised canon, especially in the public schools. When we make this move into our local worlds as teachers, then the question becomes “In what ways does transforming the pedagogic canon seem to demand that teachers transform what they teach, how they teach, and why they teach — and transform themselves?”

The canon debate, as Harris notes, is not just about texts but about readings. For us, teaching a canon must be a process by which we not only mandate that students read certain works but, crucially, find ways for students to become engaged with and immersed in those works. We may not design courses so successful that every one of our students falls in love with reading literature, but as we reform the curriculum surely most of us do seek to design courses which will elicit sustained engagement with the works we assign from as many students as possible. So we can imagine a college teacher selecting one of the new anthologies listed above or a team of high school teachers in a Humanitas program like that in which the Los Angeles teachers participate meeting and agreeing on a wide selection of works from a newer canon, but the true challenge becomes inventing ways to teach this new selection.

Thus as we imagine the different types of canon-reformation we can begin to analyze the different demands they will place on us as teachers. So, for example, if we follow a route of adding to the canon, then we will find ourselves needing to read new texts, but we may be able keep using the same critical methods and approaches that we have used all along. We will have to learn about new authors and their lives, about the contexts that shaped their lives and so on, but we will be working within familiar models. But if we widen or transform the canon, then some much more far-reaching re-education may be necessary. Two issues that I can delineate concern the imperative which is sometimes spoken of as the need make the canon more representative and the need for the teacher to re-educate herself in the contexts from which this wider canon emerges.

Unpacking the Imperative to Make
the Canon “More Representative”

Among the seven functions that canons have performed and can perform, Harris lists “Providing Models, Ideals, and Inspiration” and “Creating Common Frames of Reference,” and these two functions meet and collide in an interesting fashion when we examine one of the impulses animating some of those who propose opening up the canon, namely the impulse to make the canon more representative.

The function of providing models has taken a variety of forms. As E. R. Curtius notes “The Alexandrian philologists are the first to put together a selection of earlier literature for the use of grammarians in their schools” (249); and the more comprehensive idea of offering paradigms for teaching correct written forms of a language is one purpose that the canon has served.9 What I would suggest is that for many teachers today, when correctness is an issue framed in quite different ways (because of recently formulated understandings of the relation of written and spoken language; because of an emergent understanding of the process by which people learn a second language; and because of research which suggests that too great and too early an emphasis on grammatical correctness tends to block creativity), much of the concern for literature as offering paradigms for speaking and writing has been replaced by a concern for the function of literature as representation.

But as a number of critics have noted, to employ the canon as providing a model in the sense of a representation is a very problematic assertion because of the multiple senses of “representation” — senses which can produce confusions as troubling as those caused by the word canon itself. Three meanings of representative overlap and people often fail to clarify which definition they are using.

The first and most obvious sense in which those proposing that we widen the canon claim they want to make it more representative is that by including writers from previously marginalized categories the canon will more adequately represent the full range of human experience: In particular this widening will enable it to represent points of view which are qualitatively different from the point of view of white, male, heterosexual European-American authors. The argument here is that without such a diversity of points of view, the claim to speak for human experience that so many defenders offer as the primary reason for perpetuating the traditional canon is and will continue to be falsified.

A second sense in which widening the canon can be presented as making it more representative is that it will more adequately represent literary accomplishment — the production of works which deserve and will achieve the status of classics by authors from marginalized and unseen groups. It seems that, say, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn have already entered what Harris calls the diachronic canon, and it seems clear that works such as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima, Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior have already entered what Harris calls the nonce canon, and may well enter whatever revised diachronic canon emerges in the next 50 years.10

And a third sense in which widening the canon is presented as making it more representative is that it will more adequately represent, in the sense of imitate and express, the experience of students who come from those groups previously enumerated. The argument here is a pedagogic one — and an argument that goes back to Kenneth Clark’s famous psychological experiments cited in the original Brown v. Board of Education decision — namely that unless young people find representations of themselves and representations of lives they might aspire to in the literature they read in school, they will come to perceive of themselves, in part by virtue of their membership in unrepresented, unseen, groups, as being marginal and as living in a society which offers them no place, hence no hope for a fulfilling existence.11

This point has been made with great urgency, for example, by a number of teachers arguing for the inclusion of literature by and about gays and lesbians. As Michael Jackson, one of the teacher-fellows in the Los Angeles team, argued:

Research has shown that above all, the gay and lesbian student feels isolated. One of the most common comments adult gays and lesbians make on looking back to their childhood is “I thought I was the only one.” Sad to say, many students sit through an entire education never hearing the word “gay” or “lesbian” except in relation to death, suicide, or murder. Silence about a group is a signal that the group is deemed shameful, inappropriate or unworthy of being written or spoken about. (Remember when it was forbidden for teachers to be visibly pregnant in school?) Your silence carries a powerful message that there is something wrong with gays and lesbians. (“Gay and Lesbian Young Adult Database Project;” also see Jackson, “Introduction”)

These teachers point out, furthermore, the alarming statistics about the suicide-attempt rate among gay and lesbian adolescents:

The suicide attempt rate among gay teenagers is extremely high — an estimated 30 to 40 percent among gay boys and 20 percent among young lesbians, research indicates. The rate is 10 percent for teen-agers overall, according to the Youth Suicide National Center. (Murdoch A1)

Thus they argue that it is essential for the pedagogic canon to include representations of homosexual women and men living sane, productive lives in order for gay and lesbian adolescents to be able to imagine possible futures and thus fulfill the task facing all adolescents, namely to imagine a future self into existence.

As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for one, has repeatedly pointed out, the concepts of mimetic representation and of demographic or political representation are significantly different and it is important to note the distinction because a failure to be clear as to which meaning is intended can lead speakers into some quite destructive debates. On the other hand, debates about the different ways in which we may want a canon that is representative — of classes of people, of classes of writers, of literary excellence, and of our student populations — seem essential for those having to deal with the pedagogic canon: for they concern the question of offering authors and works who help students find themselves in the culture they are being asked, invited, and impelled to inherit and enter — even as they receive messages that indicate that society seeks to ignore, exclude, or erase them.

At this point, I would like to suggest that we might be well served to add another function to Harris’s list, namely the function of teaching students to fall in love with reading and reading literature in particular. This is, as Cornel Bonca has pointed out, surely one of the most fundamental objectives that a canon serves, and a function that might unite teachers divided on other issues about the canon. (While the idea of inviting students to “fall in love” with literature may seem retrograde to some readers, who hear in it echoes of critical positions that invite us to fall in love with literature only to attack the study of literature or reduce literary study to literary appreciation, that is not what either Bonca or I suggest. Rather, what the phrase signifies is an invitation not only to fall in love with reading literature, but also to fall in love with studying literature, so that, for example, students come to be aware of and can begin to master — if they choose to do so and for their own purposes — the acts of reading with, against, and through the grain of the text which together constitute the current array of critical practices.) So a teacher may decide to replace Silas Marner with Bless Me, Ultima because the latter elicits, as the former currently does not, the engagement of her students — and yet the teacher might also hope that engagement with Anaya’s novel might lead some students to Eliot’s. However, another choice might be to teach both books, or similar pairs of books, precisely to engage students in analysis of what is different and what is similar in the cultures represented, as well as in the representations themselves.

Transforming Teachers:
What Types of Knowledge Will Teachers Need to Acquire?

A second issue comes into focus when we find ourselves asking, as the members of the Los Angeles workshop asked, “What must teachers learn in order to teach a transformed canon? Not merely what new texts, but what types of knowledge about the cultures of origin for the new texts?” This was a major topic throughout the year, and I will offer an example that helped me think about how I have been retraining myself this year, and will have to continue to retrain myself as I start to revise, say, a general education course like the Introduction to Modern Fiction.

What I discovered in the course of the workshop is that I can think about what I have to do to retrain myself by an analogy with what I had to do to learn to read and then to teach Shakespeare’s plays. When I first studied and when I began to teach Shakespeare’s plays, I had to learn about what Tillyard, in a book now much attacked, called The Elizabethan World Picture. Although Tillyard has been critiqued for a number of quite intelligible reasons, the title — especially if we drop the definite article and make it plural, so as to allow for multiple worldviews and contests between such world-views within a society — still captures an important truth. If I am going to grasp the plays of Shakespeare with real depth of understanding, I must also learn about the context in which they were written and performed. In particular, I must learn about the fundamental intellectual systems and social practices that formed the culture of origin: the Christian world picture, the split in Christianity, and the violent conflicts between different forms of that religion; the hierarchic model of the natural world; the microcosm and macrocosm; the humours physiology and psychology; the political beliefs about the state; the ways in which these beliefs and ideas were enacted in families, in guilds and other corporate bodies, in the state and the offices up to the king . . . and so on. (At this point the challenges in teaching literature intersect with the challenges in teaching history explored in Eve Kornfeld’s essay. In particular, in suggesting that historians “embrace enthusiastically the possibilities contained in subjectivity and the humanities” (109), that they may empathy a part of their pedagogy, and that they embody these premises in inviting students to do role-playing, Kornfeld proposes, in effect, that historians integrate reading through a text as actors read through a script; conversely, in my own work, I suggest that literary critics can use role-playing as a means for initiating students into historical research.)

As a shorthand for thinking about this need to retrain, even transform ourselves as teachers, I found myself using a phrase cited by Julie Klein in her book on “interdisciplinarity.” In describing the model of synthesizing history developed by the Annales school, Klein concluded that “In many cases they wound up producing what has been termed a ‘retrospective anthropology’” — a term amplified by Tony Judt when he speaks of  “retrospective cultural anthropology ” (Klein 3; Judt 87).12 Generalizing, we can say that to teach literature from another culture, whether that culture is distant from or near to us in time and in space, we must know something about that culture in an anthropological sense, which is to say know something about the primary systems of thought and primary institutions that constitute the culture. We need a map of that culture, however sketchy, if we are to enable our students to interpret works from that culture in something approaching the logic within which they were composed.

Those of us who majored in or obtained advanced degrees in English under the dispensation of the older canon acquired, in effect, some of the knowledge offered by such retrospective cultural anthropology about earlier forms of the culture in which English literature was composed. For teachers of “English” born in England, this has been a knowledge of their ancestral culture; for teachers of English born or living in the United States, and often descended from parents born in non-English speaking cultures, or born in English-speaking but non-metropolitan parts of a now-dissolved empire, this has been knowledge of what might be thought of as an adopted culture. But when we shift from teaching texts from cultures that are far off in time to those that are in our own time and in our own space, then the problem gets even more complex, since we are not doing retrospective anthropology, but rather learning cultures that in fact constitute part of the present-day United States. Furthermore, this task is made more challenging because there are two key differences between learning English Renaissance culture and, say, Native American culture(s).

First of all, the Native American cultures are in many ways more challenging to “learn” because they are alive, not dead, and because we will encounter living members of these cultures in our classrooms — a situation which tends to make the nature of our authority as teachers more problematic. Second, because these cultures are alive, they are also evolving at the very moment we are trying to learn them. In fact, a number of the books we are most likely to teach are themselves part of this evolution, and indeed can be seen as agents of that evolution. They thus demand that we learn about several phases of that culture as we try to teach some of the literature from that culture.13

Thus as our workshop unfolded, and as each of us began to imagine how we might add, say, Native American, or African-American or Hispanic readings, we found ourselves wondering if there is some “handbook” for these cultures. For example, as we studied the literature of the southwest and of the border with Mexico, we learned that we must acquire some knowledge of the Native American and Spanish cultures which fused into the culture of Mexico, which meant learning about the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona. Or as we looked at works by Leslie Marmon Silko, we found ourselves wondering about the sacred knowledge embodied in the ceremonies of the Laguna people, curious as to where we might turn for elucidation of a non-verbal feature such as the star pattern that occupies a page of Ceremony, and which seems a central element in the metamorphosis of the protagonist. There were days when we felt the exhilaration that most teachers feel at learning something new — but there were days when we simply felt overwhelmed at learning how much we might need to learn.


Instead of stamping works with authority, literary canons propose entries into a culture’s critical colloquy.

— Wendell Harris, “Canonicity” (112)

In the midst of this discussion of how we are widening and thereby transforming the canon, I know, from my experience in redesigning my own courses, from the voices of the teachers I have worked with, and from the critics I have been reading, that we all share an awareness which I expect my reader is also voicing, namely that what does not change is the amount of time we have in our classes: whether it is a 10-week quarter, a 15-week semester, or a public school semester, whether we spend 40, 60, or 100 hours with our students, we work within severe constraints, constraints that narrow our options at the very moment we most passionately want to consider widening them. Wendell Harris concludes his article by reminding us of these constraints:

We need more than ever, then, to be honest with ourselves and with our students about the limited purposes both of individual courses and of the requirements for our degrees — to be honest about what our selection of texts and our approach to them does not accomplish. If The Canon no longer lives, the reason is that it never did; there have been and are only selections with purposes. If anything has been clarified by the last twenty years of critical alarms and excursions, it is the multiplicity of possible purposes. ("Canonicity" 119)

One of the reasons that I have not sought to offer answers is this essay but rather to define the problems and challenges and delineate some of the routes is precisely because I know — and know better than I did 10 months ago — the folly of attempting to prescribe a canon. Nor do I delude myself that even if anyone could prescribe a canon they would have solved the pedagogical challenge. One of the things we commonly, often glibly, say, about the humanities is that they are or can be and should be, in part, an education about the education students are receiving. But it is surely the case that debate about the canon is or should be a means for self-reflection, not just about the selection of readings but also about our quite diverse and even divergent purposes and about what we cannot do within the constraints of our teaching lives. In part, to be clear and open about our purposes is something we owe our students. But in part, to be clearer about our purposes and the things we do not do may also be a way of deciding if we want to revise not just what we teach but what we know and how we teach — as well as a way to help us decide what we need to learn next.


1. As I finish writing this essay, I am conscious of my great debt to the members of the Los Angeles site of the ACLS Elementary and Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum Development Project. It was through working with them — in a process in which we read the literature and the criticism; discussed and debated the issues raised by opening the canon and multiculturalism; and experimented with the pedagogical challenge of transforming the curriculum — that I learned about the realities of opening up the canon. My thanks, then, to Sue Anderson, Marie Collins, Lynne Culp, Lois Feuer, Terry Henderson, Michael Jackson, Sandra Okura, Karen Rowe, Beverly Tate, and Howard Wilf. I owe a special debt to Lois Feuer, who has read and commented on earlier drafts of this essay, often within hours of receiving the manuscript. Readers will benefit from her precise and eloquent insight, which has helped me learn what I was trying to say and taught me better ways to articulate those ideas. [return to text]

2. It is a sign of how the canon debate has unfolded that in the 5th edition, published in 1988, Abrams took less than three pages, while in the 6th edition, published 1993, he needed almost four pages for his entry on the canon. There are also changes in diction and syntax which register, in small but precise and striking ways, how the debate has changed over the last decade. For example:

The collective cultural process by which an author comes to be firmly and durably recognized as canonical is often called “canon formation.” (5th edition: 20)

The social process by which an author comes to be tacitly and durably recognized as canonical is called “canon formation.” (6th edition: 20)

I take it that the shift from cultural to social registers the way in which proponents of social constructivist and political or historicizing models of criticism — exponents of what we may call, following the linguistic turn and the rhetorical turn, the ideological turn — have succeeded in reformulating the terms of the debate itself. For a fuller, more elaborate tracing, and one that is particularly interesting in exploring some of the metaphoric aspects of the etymology, the reader might look at the version with which Robert Scholes opens his essay “Aiming a Canon at the Curriculum.” The essay appears with five responses in Salmagundi 72 (1986): 101–63. [return to text]

3. Conversely, as Philip Edwards notes, Spenser attacks Irish poets precisely because they incite their countrymen to rebellion on nationalist grounds (10–11). The apparent incontestibility of a connection between the formation of a canon and of a nation is manifest in the introduction to The Faerie Queene provided by John Hollander and Frank Kermode in The Literature of Renaissance England:

Heroic poetry, which in the Renaissance was taken by most commentators to be the highest kind, was necessarily associated with the growth of nationalist feelings, since it attempted to achieve in the vernacular what Virgil had done for the Roman empire in Latin. This explains Spenser’s interest not only in the ancient models but also in modern Italian and French poetry — he would learn what he could from renaissances that flowered earlier than the English. But it also explains why The Faerie Queene, for all its dreamy Romance landscape and narrative, is very much a poem of its moment. He was celebrating national or imperial power, and did so not only by placing its origins in a fictive British past but by justifying modern policies, ecclesiastical, political, and military. He had to make his poem relevant to the glories, real and imaginary, of the reign he chose to represent as climactic in history; but he could not ignore the dark side of the picture. (162)

In the 20 years since Hollander and Kermode first wrote this passage, the inflection of those making this point has, of course, darkened considerably, as those engaged in new historicist, materialist, and cultural forms of criticism have focused on the dark side not only of the poem but of Spenser’s own investment in England’s imperial ambitions and colonial activities. [return to text]

4. See Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” and Playing in the Dark; Baker and Pierce-Baker, “Patches”; and Baker, “The Promised Body.” [return to text]

5. There is a further point made by Hemenway, which both develops the full scope of the challenge and meshes with the point made in note 4 above:

Black texts challenge traditional literary ideas. That the slave narrative is unquestionably the first indigenous written literary genre America offered the world places a whole literary tradition in a new perspective and helps us understand both generic properties and European influence on American literature. Gates has suggested that black texts predict their opposites, that slave narratives provide a kind of perverse literary foregrounding, virtually ensuring the creation of the plantation novel as a reversed image of the slave’s narrative indictment. Such a theory begins to assess the dialectic between white aesthetics and black aesthetics. (69) [return to text]

6. And this argument does not even reach to a crucial point made by Dorris, namely that the variety of Native American cultures and frames is such that we cannot speak of Native American literature as if it were a unity; hence we cannot speak as if there is or were a single aesthetic governing the literature produced by the diverse Native American tribes. [return to text]

7. In what I think is one of the most important contributions to the canon controversy so far, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, John Guillory responds to the type of argument offered by Lauter, among others, by rethinking the issue of use and exchange value. He does so in the course of making a larger argument against those who seem to claim that any attempt to employ aesthetic criteria is invalid:

In its most extreme form this critique seeks to discredit the concept of the aesthetic altogether, as intrinsically repressive. In the final chapter of this book I argue that the extrapolation of a critique of aesthetics from the critique of the canon is mistaken in its fundamental premise. . . . The reduction of aesthetic value to economic use value forgets precisely the fact that the problem of the work of art was crucial for political economy’s founding distinction between use value and exchange value. The conflation of these two terms in current anti-aesthetic arguments betrays how much the present critique of judgment has actually forgotten about the intimate historical relations between aesthetic and economic discourses. The cost of that amnesia is a kind of false enlightenment, the restatement in altogether more reductive terms of a relation between the aesthetic and the economic much more interestingly and problematically engaged in eighteenth-century moral philosophy than in our recent neorelativist critiques. . . .

The strangest consequence of the canon debate has surely been the discrediting of judgment, as though human beings could ever refrain from judging the things they make. But if this notion has been bad sociology, it has proven to be even worse politics. The argument that one should suspend judgment on behalf of the politically urgent objective of making the canon more “representative” of diverse social groups invited the reactionary objection to the abandonment of “standards.” The most politically strategic argument for revising the canon remains the argument that the works so revalued are important and valuable cultural works. If literary critics are not yet in a position to recognize the inevitability of the social practice of judgment, that is a measure of how far the critique of the canon still is from developing a sociology of judgment. The theory of cultural capital elaborated in this book is an attempt to construct just such a sociology. (xiii–xiv)

Just as I agree with those who suggest that canons are nearly indispensable elements, and certainly constitutive for the institutions of education and literary criticism, so I would agree that, as Guillory insists, we as a profession will continue to exercise literary judgment, and that our choices will be based in part on aesthetic criteria, however we redefine and qualify the concept of the aesthetic. That we will continue to dispute both the category of aesthetics and argue about (and for and against) different criteria or aesthetics also seems undeniable. [return to text]

8. Bruce-Novoa also explicitly raises the question of whether canon-formation for “minority” literature will also replicate the very features in forming the standard canon that led to the attempt to form a new canon. (200–202) [return to text]

9. John Guillory’s essay on “Canon” offers some interesting suggestions about the place of canon in relation to the emergence of correctness as an issue in the evolution of the relation between spoken and written English. (240–242) [return to text]

10. Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose offer a thought-provoking account of Lessing’s entry into the canon as a case study in Chapter 5 of The Canon and the Common Reader. From their perspective, which uses feminist theory as a basis for rearticulating the idea of the common reader developed by Samuel Johnson and redeployed by Virginia Woolf, they suggest that we need to recognize an opposition between the professoriat and the common reader. Members of the professoriat, especially the most privileged senior members, form a priestly class of professional readers, for whom publishing criticism is a career; common readers, on the other hand, are people who become engaged with books as part of the effort to make sense of their lives. Part of the feminist revolution, they argue, is that many women and some men who have become professors nonetheless teach and write from the motives of the common reader. Their argument also leads them to point out that canonization may not, in fact, be an unqualified blessing, especially in the case of a “prophetic” writer such as Lessing:

But if not exact, the analogy between the biblical and the literary canon is suggestive. In both cases, a “priestly class” certifies that certain texts are valuable. Why? What, in particular, are we to make of the canonization of a prophetic book like The Golden Notebook, of a prophetic writer like Doris Lessing? Is it an attempt to assure that future generations try “to make sense of [her] prophetic message in order to understand and account for their own situation?” Or is it, as Alan Golding has charged in a slightly different context, an attempt to “detoxify” Lessing’s message by dehistoricizing it, rendering it “culturally and intellectually harmless.” (85)

This ironic perception of canonization as an undesirable event, or as a desirable event with at least one undesirable effect, is rarely voiced in the canon debate. In the broadest sense, the ironic effect of literary canonization can be seen, I suppose, as parallel to the often commented-on ironic effect that follows from the moment when a new and living faith becomes institutionalized as a church. Certainly writers have commented on the ironic effect of having a society they sought to attack canonize their works while ignoring the call to repent and reform that is at the heart of those works. [return to text]

11. Charles Altieri has argued with great passion, in describing what he sees as the limits of the currently dominant theoretical models of reading against the text, that it is folly to discard the idealizing function of literature: we need its ability not only to imitate human existence but to project ideals which function as images of selves we might become — hence to provide one of the most essential elements by which adolescents, in particular, might imagine themselves into existence. In this context, Altieri has proposed what I take to be a fourth sense in which we can speak of a text as representative: “Texts become representative less by the general truths they demonstrate than by their capacity to make what they exemplify seem shareable in clarifying or negotiating certain situations” (Canons and Consequences 15). [return to text]

12. Klein quotes this phrase from George Iggers and Harold Parker, eds., International Handbook of Historical Studies: Contemporary Research and Theory (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979): 5–6, 10. [return to text]

13. And this is leaving aside the complexities created by the fact that the Native American culture(s) are not only the ancestral cultures for this land, this space, but that they are also present cultures, and present cultures enjoying their own renaissance. To offer a rough analogy: it is as if when I teach Renaissance drama, Faustus or a descendent (so to speak) of Faustus might walk into my classroom and challenge the way in which I am mis-teaching the play which purports to tell his story. [return to text]