The canon. That list of works so worthy that every person should read them in order to be called “cultured.” Their greatness alone, we are assured, enabled them to rise above all the other books in history and continue on. They have “passed the test of time.” However, what this narrative leaves out is the simple fact that the canon has changed over time. Books and authors that were once in are now out. Books and authors that were out are now in. And many times books and authors are only “in” at all because they had fortunate connections in the publishing world.
It’s not exactly hard to realize that much of what we label canonical is only there because of fortunate circumstances. We cannot really say that any book “passed the test of time” because of an inherent quality because, much of the time, an author’s contemporaries did not appreciate his (and it’s usually his) work! Presumably, much of what was good was lost and some of what was good we only have by chance. Consider Beowulf. It survives in a single manuscript. Does that mean it was not great enough for more individuals to copy it down? Or Cardenio. You have probably never heard of it, but it is the title of a play we believe Shakespeare wrote. (Theobald claims his Double Falsehood is based on a manuscript of Cardenio.) Does this mean Cardenio was just too terrible for anyone to want to preserve? Did it lack the inherent greatness of Shakespeare’s other works? Or can it be that some authors and works get lucky and others don’t?
Oftentimes, books enter the canon simply because they have powerful advocates. It may be hard for students to believe, but Beowulf, for instance, was not widely respected as a work of literature until about 1936. That was when Tolkien published his lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. He argued that the work should be respected as a piece of literature and not merely a historical document revealing the culture of the people of the time. He essentially single-handedly put the poem back on the canonical map.
And sometimes books enter or leave the canon because literary tastes change. Jane Tompkins’ “Masterpiece Theater: The Politics of Hawthorne’s Literary Reputation” challenges the idea that works become classics independent of their historical circumstances. She examines how Hawthorne’s reputation changed over time and how he ultimately comes to take precedence over the female authors who were popular during his own day. The traits critics find to praise in his works also changed, leading Tompkins to suggest that literary criticism often reflects the critics’ own culture and values.
Likewise, some books find themselves in the canon simply because of historical quirks. Take Shakespeare, now the quintessence of English culture. His contemporaries viewed him primarily as a skilled poet. Playwrights were not widely respected nor were they typically published. But today we celebrate Shakespeare for his plays and barely read his poems like “Venus and Adonis.” Shakespeare was simply fortunate that a collection of his plays were published by John Heminge and Henry Condell in 1623 (though not all his works were included in the First Folio). After Shakespeare’s death, however, his reputation was mixed and he, like many others, simply disappeared when the theatres closed after the execution of Charles I.
Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare provides a glimpse at Shakespeare’s transforming reputation. The Restoration brought Shakespeare back, but he was considered old-fashioned and difficult to understand. Plus, his seeming moral ambiguity offended some (though now we laud this trait) and his refusal to follow neoclassical principles offended a few others (though these days nobody cares). The theatres performed Shakespeare mainly because no playwrights were readily available immediately after their reopening and because he was dead and therefore did not need to be paid. However, they also transformed his works beyond recognition in many cases, adding and subtracting characters and subplots, and rewriting the words so they were “easier to understand.” Today, we would be offended by this careless treatment of Shakespeare’s remarkable language. But Shakespeare was no means guaranteed to be resurrected for us to be able to critique and comment on. It was a historical accident–Charles I’s death and his son’s return–that brought him back.
Still not convinced the canon is affected by material concerns, personal tastes, and accidents of history? Consider that there is actually no one list of “the canon.” There are names that we would somehow associate with the canon: Socrates, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Joyce, to name a few. However, there are many variations of the canon just as we might find today many variations of “The Top 100 Books You Should Read,” as determined by various websites. Two of the more famous versions of the canon are the 1909 Harvard Classics and Harold Bloom’s 1994 The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. (Bloom notably included Woolf, one of the few female authors to make it in.) But now pressure is on to add more authors, more females, more writers of color. Or maybe to throw out the canon altogether.
So what is the canon? Technically, it’s the body of works considered to have been influential in shaping Western culture. However, as we have seen, some of these books disappear for years or decades (or centuries) only to be brought back to life. Others quietly fade away. So which ones are the most important? And, perhaps more importantly, why are they important? Is Shakespeare great because he is morally ambiguous or because he was a closet Catholic? Is he great because of his complex language or in spite of it? Is he great because he is “like no other” even though we know now he collaborated on a good deal of his plays (and most audience members are unlikely to know which parts he wrote and which he did not)? This can all seem very confusing. But it’s also the stuff that literary critics love to argue about, the stuff that somehow makes their jobs fun.