The Canon: A Series of Happy Accidents?

Discussion Post

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  He argued that the work should be respected as a piece of literature and not merely a historical document revealing the culture of the people of the time.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.

 

23 thoughts on “The Canon: A Series of Happy Accidents?

  1. Rosie Amber says:

    Agh! So many books, so little time. Sadly I’ve not heard of this list before (no shock horror) think I’ll leave the arguing about who makes the list to others, while I grab the next book on my reading list.

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    • Krysta says:

      Well, it’s not an official list, though some have made official lists. Today the canon is probably nebulously defined by what gets into works like the Norton anthologies and hence what is taught in literature classes. In other words, most of us have been taught the canon without being told that we’re reading the canon!

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  2. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    Wonderful post! I’m doing a module on postcolonial literature, and it has made me think about the canon and how it’s shaped even more than before. English Literature was first established as a course in India to ‘civilise’ and control the natives, the works being considered worth studying ultimately representing western culture as superior. Robinson Crusoe is still celebrated, but upon reading it, it becomes clear that the writing is actually incredibly dull and the plot not very creative, the only thing making it stand out the blatant racism and colonial discourse.
    We talk a lot about ideology in this module, about how the discourse led by the dominant class and the people in power shapes the ideology of society. The works considered canon are really just books that powerful literary voices consider great, and they usually represent the dominant people in society (straight, white men), because marginalized voices are not powerful enough to control and lead the discussion. So it’s all very subjective, and I stand by my opinion that the canon is a made-up fantasy 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, one has to wonder why the majority of “great” works were written by white men. So other people don’t write works of value? Or is it simply that what we value as a society just happens to be the features we find in the works of white men? I think we still see this at work. We still assume that romance, for instance, is a woman’s genre and that it’s not real art. Hence why we say Jane Austen is legitimate. She “offers more than romance. She also offers social commentary.” Which, sure, makes her more appealing to me since I don’t enjoy romances without something else happening. But why is writing about romance inherently inferior to writing about politics or war?

      It’s something we don’t often question, but it’s an assumption that shapes the canon. Women weren’t really allowed to be involved in either war or politics for much of history (though both certainly affected them and they contributed in their own ways either by influencing family members or sacrificing on the homefront). Historically, they weren’t as likely to write about topics they were excluded from. So when we say domestic fiction isn’t as interesting as war fiction, we have already decided that many women aren’t going to make the canonical cut.

      It’s interesting, too, to think about how often we say that literature reflects the human experience. Whose experience? Whose experiences are being left out?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ravenclaw Book Club says:

        Yes, absolutely. It’s very true that women are naturally excluded because of what they were allowed and expected to do. I also read a text recently from the 18th Century that shamed women for being vain and only interested in balls and clothes and beauty, and it made me so angry because what else could they be interested in at that time? It’s not like they had a great choice. Men created their social position and expectations, and then they were complaining about the results.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, “canon” can have several meanings. 😀 I believe it’s related to Latin and Greek for “law” or “rule” (I don’t have access to the OED at the moment, so this is just me vaguely guessing/remembering). So there are several definitions for “canon” that are kind of related.

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  3. Adam says:

    You’ve certainly highlighted some very interesting examples of how chance can lead to dominance, and how frequently our own opinions are influenced by those around us. There are so many interesting experiments where groups are given a work of fiction, and depending on what they are told beforehand, their opinions vary widely. It’s often difficult to disagree with popular opinion. particularly when it’s been maintained over generations.
    It’s very interesting to imagine how such small details in history can lead to such large ramifications.
    Thank you for sharing.

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    • Krysta says:

      Ah, yes! Like the Stanley Fish experiments! We do tend to find what we think we are supposed to find! If you give me the world’s most boring piece of literature, I will sit there trying to figure out what other people think is so great about it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Adam says:

        Indeed. there are definitely times where I press on, even though I don’t like a piece, because I’m curious what makes it so popular. Of course, as an aspiring author, there are very real reasons for me to do that. If I had no aspirations beyond reading good stories, I’m not sure how motivated I’d be to press on.

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  4. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    hehe ahh the canon- now that really takes me back to uni 😉 I won’t pretend to have been especially into this subject- it’s not really my thing- though it was interesting to read your post 🙂 . But the funny (and in some ways great, in some ways unfortunate) thing I learnt about it is that it’s seriously dependent on place- so since I studied in Scotland I got to read Hogg and Stevenson (yay!) but also Joanna Baillie (*face desks*) Moral of the story: count yourself lucky if you’ve never had to read Joanna Baillie (gosh I got sidetracked there 😉 )

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    • Krysta says:

      That is quite true! I know there are Canadian canonical books that I’d never heard of and that probably aren’t even published in the U.S.! Just another reason to question what we mean by fundamental to “Western culture.” Whose Western culture?!

      (I have never read Joanna Baillie. Sorry that you apparently suffered through! ;b)

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      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yes, we definitely have that experience with books from across the pond, though I can understand the logic of restricting it to by geography, otherwise it gets a little limitless and where do you stop- at some point anyway everyone had to take a course on American lit for instance. And of course, there’s always the option to study foreign lit (one friend ended up studying Chinese lit for history and another did Russian lit for English) and be glad you haven’t 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I adore this post. I wish I had a more academic background in literature so I could participate in this discussion. Honestly, I didn’t even know “the canon” referred to any set of literature people are expected to read. This makes sense comparing it to the context I know it in– “Read all of these books/plays/comics/short stories in THIS PARTICULAR order or you are a heathen” – Actual words many of my more literarily-elitist friends have spoken to me.

    Consider how the internet works and how easy it is to share information, I’d not be surprised if we see a major change in canon over the next 25-50 years. More and more lists of “essential” literature keep coming out each week. If there was a worldwide governing body for literature, I’m sure we’d have a “proper” canon. But until then, I imagine we’ll see these lists splitting and becoming more and more different from each other with each passing week.

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    • Krysta says:

      I really don’t understand why people are expected to have read a bunch of books. Life is short. We literally can’t read ALL the books. And maybe we want to balance our canonical reading with other books, too! Oh well. I just do what I enjoy and leave other people to fight amongst themselves. 😉

      I understand there is a somewhat practical use for the canon. It limits the lists of works English majors should know to something that’s theoretically practically obtainable. (It’s still pretty large and most won’t have read all of it, but it’s not thousands of books, at least.) However, there are plenty of mini canons already–women’s writers, fantasy writers, and so forth. I wouldn’t be surprised if, as you say, the canon eventually becomes even more nebulous than it is now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        Good for you– I think that’s the way to go. Just read what you want! But, it’s important we have these lists, as diverse and nebulous as they are, to help educate people about the available literature of the world. I need these lists to keep me stretching my own reading habits. Otherwise I’d basically only read 4 genres of literature. O_o

        I’ll never read all the books on a canon list, unless I write my own. There are far too many amazing books in the world. Maybe that’s what I’ll do– develop my own canon. 😉

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        • Krysta says:

          I don’t know. I’d never have read Virginia Woolf without the canon, but I think I’d be okay with that… 😉 However, to be fair, I think I don’t worry about my reading choices because I’m also fully aware that I’ve read enough of the canon to be able to hold my head up if someone wanted to try to sneer at me. I don’t NEED to be able to make a case for MG or YA because I can just loftily declare that I love Shakespeare and Dante. Maybe that’s not the most noble way to engage someone, but I would have that option if I were not feeling particularly noble (which happens quite often when I am hungry and tired).

          However, I agree that it is nice to be able to have lists that can expand our reading. I do like looking at lists of “top 100 books everyone should read” and seeing how many I’ve read any which ones I may have somehow never heard of. I think a personal canon is also a cool idea because it can allow you to develop specialized interests. Kind of like a reading list for grad school. You don’t need to focus on “the canon” per se but maybe the canon of a particular genre or time period (or several!). I’m not that into modern literature myself, so that seems ideal. Medieval literature through Victorian novels is all way and good. I’m not so sure about the later stuff.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

            I am with you on getting hangry or “sleepgry” (as my partner puts it). I tend to get testy and pick fights, however, instead of just not being noble. I’ll rant and rave at someone about how important MG/YA literature is, and how I’ve read MG/YA books which are better than whatever elitist text they are currently reading. Also not noble. Just different. 😉

            I also like looking at those lists. But I spend a ton of time criticizing them… “Why would anyone put THAT book on this top 100 list?” “Where is _____ book?!” But they do help me find a lot of interesting new books. Man. Now I want to create a personal canon. That’ll be a major project for me, however– I’ll take it super seriously. 🙂

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  6. Wendy @ Falconer's Library says:

    I’ve seen some bloggers share their personal canon–I think Lori and The Emerald City Book Review is whose blog I saw it on. As a reading teacher, I am all about expanding the canon–there are works that each generation should at least be aware of, but it should change over time.

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