Whether one is aware of it, literary canons permeate society on many levels and have undoubtedly shaped everyone’s world view.

The term “literary canon” refers to a body of books, narratives and other texts considered to be the most important and influential of a particular time period or place. Take a 19th century American literature course, for instance. One is being exposed to a version of a group of texts that has, through one means or another, been established as representative of the essential authors, movements and historical events in America during the 1800s.

Through the course of education, when one is asked to read any novel, essay, poem, or some other sort of text, it is because a teacher or some other entity decided the text should be canonized. Canons, then, can be understood as value-determining lists that are ingrained in our education system, perhaps unavoidably so. However, the political process of deciding what makes it into a given canon and what does not has long been a topic of scrutiny and debate for scholars of all academic disciplines.

Despite strides made in recent decades to reform literary canons, issues and controversy still exist. Thus, examining how the institution of the canon was formed, how canons have been revised over the years and how canons function today can help to illuminate the pitfalls of canonization, many of which have yet to be overcome.

History Lesson

“According to the scholar, Paul Lauter, who historicized the American canon, the first American literature classes started in the mid-to-late 1890s, at the same time the first American-literature textbooks started,” English professor Gregory Rutledge said. “The upper-Midwest was at the forefront of this development, probably because the East Coast schools were swathed in “tradition,” which essentially adhered to British, Old World poetics. Thus, there apparently was conflict as these first American literature classes started.”

Although the originators of American literature courses and textbooks were not formally assembling a canon, they were doing so indirectly by selecting the works to be taught. According to English professor Stephen Behrendt, many of the educators who contributed to early canonization efforts were both teachers and clergymen.

“Early on, professional educators decided about what would become canonized, as part of what they naturally did when creating a curriculum in any discipline,” Behrendt said. “In fact, in the earliest years, many of these professional educators were religious, that is, either clergy or clergy-related, which inevitably brought in also a perceivable ‘moral’ focus or ‘moral compass’ in terms of what works were approved and sanctioned, and for what reasons.”

This example of clergymen selecting texts that agreed with their moral disposition is a notable early instance of selective canonization and suggests the way in which canons come to represent the ideology of those who select them. Apart from religious beliefs, other important factors characterized the demographic of the early dictators of the canon.

“The Western literary canon has historically been dictated by economically secure, traditionally educated, socially privileged white men,” Behrendt said. “Plus, literacy was historically the province of the privileged and so, the uneducated or minimally educated – which included some women but most laboring-class citizens, of both sexes, as well a children – were automatically excluded. The remnant of this class-based exclusionary thinking is visible in today’s society in the disdain with which the cultural elite usually greet “popular” art like Harry Potter, graphic novels, country-western music, etc.”

It wasn’t until around the 1920s that these bodies of accepted texts were finally referred to as canons and formally organized.

“One of the students in (my capstone) class who consulted the Oxford English Dictionary for the etymology of canon, Ms. Alicia Meyer, found that it was first used to refer to a canon of literature in 1929,” Rutledge said. “If this date holds up, whether absolutely precise or not, it means that the canon-makers were engaged in one of the most far-reaching developments with respect to American literature: They were looking back and identifying literary history through their own lenses and providing the canonical blueprint for the forthcoming canon.”

Here, Rutledge touches upon the power that was given to these early producers of the canon. Essentially, they were able to pick and choose the texts of history that would be presented as the most crucial texts in American literature. Not surprisingly, these early canons contained works by authors of a race, gender, social standing and perspective similar to the early canon-makers. For decades, this situation remained relatively the same.

“Although I would need to consult resources to document the manifold and profound ways this is true, up until the 1960s, the canon was basically on lockdown, particularly with regard to race or ethnicity,” Rutledge said. “The birth of ‘Black Studies’ programs in the late 1960s – and early 1970s here at UNL – signaled a shift in the literary canon and the academy, for the latter had been largely closed to minority presence until then, even though some U.S. Supreme Court cases had, in theory, removed ‘separate but equal.’”

The birth of various ethnic studies programs in the 1960s reflected the social upheavals of the time. An increasingly diverse wave of scholars entered the academic world in the coming decades, subsequently expressing anger at the outdated canon and taking steps to reform it.

“In the past two or three decades and really beginning in the mid 1960s, scholars began to reflect the diverse demography of the modern world, as more women and minorities entered the professorate and voiced their dissatisfaction with and anger at the social, political, moral and gender paradigm that was represented in that ossified canon,” Behrendt said. “They began introducing changes on their own. In English departments this often meant printing out non-canonical materials on mimeograph machines, the grandparents to Xerox machines and distributing them to supplement the anthologies or, in some cases, even replace them.”

This resistance to the dominant canon during the late 1900s would catalyze canon reform and lead to the production of new anthologies that presented underrepresented perspectives.

“By the end of the 20th century, new anthologies began to appear that collected, say, for example, British women Romantic poets and thereby gave the lie to the longstanding notion that Romantic poetry in Britain consisted of five or six men, rather than the literally hundreds of active poets, many of whom were not only women and laboring-class writers but also really good writers,” Behrendt said. “So any traditional canon is first undermined by activists and revisionists who want to de-bunk the canon by redrawing the landscape in a more historically accurate fashion that makes very clear how different the reality is from the inherited misconception.”

The Modern Canon

Despite the strides that have been taken to eliminate the biased paradigms of previous canons, remnants of the exclusive past undoubtedly linger today. And, according to Behrendt, canons can never altogether escape this exclusivity.

“Canons are always about closed communities – who is excluded is at least as important as who is included. It is the ‘in’ crowd that usually controls the entrances, which means that the canonized or canonical writers largely resemble those who have judged them to be ‘major’ or ‘important’ or ‘classic,’” Behrendt said. “But this judging still rests on the tastes and preferences of the judges, who have traditionally been conditioned, whether they are aware of it, to prefer certain things – familiar things, mostly – over unfamiliar ones.”

It is the inescapable fate of the canon that some limited group of people will have to select its contents. And regardless of which group is doing the choosing, Behrendt said he believes the selection will always be biased.

“The sad irony of changing canons is that doing so merely replaces one set of narrow and privileged judgments with another equally narrow, but different, set of standards by which to decide who gets in and who doesn’t,” Behrendt said. “And, even sadder, canon revisions and canon substitutions are usually vindictive: The new ‘in’ group punishes the ‘old’ by excluding it, bashing it and admitting only those whose work reflects the new ‘agenda’ that has been set in place.”

One example of the exclusivity still present in modern literary canons relates to the canonical emphasis on the written word. For Rutledge, today’s canons continue to privilege a written tradition in a way that excludes the truest form of human storytelling.

“Since the oft-quoted French expression “traduire, c’est trahir” (“to translate is to betray”) is valid for converting printed text from one language to another insofar as a literal, one-to-one translation is impossible, imagine what happens when you eliminate the human, storytelling performances from consideration as a matter of course,” Rutledge said. “Our common human stories arise from oral, performed myths, not from the printed word.”

Rutledge said the canon largely eliminates the oral tradition from study, which is troubling because narrative performance has historically played such a crucial role in human culture. He said this is an area in which present-day canons could be greatly expanded.

“I would think the canon would have to be open to storytelling as its category,” Rutledge said. “The recent developments in literary studies toward world literature helps to change this, but it’s still literature as opposed to more open methods. If the theoretical could be given practical resources, I think we could find a better way for shaping literary studies in a way, open to storytelling in its richest, broadest meaning, that is truly cool.”

Empowering Ourselves

So, it seems canons will always be exclusive to an extent, thereby limiting our perspective on underrepresented forms of texts. For Behrendt, the Internet provides an avenue through which much of the world’s written material can be freely accessed, potentially combating the canon’s shortcomings.

“The Internet has democratized the access to, and the exchange of, information in a way that was impossible and even unimaginable before,” Behrendt said. “More and more written material is being put online every day, not just by Google Books or The Internet Archive but also, by major research libraries around the world, by local and regional libraries and archives, by private or semi-public archives and by individual scholars. In many respects this wealth of material is almost entirely ‘unfiltered,’ because it is simply being made accessible to anyone and everyone without some sort of cultural ‘gatekeeper’ to restrict what goes online or who gets to look at it.”

Unfortunately, Behrendt said, people have been conditioned to depend on arbiters of knowledge and canonical suggestion, so the sheer amount of information on the Internet can have a paralyzing effect.

“Paradoxically, this very wealth of material can completely immobilize the person who begins looking into it, precisely because for so many generations we have been taught, by the custodians of culture, the critics and ‘teachers,’ to depend not on our own intelligence and abilities but, rather, on the pronouncements of the professional arbiters of taste. Canons inherently undermine people’s abilities to read, look, listen and judge for themselves. If canons are comparable to the holy books of a religion, critics then are the ‘priests,’ upon whom the ordinary citizens or readers or viewers or listeners are inherently conditioned to turn for judgements that the people themselves ought to have learned how to make.”

Despite the ways in which canons may limit the necessity for critical thinking and thereby create a canon-dependent populace, Behrendt held that society cannot simply do away with them.

“I’m afraid canons are inevitable,” Behrendt said. “Look at how our culture just adores lists of all sorts. Top 10. Top 40. We’re No. 1. Bucket lists. ‘Not to be missed.’ ‘What’s trending?’ The whole culture seems increasingly driven by what other people are doing or what they think is important.”

Behrendt addedthis tendency toward allowing others to do the thinking in modern society disempowers people by causing them to sacrifice their agency as free-thinking beings.

“Problem is, that’s giving away our liberty and independence of mind and action to the judgements of others,” Behrendt said. “Go a little further down that road and you meet Big Brother staring at you from your own laptop camera and tapping your smartphone. The surest route to totalitarianism, whether political or intellectual, is convincing people that they don’t need to think for themselves, that the authorities – the Establishment – will take care of all that for them.”

For Behrendt, the route to reducing the potentially harmful influence of the canon in our society lies in empowering readers to think critically.

“Canons disempower,” Behrendt said. “Only by empowering or re-empowering readers can any of us begin to disempower the canons themselves and put individual judgment back in charge. Judging for oneself is always scary, but the consequences of acquiescence – of saying nothing, turning a blind eye – are grave. See the Nazis …”


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