The "Canon" of English Literature

Canon: n., from the Latin canon or "rule."  Originally, an ecclesiastical code of law or standard of judgment, later any standard of judgment, usually based upon determinate set of authorized texts, like the canonical books of the Bible, Torah, Qu'ran, or Sutras.  In modern literature study, the "best" or "most important" or "most representative" works of secular literature which anchor the study of English and American literature.  In religious canons, works previously treated as part of this set of texts but which have been excluded as inauthentic for some reason are "apocryphal" (also, "The Apocrypha"), from the Latin apocryphus or "spurious," itself a loan word from Greek where it means "hidden."  In literary studies, the "canon" of an author also is a name for those works known to have been written by her/him, as distinguished from those mistakenly or mischievously or maliciously attributed to her/him (e.g., "Chaucer's apocrypha," most of which were identified and removed from the Chaucerian canon in the nineteenth and early twentieth century).

        Until a literature has a "canon," it has been argued, it has not risen to the level of sophistication at which it can be studied seriously by scholars.  I would argue that the reverse is true: scholarly study creates canons by making accurate texts available and by defining the terms by which they are studied.  Folk literatures, for instance, tend not to have canons until scholars have gotten into the act, collecting and correlating and analyzing the wild oral transmission of the folk tale or song.  People might argue whether "Tune X" is "really a blues song rather than rock and roll or rhythm and blues," but until a canon of "blues" exists, people will tend to disagree rather hopelessly about the facts.  When asked whether "Tune X" is "a great blues song," their opinions will be even more divided by appeals to unstable definitions until people have taken the time to make serious, systematic studies of the how the art is created.

        Canonization also distorts literature and introduces predictable biases in interpretation.  Canons of literature may fossilize their subject and reduce its study to dry memorization for its own sake.  The rules by which the canonical texts are selected tend to favor the powerful and to exclude or marginalize the powerless, regardless of the merits of their work.  Or, rather, "merit" will become unconsciously identified as a property "naturally" belonging to the powerful, and "naturally" unavailable to the powerless.  The values and tastes of the powerful will turn the process of canon formation and its product into a cultural prison.  But does this mean we cannot have informed discussion of canons without allowing them to imprison our values and tastes?  Think about what rejecting any serious study of tastes and values will do to our understanding of literature.

          Studying how literature is created and testing claims for its place in the canon makes us better readers, more aware of the poets' choices and the strategies guiding them.  Instead of stopping at "I like it" or "I don't like it," readers will be able to talk about what "it" is, how it works, and what kinds of beautiful or ugly effects it produces in all of its elements over time as it unfolds.  This process aids canon formation, it is true, but without it, we cannot communicate or fully understand what we like about literature, and it acts upon us in ways we cannot fully understand, a dangerous cultural situation which caused Plato to argue that we ought to ban poets from the ideal city.  Let us welcome the poets to our city, but let us understand how their art works.  Each of us is responsible for choosing which poets and which works to remember in English 211, and in so doing, each of us develops an educated sense of taste in literary practice, as well as a canon of her/his own with which to sustain that sense of taste.

        One also can argue that canons and the scholarship which produce them are not good for literatures, themselves, and that those habits of close observation and careful definition can produce a kind of self-awareness that will kill poets' creative force and the empathic appreciation of their audiences.  That kind of scholarship is not what I am trying to teach you.  Scholarship which respects the mystery in poets' minds and the central role of emotional affect in audiences' responses, even while it tries to learn more about how literature works, is the only kind worth pursuing.  Creative writers in English 211 should look for inspiration in the practices of early writers where they will find lost techniques and forgotten subjects they can bring to new life in their own work.  All readers should listen patiently for the heartbeat of these early works, hidden from us by our unfamiliarity with their vocabulary and the rules by which they play the poets' games.  We are the strangers in their worlds, not they in ours.