The Critique and Practice of Canon Formation: The Subject of English 211


        Goucher's English Department places two English literature survey courses squarely in the center of the curriculum most sophomores will follow, along with English 215, the Critical Methods course that studies applied interpretive theory.  The survey courses are English 211: Beowulf to Dryden, and English 212: Pope to Eliot.  Many English majors have taken casual literature surveys in high school, but even those loosely organized courses are rare in the twenty-first century's secondary schools.  Because most English majors never have taken a systematic survey course, they have no idea what to expect.  There are two main  types of systematic literature survey, one organized by historical period and one organized by theories and genres.  In past decades, most historical survey instructors operated under the belief that they were teaching a central core library of works and authors generally recognized as "canonical," that is, belonging to the "canon" of English literature, those works authorized by scholars as being "the best" or "the most important" or "the most something or other."  Under pressure from students of interpretive theory and genre theory, however, most survey course instructors (including me) come to the job believing the "canon" is a myth that is both constructive of and destructive to our study of literature.  Even the loosest idea of what works are considered "great" or "important" will construct a reader's reception of all other literature.  However, nothing any "canon" rests upon is stable or unchanging, including its standards of judgment for "most whatever," its methods of analysis, and even the notion of "literary periods" (e.g., "medieval," "renaissance," "enlightenment," "Victorian"), which are central to most judgmental schemes.  This does not mean that people do not talk about "the canon" or debate which works belong in it.  It only means that the debate's results should never be presumed to be final or conclusive, and that there are a great many other, "non-canonical" works which deserve study, as well. 


        For these reasons, English 211 teaches two views of each work of  literature you will find in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1: first, why some scholars have thought those works were canonical and by what means they arrived at those conclusions; and second, why we have reason to debate the inclusion of those works in the Norton rather than some others.  That is, we read the works to observe a canon being formed by the Norton editors, but we critique that practice in the process of forming our own canons of literature (note the plural, which will be explained below).  This requires us to learn some history, especially cultural history, and some interpretive theory, including the historical development of interpretive theory, because we risk gravely misreading early authors unless we understand the interpretive practices they expected readers to apply to their works.  To give just one example, the fifteenth-century play, Everyman, is a "personification allegory," which means that its author expects its audience to interpret each character's actions as the performance of some aspect of an idea turned into action, rather than a "realistic" drama with "naturalistic" psychological development in its characters.  "Realistic" and "naturalistic" are modern interpretive conventions, too, but most students learned them so long ago that they are unaware of adopting them as normal practice.  We also will read or discuss examples of "non-canonical" works, such as Colly Cibber's version of King Lear, or John Cleveland's lyrics, which some contemporaries compared (unfavorably for Cleveland) with those of John Donne and Andrew Marvell.  We also will see authors struggling to control their culture's imaginative life by fighting previous authors' successes with works of their own, most famously in Milton's challenge to the cosmic visions of Virgil and Dante, and in the works of emergent women poets who confront and question male predecessors' values and aesthetics (e.g., Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Amelia Lanyer, and Lady Mary Wroth).  English 211 gives you the tools and experience to see literature as a creative struggle in which poets and readers collaborate to create new forms of cultural awareness, and to preserve old forms of imagination in memory.


        English 211's persistent references to the development of interpretive theory, and its practice in the major (especially what is awaiting most of you next semester in English 215) will become obvious.  Each of the works we read is studied as product of its culture, not just a work of an individual author's "genius," which explains part of the course's emphasis on the evolution of the technology of literary production, i.e., who becomes an author and what the job of an author is believed to be, how "literature" gets sung or written, and how it is physically reproduced.  All of those things, and indeed English speakers' views of themselves and the world, go through enormous changes between 991 and 1700.  One of the biggest changes affecting who becomes an author and what authors do is the way gender and class and race  change over time as culture, including literature itself, "constructs" them in our minds.  These are the "invisible triad" of culture-making codes, although one advantage of reading these three codes in early literature is that they often will become visible for us because early English writers used them so differently from the way we use them today. 

        The largest single concept English 211 studies is "canon reform."    Since there is no single "canon" of English literature, there is no single cultural activity that can be said to "reform" it, but canon formation is going on every year in English 211, and doing it critically is the only way I know of to do it well.  It all starts with respecting and being suspicious of the Norton Anthology as a representative selection of canonical literature.  Unlike the canon of the Christian Bible, there really is no single, agreed-upon canon of English literature, but people often act as if there were.  (In fact, even if you are a Christian, you choose a different Bible by choosing the sect of Christianity you follow--thesects do not agree among themselves.)  Who chooses what  works are in the Norton and who polices that decision?  The process starts with the Norton editors, of course, but their choices are founded in the work of scholars publishing articles or books, or giving talks at the MLA Convention, and the resulting versions of the English literary canon are taught by English Departments like ours.  Nobody is "out of the loop" in this process, including you, gentle reader.  In fact, the only way to study canon formation is to do it, and to take full responsibility for the canon you take away with you in December.  Decisions you make as you study will construct "a" canon of English literature in your mind, and that is as real as the canon ever gets.  It's not the canon in the Norton that matters--it's the one you take away in your mind that lives and reproduces itself in the future.  So memory is the real key to this process.

        Even if it were a transcendentally truthful representative of the canon, nobody can remember the entire Norton.  We're trying to remember a set of authors, representative works, reasons we think the works are "representative" of the way the author writes, and connections among the works and authors.  I know I can't expect everyone to read all of the Norton, which is why I don't assign it.  There are things in there I haven't read, either, and I only faintly regret them.  There is a lot of literature that is not in the Norton and which I think is very important to knowing English literary culture, but there are only 12 functional weeks in a Goucher semester.  Therefore, I'm trying to teach the most varied set of texts I can pack into 12 weeks, and everyone will have to select an adequate chunk of it to remember in order to pass.  I'm also open to people reading off the syllabus, too, but I don't expect it to happen often unless somebody is writing a paper and wants to read more by the author or more than an excerpt that the Norton editors selected.  I'm trying to give the class the critical skills and a large enough "matrix" of potential canonical works so that they can do a good job of beginning their own canon based on what they decide to remember.  "Beginning" is the key word here.  Your real "canon" is the result of what you remember in your life's work as a reader and thinker.  English 211 will be your first formal start in that process.