Do We Need a Literary Canon?
December 10, 2007 in book thoughts, the literary conversation
This weekend, despite hosting some house guests, I managed to find a good amount of time to catch up on some reading. In the recently read pile is a decent article from Prospect Magazine called “Do We Need a Literary Canon?” The article is not as polemical as it sounds. Instead Richard Jenkyns responds to an essay Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about multiculturalism’s detrimental effects on America’s literary canon. Sacks believes that culture relies on canons to establish communal vocabularies, but that multiculturalism interrupts and/or corrupts this shared history. He defends the unadulterated canon by arguing:
“It is important for us to understand where we have come from, to know the texts which have formed the beliefs and behaviour of the world in which we live. If we know nothing about the past, or even if we know only about the recent past, we are fated to misunderstand the present.”
I say that it is more important to understand where we are now—and that understanding comes from assessing what makes up our culture today. Of course knowing something about the past is important, but living in the past is harmful, especially if the past is so different from our present.
Now I haven’t read Rabbi Sacks’s original statement, but I figure he didn’t become Chief Rabbi by running on a platform of forced assimilation. I’m going to assume that Rabbi Sacks means that we ought to reach out to minority cultures by teaching them our canon, as a way of establishing a common language. But I wonder whether we ought to go one step further and adopt the canons of these other cultures, as a way of creating a new, inclusive culture. However, one could argue that the virtue of multiculturality is its heterogeneity. If that’s the case, maybe we ought to maintain several distinct mini-canons. But how do we avoid positioning one canon from becoming the master canon while the others are relegated to the position of attendant minority canons? The debate boils down to one that’s irked me for some time now: is it more important to highlight those qualities (or works of literature) that various sub-cultures have in common? Or when we teach literature, should we incorporate emblematic works of literature from various sub-cultures as a way of highlighting the differences that make each cultural tradition unique?
Personally, I’m in favor of creating a new inclusive canon, because cultures in a multicultural setting ought to be able to talk to each other, and to do so, we ought to have a communal vocabulary. Therefore, we ought to revise the current canon so that it speaks to all constituent cultures.
Jenkyns offers his take:
“We should indeed assert the importance of historical memory, of ancestry and rootedness. This is something which immigrants do not share, but the answer is not to pretend that it does not matter, but to offer new citizens a kind of historical memory by proxy.”
Rabbi Sacks may have hinted at something like forced assimilation, but Jenkyns doesn’t mince his words. They’re both missing the most obvious compromise: Why not modify our historical lessons to include theirs?
But for the moment, let’s return to Jenkyns’s original question: Do we even need a canon in the first place? This is where I agree with Rabbi Sacks: I think it helps. A canon establishes common ground, and while it’s important to preserve those eccentricities that distinguish cultures from each other, it’s even more important (especially now, when cultures uncomfortably abut one another) to emphasize the literature and vocabulary we have in common. Public school cirricula are moving in a good direction when they seek to incorporate Latino, Asian-American, African-American, Native American, and Jewish (the list goes on) texts into the syllabus by accentuating what these narratives have in common. But college cirricula only serve to underscore the boundaries between cultures when they offer their increasingly tangential canons, including some of my favorite courses from college: Gender and Sexuality in Asian-American Literature, Mixed Race Literature from the Post-Civil War Era. I militantly immersed myself in the clamorous voices of the subaltern, letting them speak so much that I no longer knew what they were speaking against. As someone who’s largely dodged the canon, I regret that I have so few books in common with my peers.
Jenkyns nicely sums up the conundrum when he advises:
“There is a good deal we can do about the way in which we teach literature, though here there is a nice balance to be found between drawing the young in through the works that may most naturally appeal to them and stretching them with works that may seem less attractive. We should also teach the development of a personal taste: the risk in stressing the canon too much is that it can seem to require that we dwell always on the upper slopes of Parnassus, and that we should always like what we have been told to like; yet without personal predilection, there is no true cultivation.”
Let’s agree, for the sake of continuing this discussion, that we accept the need for a canon. Which books of the past 25 years deserve to be inducted into the Canonical Hall of Fame? Jenkyns frets that no such book exists, and that our era exhibits a dismaying lack of canonical heroes. I think that remains to be seen: the canonical texts of our time likely won’t be recognized until well after we’re gone. A canon is never contemporary, never up-to-date. Nevertheless, speculation is fun. I know lists abound on this subject, but I’m curious: any out-of-left-field nominations for the future canon?
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