Across the 1990s, a long war was waged over whether or not university and high school English departments should continue to hold a specified canon of literature above the rest. Not only was the canon—which included the likes of Shelley, Blake, Johnson, Coleridge, Melville, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Joyce, Faulkner, Nabakov, Pynchon,Tolstoy, Dante, Homer, Goethe, etc.—exclusively white, exclusively dead, and exclusively male with the exceptions of Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, it was not clear that such a canon truly represented the acme of all literary accomplishment, or even what such an acme should mean. Is it not curious that such an emphasis was put on Renaissance plays, Romantic poetry, and the early novel? And so we attempted to level the playing field, but I would contend that we did not succeed. Really, the decline of the canon was a recentering of educated discourse from literature to politics.
The problem was clear. In elevating works that featured the distant past and which were overwhelmingly concerned with status games, romances, and interpersonal lives of upper-middle class educated Englishmen, we implicitly endorsed that Anglo-Saxons with sweeping vocabularies and heritage in the socially conscious gentry had a monopoly on aesthetic sensibility and the more ineffable sorts of truth. The canon had to go. And, in a sense, it did. In modern classrooms, a much wider range of works are pored over in English classes, with a greater ethnic, gender, and temporal range of subjects explored, and somewhat more emphasis placed on the historical contexts of novels over their aesthetic virtues.
I do not dispute the arguments for why the canon had to be shelved, or at least pulled off of its pedestals. But while the old, overt canon was dismantled, we still have a defined set of writers and works that are treated as historically and intellectually more significant than the rest. This is a canon, it is just as influential as the old one, and it is even whiter, more male, and more inaccessable than its predecessor. The new canon is less obviously dominant and does not come from the Modern Language Association. But a canon isn’t defined by what’s taught in English classes, or even about aesthetics generally. It has always been about having a common cultural vocabulary for the educated.
Despite our attempt to stop it from happening, we still have that. It’s not just Jane Austen and Shakespeare anymore. It’s Marx, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, Engels, Foucault, Adorno, Gramsci, Žižek, Judith Butler. They aren’t explicitly hailed as better than all others, or as having some special access to the truth. But they are the peculiar subset of writers for whom it is acceptable to assume, because one did not like their writings, that one did not understand their writings. Do I have any evidence for my claim? Nothing is a better signal than who’s referenced on Soggy Wes Memes. More concretely, sales, readership, and attention are trending heavily toward non-fiction, political theory, and particularly anti-liberal leftism, so we shouldn’t be so surprised that the canon shifted that way as well. These writers are the canon. They wrote the phrasebook currently in vogue (deconstruction, late capitalism, performativity, the gaze, praxis, etc.).
Obviously this is especially true at Wesleyan and amongst other effete, educated communities—but the canon was always for the elite. In the past, there was more reading of fiction and poetry, so there was more elitism over fiction and poetry, today it’s rarely done. Further, since leftist political thought had its heydays in Europe in the late 19th century and the 1960s, in quite male universities, we should not be so surprised that it is even less diverse than the canon of before.
Viewed this way, the decline of the traditional literary canon is not as much a story of progressive victory or demographic change, but of the slow decay of America’s faith in the humanities.
Nothing is inconsistent about having both the veneration of prose and social justice. Before its decline, the aesthetic canon had expanded into previously unexplored demographic territory plenty (the first expansion being to Cicero and Catullus). The last generation of aspirants to the literary canon: Roth, Marquez, Morrison, Wallace, Achebe, Pynchon, Carver, and perhaps Rushdie and Naipaul, though overwhelmingly male, were quite a diverse group, not just in their demographic representation, but in the wide range of stories they told. Nothing makes it impossible, or even difficult, for a diverse America to adopt a diverse pantheon. So, it was never really demographic or political concerns which brought down the old canon, it was the dwindling of aesthetic appreciation generally. In contrast, appreciation of the old canon writers still lives in the last holdouts of America’s devotion to the aesthetic. Canons emerge anywhere and everywhere we rest our attention.
We may employ some statistical analysis to see why and how canons emerge. This has been done for the field I know best, Anglosphere philosophy. Regarding how often works are cited by current scholars: as they move farther into the past, a small number become “The Greats.” A consensus develops around importance. Standards arise for whom to teach and to read, and the ideas circulating around a discipline in a period come to be associated with one or two well known thinkers (Euclid did not really come up with “The Elements,” and Locke did not invent liberalism sui generis). This process is powerful enough that while we overwhelmingly focus on and cite recent scholarship, the most cited scholars—at least in Philosophy—are decades or millennia dead. In anything we study, a canon has to emerge, and it will invariably be weighted toward the past.
Clearly, the new canon differs structurally from the old. First, like young leftism generally, it emerged from students themselves, not from directed study. It is also unlikely that it will become codified by the academy, for political reasons, nor as widely read as the fiction of the past, for accessibility reasons. Yet, it exists. We should reckon with the influence that the new canon has on our thought, including the particular style of writing and reasoning in political and literary theory. If we admit we do have elevated and venerated writers, we may consider which writers were foolishly excluded from our common consideration, and which ones justice demands we remove. Through conscious curation of the canon, we may direct our discourse and our thought more productively, and avoid paying overmuch attention to popular but ultimately less illuminating works.
Tom Hanes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.