How Canon Change Should Happen

Carol Iannone

In a short letter to the Wall Street Journal, James Simpson, head of Harvard’s English Department, defends the transformation of the literary canon in recent decades. (April 8-9, 2017)

Simpson is writing in response to Heather Mac Donald’s article criticizing Harvard’s English Department’s latest foray into advanced political correctness, a required course on “marginalized” authors. (“Does Harvard Consider Oscar Wilde ‘Marginalized’?” WSJ March 21, 2017)

Simpson lauds the course and decries the older pre-PC curriculum that, he claims, “betrayed the fundamental function of literature and other art forms, which is to hear the voices repressed by official forms of a given culture.”

A serious scholar, Simpson here manages to sound like a low level apparatchik giving out the official line in Pravda. “To hear the voices repressed by official forms of a given culture”? That’s the “fundamental function” of literature and art? Really?

No, that is the politicized, quasi-Marxist function it has been assigned in our time.

Be that as it may, Simpson goes on to give an example of what he sees as invigorating canon change. “Before the 1970s, English curricula had hardly any women authors,” Simpson writes, going on to gush that “since the 1970s, the curriculum has been utterly transformed, to massively life-enhancing effect, by hearing those women’s voices.”

He writes as if there is some kind of opposition between a fixed and unbending canon of great works set in stone in saecula saeculorum vs. the meretriciously compiled contemporary body of works of so-called marginalized voices.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The canon of literary works has always been open to change. As Mac Donald points out in the article to which Simpson’s letter is a response, some authors once considered central are hardly read today. Even Shakespeare has had his relative ups and downs. And King Lear, knowing his power is past, states a more general principle of human existence when he envisions quiet time with Cordelia, in which they will discuss “Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out.”

But previous changes in the canon were not prompted by quasi-Marxist theories of oppression and oppressed, victim and victimizer. Rather they were motivated by the literary passions and insights of perceptive and dedicated readers.

For example, at one time what we now call the classic works of American literature, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, and others, were not taken seriously as subjects of study. Such works as Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn were boys’ adventure stories. That is, until D.H. Lawrence wrote about some of them appreciatively with his customary verve, wit, and depth in Studies in Classic American Literature, published in 1928. Lawrence’s may not have been an aesthetically refined and coldly sober approach to his subject, but that book spearheaded the entry of American literature into the curriculum.

And even he, with all his literary prestige, couldn’t bring some works back into prominence, such as Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast.

At one time, literature at the college level meant Latin and Greek. Even modern languages were considered unworthy of formal study.

Literature by women needed to earn its way into the canon, as had other works--through discussion, debate, consensus. After all, it was none other than Virginia Woolf who faulted Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre because she saw it as grinding out the author’s resentments more than presenting complex emotions in living fiction. And it was none other than feminist poet Adrienne Rich in the very early days of Ms. Magazine who wrote a lively essay defending that book on literary grounds.

This was the kind of thing that should have taken place, but just when it was getting interesting, feminists realized that they could pull the sex card from the bottom of the deck and just import female writers into the curriculum without further effort.

Simpson writes that the canon always needs to be refreshed—that is how a tradition remains alive, he states. He is right, but politicizing the canon has not made the tradition live. Indeed, it seems a little dishonest even to invoke tradition in this context. I guess Simpson is whistling by the graveyard of all those dead white males.

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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