In Search of a Canon
by Jordan A. Rothacker
Lists have always fascinated me. From descriptive lists in fiction to shopping lists on a refrigerator, they have always seemed an art unto themselves, prose broken down into a basic skeleton of information. I remember being nineteen and finally getting around to reading Franny and Zooey and being floored by how much Salinger was able to convey about the characters and the way that they lived by the content list of the bathroom medicine cabinet. Once I started making a conscious effort to face and indulge my fascination with lists I found them everywhere. Not only were lists present as the creations of others, in fiction and out in the world, but I found myself processing phenomena in list form. All the things to do today, friends to call, articles and stories to write, and books to read; oh so many lists and oh so many books to read. RE
Lists and books, it is an ancient dialectic, lists of books, books of lists. Five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, and six hundred and thirteen commandments there within. It was this fascination with lists, lists all around, salvos of lists barraging my senses and daily life, which has drawn me into the search for a canon. The first canons most of us experience in the secular world are those elementary school required summer reading lists. Of course these lists led to many knee-jerk reactions from the more freethinking students to question their veracity. Who are these administrators to tell us what to read, why these books, why not others? So many questions for a child like I, a child who loved reading about as much as I hated being told what to do. If I were to spend my time reading books that I had never heard of, of someone else’s compilation, then I was going to need a pretty good reason. Who were they to tell me what to read? As a child I got around these issues in my own way. Either I beat the hype on books earlier than my age grouping—reading Wuthering Heights, Siddhartha, and Catcher in Rye at age ten and The Brothers Karamazov at age twelve—or I avoided certain “classics” forever or at least until after the hype and the summer requirement—never reading The Yearling or Johnny Tremain and postponing reading books like The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick until college. The ones that I did read when required were fun at the time but books like Goodbye Mr. Chips, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Where the Red Fern Grows have only returned to my mind or conversations when there is a movie adaptation of one or I wind up thinking or talking to someone about school required reading lists.
The big question as a child—though I might not have used these particular terms—in essence was, who are they to establish canon? Their lists seemed stodgy or pedestrian and either way appeared out of touch to my expanding awareness. (I am sure all schools are different based on county and state, but throughout my childhood the Georgia public schools I attended hovered, as they still do, around fiftieth in the country for education.) This disenchantment with institutional education led me to look for a canon elsewhere beyond summer reading lists. The Great Books of the Western World, edited by Mortimer J. Adler, was the first established and awe-striking canon I confronted. In my parents’ divorce I got some of the books that were too much trouble for my father to move. So here I had an old dusty stack of fifty-four volumes to tackle and demand my reverence. I picked through them, mostly admiring the prestige and exploring Adler’s Great Idea appendix in the last two volumes, but found the bulky hard covers more trouble to read than the paper back editions I already had of many of the volumes.
Other than the works themselves I became interested in the compilation of them. This elite list of books was deemed more than just a list, but the western heritage, the greatest pieces of thought, culture and literature in the western world. In college, this awe was quick to give way to skepticism as I realized that though it included a good many great books, it excluded even more. For all the traditional patriarchal white males that cooed at the mention of the Western Canon, a shadowy term itself not limited to the works compiled by Adler, I encountered just as many people of other description including non-traditional non-patriarchal white males who wanted justice through de-canonization. Alas I learned that the postmodern period and condition into which I was born was also a postcolonial one and that to many people not only was there no longer a meta-narrative, but a growing trend towards the acceptance of billions of little narratives, any one just as good as another.
Postcolonial studies was the next speed bump on my search for a canon. In my naïve love of canon, my hope has always been that instead of tearing down the established Western Canon to simply expand it, to retrieve the lost classics written by women and minorities whose voices have never been heard. After that, why not just drop the term Western and call it the Human Canon or something else more global and inclusive and expand the list to include the great Eastern works from the Qur’an and the Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam to the Mahabharata, The Buddhist Sutras, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius and all the other classics of the world’s other half. Past my optimistic naivety, this seemed to be a much more complicated proposition than I ever imagined, involving postcolonial theories of discourse and power struggles that are still not resolved and needed to be played out. From Michel Foucault I learned that “From the depths of the Middle Ages, a man was mad if his speech could not be said to form part of the common discourse of men… the madman’s speech did not strictly exist.” For Foucault it is all about power and those in power control discourse, its parameters, its qualifiers, and declare what falls outside of that designated frame crazy or illegitimate. Theorizing in this vein it is up to those in power, the canon makers in this case, to open discourse to that and those which have been outside of it.
After Foucault others get even more pessimistic about the situation stressing the dire nature of the postcolonial experience and the inability of those once or currently oppressed to make their voices heard. Gayatri Spivak in her very long essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” tackles the issue from the angle that she is a PhD in Comparative Literature and now part of the Academy and western discourse whole still remaining a Bengali woman. In the essay she refers to the oppressed peoples of the third-world, specifically those in her area of concentration, India, as “subalterns.” After examining particular instances of British colonialism, Indian self-governance and the intersections of religion, race, gender and language with a little bit of Foucault thrown in she concludes that no, the subaltern cannot speak. In their own language and cultural tradition they cannot be heard and in the discourse of the Other they will always been seen as subjects.
It was clear to me the politics of the postcolonial experience would taint any attempt at finding or compiling an unbiased canon. I will not go as far as Nabokov in separating politics from art, but some great pieces of art can be attached to bad politics and yet still endure regardless over time. However, the postcolonial and postmodern critique of power and power dynamics leads back to the biggest question in the search for a canon: Who is responsible for defining a canon? What makes them reliable?
Librarians, with their necessary love of books, aptitude at cataloging, and, in most cases, ardent stance on free speech, seem a good source towards which to turn for an authority on canonization. Ten years ago The New York Public Library, curated by Elizabeth Diefendorf, the Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Chief Librarian of the General Research Division, along with a task force of other librarians, compiled a “Books of the Century,” list to commemorate their centennial. In this compilation they didn’t just make one list but thirteen lists, broken into comprehensive topics that included 175 books. Their lists covered many different peoples and experiences as they tried to be responsible within each grouping. Both volumes of Mein Kampf are present for influence alone (even negative influence) in a category that also contains Mao’s Red Book, the diary of Anne Frank and both volumes of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Social relevance and influence of the works compiled seem to be as essential to The New York Public Library’s act of canonization as is their literary merit since they mix fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and even non-literature (a term I use knowing that many theorists might just retort that everything is literature). Surveying across the thirteen categories one finds non-literary works like the United Nations Charter (1945), Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man: The Photographic Exhibition Created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art (1955), The Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health (1964), Ed Krol’s The Whole Internet: User’s Guide & Catalog (1992), and even the Bible is included for a particular translation, the Revised Standard Version (1952). The sensitivity and consciousness of the lists make me feel like I have good reason to trust librarians, but this canon is closed to one century in time. I have held onto The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century compilation for a decade now and return to it often though it has made me wonder if the only workable canon for literature must be an open one.
Where to next? How about publishing houses? Their motives typically lie in sales and bottom-line profit, but I have witnessed many preserving literature they themselves dub classics while promoting books they hope will be classics to the next generation. Each house has divisions and imprints that specialize in classics or even contemporary classics but there are a few publishers or imprints that have made a reputation for their selves as canonizers. The first one that comes to mind is Modern Library since they too endeavored to compile a list of Books of the Century for the year 2000. That canon was not only limited to certain years but to English language books only. The Modern Library began in 1917, under the notion that it was “The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books,” and is now a branch of Random House (which used to actually be a subsidiary). Presently there is an editorial board that sports some pretty illustrious names and with a symbol like Prometheus bearing light on each book spine the Modern Library must think it is doing some pretty good work. Most of their hard cover books have a portion of the catalog on the inside of the jacket displaying some of what they deem best in literature.
Also from Random House, but through Alfred A. Knopf, is the more populist sounding Everyman’s Library, which derives its name from the medieval play “Everyman,” specifically the line by the character Knowledge, “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.” The series of reprinted classics began in 1906 and has the ethic of providing books for all walks of life to carry and cherish. Originally the list was only going to be 1,000 books of world literature selected by British founder and publisher Joseph Malaby Dent. These days there is a Contemporary Classics section of the Everyman Library that covers greats of world literature: Naguib Mahfouz, Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Patricia Highsmith, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Gunter Grass, Primo Levi, V.S. Naipaul, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Evelyn Waugh, Italo Svevo, Joseph Roth, Sylvia Plath, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and John Updike. The last two of which are on the Honorary Editorial Board along with such prestigious names as Harold Bloom, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Seamus Heaney, and Cynthia Ozick (former deceased members include Edward Said and George Plimpton).
The Library of America in a non-profit that compiles and publishes a national canon by their motto that they are “dedicated to preserving the works of America’s greatest writer’s in handsome, enduring volumes, featuring authoritative texts.” It seems that value is also a mission of the Library of America as it fits multiple novels into one volume, giving readers and collectors alike more for their money. For the works of Americans the Library not only preserves greats but helps establish greatness. A recent example is found in H.P. Lovecraft, a pulp horror writer in his own time leery of the literary establishment, and now found in the Library of America marking him as one of “America’s greatest writers.”
On a tighter time schedule for current canonization “The Best American (Fill in the Blank)” series by Houghton Mifflin annually compiles its own lists by different editors and in different categories such as Short Stories, Essays, Sports Writing, Travel Writing, Science Writing, Nonrequired Reading, Recipes, etc. The various editors of each title, each year, are usually artists in their own right, proficient or acclaimed in each style they preside over. These volumes often add more to the esteem of those that edit them than those they contain, but at their best they do give a sampling of the literary climate in a given American year.
Librarians, publishers, editors, crack literary editorial boards, who are they to say what books are best? Other than the writers on the literary boards whose works I am familiar with, they are all a shadowy establishment of publishing or academic literati. Often, it is as hard to relate to them as it was to the authority figures of my youth who once tried to get me to read Johnny Tremain (which I am sure is a wonderful book). So again, who is responsible for defining canon? Well, it is any of those to whom we give authority and deem credible. And here the problems between aesthetics and subjectivity indubitably arise and a credible canonizer to one might not be a credible canonizer to another.
As I search for a canon I search for the process by which a canon is created. The search occurs within that gray area, that interstitial space between when a list is compiled and when that compilation is qualified as an actual canon. The big question that defines my personal search is simply: When is a catalog more than a catalog, when is it a canon? It is easy to define the term, but the act of answering the question is where all the action happens. You can apply Truman Capote’s ignorant and witty line about Jack Kerouac’s work, “that’s not writing, that’s typing,” to this search and say about any list you don’t agree with, “that’s not canonizing, that’s cataloging.” For, how do I react to an established canon when I find one? How does anyone? Do I check who canonized it before making any decision, or do I look first to its content? If I accept the legitimacy of the compiler(s) do I then see the canon as closed and subjugate myself to the whole list? If the compiler(s) means less to me than the list I find, how do I then act? Do I trash the whole canon because of one work included or not included? Or maybe I can accept someone else’s canon as an open canon allowing for the inclusion of my own favorites? Or—most open minded and process oriented of all these options—do I see every new canon I meet as a jumping off point to take what I want from and then move on, continuing with my own master unfixed canon? Ultimately, I have found, it is up to each of us to experience the canons of others and take what we like or need, leave the rest, and move on to the next one. Until a person makes a collection of books important to themselves for their own reasons and lifts it to the level of a canon, then it is just a list.
In “Conjunctions: 29,” from Fall 1997, Steve Erickson, in his salute to Henry Miller, gives a list of the “very greatest American novels” to which he adds Tropic of Cancer. The list contains: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, 1885) and Light in August (William Faulkner, 1931) and Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison, 1952) and Appointment in Samara (John O’Hara, 1934) and The Member of the Wedding (Carson McCullers, 1946) and The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler, 1953) and Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1851) and Native Son (Richard Wright, 1940) and The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles, 1949) and Tender Is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1934) and A Lost Lady (Willa Cather, 1923) and Red Harvest (Dashiell Hammett, 1929) and Cane (Jean Toomer, 1923) and The Deer Park (Norman Mailer, 1955) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain, 1934) and The Violent Bear It Away (Flannery O’Connor, 1960) and Go Tell it on the Mountain (James Baldwin, 1953) and The Killer Inside Me (Jim Thompson, 1952) and The Names (Don Delillo, 1982) and Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy, 1985) and Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon, 1973) and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (Philip K. Dick, 1982) and Ozma of Oz (Frank L. Baum, 1907). It is a bold list and though he might just be making a list as an example, it seems to be Erickson’s shot at establishing an American Canon. His tally represents both genders, the African American experience as well as the white, and lays works of children’s literature, science-fiction and crime fiction along works by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners.
I have always agreed with the art Erickson creates and the politics and social commentary he expounds, so when I find a list of novels he has grouped together for their greatness in the field of American literature I take notice. Since I am awed by Erickson’s prose and inspired by his non-fiction writing, there are two positive associations that give his list credit for me. But this is nothing strange, it is a process I have performed all of my life. I find an author that I like, dead or alive, and read interviews or biographies of that person in the hopes of finding what they read and liked. Sometimes I am trying to confirm or qualify my own tastes by seeing a relation between myself and someone great and important, or trying to see if I am on the right track with what I have been reading. Mostly though, I am looking for their lists, to fill in the missing components in my lists, with hopes that maybe that one key component that inspired them to become who they are is out there for my own actualization.
Between my undergraduate and graduate educations I used interviews with, biographies of, and essays by my favorite authors as my schooling as I worked nine to five as a magazine editor. It was this autodidactic tendency that brought into my sphere of interest Steve Erickson (and then his canon above), as before that it brought the work of William T. Vollmann. Though I had been reading Vollmann since the late nineties and have now become personally acquainted with him, it was during my hiatus from the academic world that I needed him the most. Reputed to be as voracious a reader as he is writer, interviewers constantly ask Vollmann what he has been reading. On top of his interview lists, which I copied and devoured like a syllabus for life, Vollmann also outlined his love of reading and favorite books in an essay titled “Something to Die For.”
These days, as an instructor of religion studies, I teach my introductory Judaism, Christianity, and Islam students that the word canonization means “the process by which books and writings are accepted in the religious community and become scripture” and continue to define scripture as “writings or a collection of writings a community reads as divinely inspired and thus normative or setting the standard for worship or practice.” Those are of course definitions within a religious context and my personal quest for a canon has been relatively secular and though I proscribe to no particular faith, the search for my own canon has had a spiritual significance. I know that the word canon itself is originally from ancient Greek meaning “measuring rod” or “rule” and that is how it has been applied to my own life in the lists that I find and how I interact with them. Maybe I will never be finished establishing my own canon but if there is anything I have learned in my search it is that in the seeking of truth the art and adventure truly lay.
Jordan Rothacker is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia.