Canonical Nationalism

Questions of literary canonicity have been stalking me for the past few months, mostly in relation to teaching. Some I began thinking about because I was designing a course called Currents in Global Literature, and when faced with giving English majors perhaps their only taste of writings from beyond the U.S. and U.K., I had to figure out my priorities.

One of the things I decided to do was try to provoke the students to think about why they have read what they have in school, why they have the assumptions they do about books and writers, and how they can learn more. So I had them watch TED Talks by Chris Abani and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, listen to Stephen Snyder on "The Business of International Literature", and read Dan Edelstein on "Gerrymandering the Canon", Binyavanga Wainaina on "How to Write About Africa", and Manijeh Nasrabadi on her experiences trying to write and publish a memoir. Additionally, our poetry textbook challenged the templates of Romanticism they had previously encountered in other courses and complexified their understanding of literary history -- not just the history itself, but how it got to be that way.

Global literature in our class, then, was presented not as some ethereal essence floating through the ether, but as a system of literary production, distribution, and reception. It's too easy to gain a feeling from our curriculum that U.S. and U.K. fiction, poetry, and (to a lesser extent) drama are Literature and everything else is some exotic offshoot. The department has done a lot to try to mitigate that, but there are huge disciplinary systems in place that make it difficult.

Last week, I was part of a panel discussion for English majors about canonicity. Various questions had been raised by majors this term about what they were learning -- particularly for the English Education majors. Hearing these questions, one of my colleagues decided to put together the informal discussion, and so a group of us created 5-minute statements about canonicity and education, then we had a free and wide-ranging discussion of all sorts of things related to it all.

In my opening statement, I tried to differentiate between the practical and the theoretical/ideal. After saying that canons are forms of discourse and not just lists, and that they are, at heart, expressions and codifications of power, I said that there is a canon of books taught in high school English classes in the U.S., and lists do a good job of showing us its borders and imperatives. For instance, the 1989 study reported by Arthur Applebee in "Book Length Works Taught in High School English Classes" (PDF) updates a 1964 study of the same thing and discovers that very little has changed. In my experience, those books remain common in high schools, though there has in many places been a strong push to sprinkle in more texts by writers who are not white men.

But for about fifty years now, the core books taught in most high schools in the U.S. have generally remained the same.  The high school canon achieved its canonicity mostly through inertia: these books were taught because they were considered important, and they were considered important because they were taught. Teachers, administrators, and parents could recognize a “good” curriculum because it was a familiar curriculum. All sorts of ancillary materials were prepared around these books, and the books have benefitted from an industry of publishers, editors, administrators, and teachers enforcing their canonicity.

A list of most common books, of course, is not a list of what is taught at any specific school, and few schools limit themselves only to these books, but as a window into what is most valued by high school curricula, it's useful information.

At our discussion, I said it's worth trying to figure out what the high school canon is trying to teach, and I suggested that its goals would seem to be to get students to be capable with complex language and with the analysis of literary themes and symbols. If those are the primary goals of high school English classes then the same could be accomplished with all sorts of different books -- and to be particularly provocative, I offered a list of African books that would do it: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka, etc. Indeed, a broader canon would create better learning, because if you read Sophocles and Shakespeare alongside Death and the King’s Horseman and maybe Akira Kurosawa’s movie Throne of Blood, students would get not only a more global view of literature, but a deeper understanding of tragedy as a form.

What I realized as the discussion continued in all sorts of different directions was that my fundamental dissatisfaction is not with any particular list of books, but with the idea of national literatures.

I like what Edelstein says in "Gerrymandering the Canon":

To begin with, literature professors could make a greater effort to incorporate works from other national literatures in their courses. Where the funds are available, professors from neighboring literature departments could team-teach such hybrid reading lists. Second, language and literature majors could also require that a number of courses be taken in two or three other literature departments. A model for this arrangement already exists at Stanford, where the English department recently launched an “English Literature and Foreign Language Literature” major, which includes “a coherent program of four courses in the foreign literature, read in the original.” To fulfill this last condition, of course, colleges would have to become more serious about their foreign-language requirements. Finally, literature students would be better served if colleges and universities offered a literature major, as is notably the case at Yale, UC San Diego, and UC Santa Cruz. Within this field of study, students could specialize in a particular period, genre, author, or even language, all the while taking into account the larger international or even global context.
The nationalistic imperatives of survey courses in U.S. and British literature don't make a lot of sense to my experience as a reader and writer. Once, when I was starting a job at another school, a colleague asked me, "So, are you an Americanist?" I repressed an exclamation of, "Good god no!" He was a proud reader of nothing but books written by people born in the U.S.A., so I just caught my breath, shrugged, and said, "No, I'm more of a generalist, really," and moved on to talking about the weather.

Why in studying imaginative writing do we limit ourselves to imaginary communities? Especially when the texts themselves were created by writers of more eclectic reading habits than our classes encourage?

Perhaps my antipathy to uninational approaches to literature is a result of my own education. The last classes I took in American and British literature (and both were called that) were during my high school years. In college, I avoided classes focused on only one geographic area's texts, and instead took marvelous courses on specific literary/artistic movements (Avant-Garde Literature & Art 1900-1940), individual writers (a life-changing class on Virginia Woolf), and particular literary forms (I was a Dramatic Writing major for three years, so lots of classes on drama). The only nationalistic class I took was a magnificent course on 18th century British and French literature: Samuel Johnson and Rousseau, Voltaire and Swift, Diderot and William Godwin, Vathek, The Castle of Otranto, Frankenstein. (And I took the class because I'd just read the American writer Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon and had found its language and references baffling, so I figured this class would help. It did.) Grad school was different, because my degree wasn't in English specifically, so there weren't as many lit classes, but this was also during the time when the prefix "trans-" was applied to everything in academia, so even if there had been nationalistic courses offered, they would have been things like Trans-American Transness of the (Trans)Cultural Mode.

We have arranged at least some of our teaching and scholarship around nationalist ideas that are convenient and useful for limiting the scope of what we have to aspire toward expertise with, but I wonder if the limitations are worth the benefit. At the very least, it seems to me, what we could look at is what sort of literatures were available in particular nations during particular eras -- to look at the lack of translation, publication, and distribution of some things and the prevalence of others. (To study the New England Transcendentalists still, but to do so alongside some Hindu texts.) Nations have borders, but once you get beyond the most isolated areas and eras, the textual environments within those nations are not monocultural, so literary history should not be, either.

Ultimately, this comes down to teachers' habits as readers. We can't teach what we don't know, and if we mostly read books written by people born in the U.S. and the U.K., that's what we'll teach. At the very least, though, we should aspire to be as eclectic in our influences as the writers we study have been.

This all still feels inchoate to me, despite what I've written here. It's hard to think outside the system that created you...

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