Sunday, February 8, 2009

Canonicity: Who Has the Power?

In reference to the article read in class, I have been forced to think over the topic at hand, and come to little conclusion. Instead, I have only come up with more questions.

As to the article itself, my opinion is inconsequential. The writer is not even in the class he is criticizing, and as to the authors he criticizes, several are Nobel Laureates. Also among those writers is Derek Walcott, who we have seen to be a brilliant writer, regardless of the canonicity of his works.

But I really do have to question who develops canons. In English, we have several that are well known, such as Shakespeare, Pope, Locke, etc. After that, the list becomes smaller. Should it? Are those people who I mentioned the authors of classics or of popular works? Who decides what each of those things is? What's the difference between them? Everyone knows the names J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. Did both write classics? I argue that the latter did. Did the former? Or were her works merely popular? Not to say that the Harry Potter books aren't brilliant; but are they classics? One could argue about earlier writers: when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, did he create a classic or a popular work? I would argue that Julius Caesar is a far superior play of the Bard's and that it offers more to the literary world. But it is lesser known. 

Why are some authors' names dropped in classes, but their works never read? Who, apart from an English major in college, will ever read Paradise Lost? Is it not a classic. though, more so than Shakespeare's plays? But yet most students will surely have heard the name of Milton. What about Chaucer? I have heard his name in world history classes, but what high schooler will read any of his Canterbury Tales? If not for my English 300 class, I would never have read his Book of the Duchess or Parliament of the Fowles, both excellent poems. And Spenser...what beautiful poetry. What amazing sonnets in his Amoretti. And his Faerie Queene.... Edmund Spenser was undoubtedly Milton's precursor, as Milton attested to himself; yet Spenser's name may one day fade further into obscurity. 

The list could go on. Even in the world of playrights, Ben Jonson's name should arise. This question could even be viewed through a religious lens: The Book of Judith is a wonderful tale. But it is not found in the Protestant Bible....and that is simply something I do not understand. 

Now, to Wabash's credit, many of these authors hitherto mentioned are read here in different classes. But apart from a liberal arts education, it could be very difficult to do so. I guess where I differ from the author of the newspaper column is that I do not mourn classics that dropped from the canon. I mourn the works that were never canonized. 

As to that matter, I am afraid I don't how to fix this. How can everyone agree on such a system? But I suppose I would take a census on how widely it was read, and after a certain period of time (say a century) see this work was still widely used, or used in a way that other works were not. There would have to be agreement that something about the work (its allegory, its length, its brevity, etc.) would have to stand out from its peers. Then, after that century, it could be voted (perhaps by a society formed for this purpose) into a form of classic. Say, for instance, a neophyte classic. After so much longer, it could be voted into another classic. Essentially, I would call for a system that singled out the classics, not just the popular works. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree that there is no set system whatsoever, and that there probably never will be one. Wabash does do its best to include a wide variety of authors, and that helps us as a whole. It is generally accepted that Wabash College introduces such topics as canonicity and relevancy, and asks us to interpret what is, and is not, important. To say that another author lacks the merit to become a classic is both naïve and impromptu.

    You mention J.K. Rowling perhaps not being a classic; I find this a little intriguing. As far as modern authors go, she is by far one of the most memorable and successful. Her massively popular Harry Potter series is clearly a Children’s Classic, but I wonder whether it could also be considered to be an adult classic as well. It certainly has the audience factor, but literary tropes and such fail it. To consider it a must-read is also controversial, but it seems as if the pop-culture status it has attained makes it impossible to miss.