Traditionally, school districts carefully and conscientiously compile reading lists from the “Western canon,” whose most ubiquitous works include the Odyssey and the plays of William Shakespeare. The existence of such a canon allows students across all of America to share a common literary heritage; most incoming freshmen at any university could bond over the experience of having fumbled through reading Romeo and Juliet aloud in class or grasp the significance of a Gatsby-themed Freshman Formal.
However, school readings change over time and can diverge significantly. In 2013, all students entering ninth grade at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Massachusetts were required to read The Contender by Robert Lipsyte, which follows the trials and tribulations of an African-American high school dropout as he copes with the drug use and violence around him by training to be a boxer. Meanwhile, students in nearby Melrose read The Warrior’s Heart: Becoming a Man of Compassion and Courage, a memoir that details the journey of a high-achieving Jewish student named Eric Greitens as he trains to become a Navy SEAL.
Though these two school districts’ choices for summer reading may emphasize different kinds of struggles and identities, they are united in their emphasis on more modern settings than those in most “classics.” Furthermore, neither of these books can yet claim to be part of the Western canon: The Contender was written in 1967, while The Warrior’s Heart was published only two years ago. This shift toward more recent literature in high school curricula is a national trend. For most students, these books are more immediately understandable and relatable than those that comprise the Western canon. But introducing more relatable material necessarily excludes the older books once regarded as seminal to an English student’s development. When we teach The Contender to the exclusion of Lord of the Flies, or The Warrior’s Heart instead of the Odyssey, is this a mark of cultural progress or a sign of literary decline?
What Is the Western Canon?
In 1994, Harold Bloom wrote in The Book and School of the Ages that the Western canon could be reduced to a fixed list of authors, which he categorized by the different “ages” into which they fit. This list focuses on those authors who had the greatest impact both on their era and on future writers. For example, Homer’s Odyssey features prominently as an influential ancient text that directly inspired other great works, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bloom’s complete list is expansive and even touches on literature that falls outside the traditional conception of the “West,” such as the Epic of the Gilgamesh or the works of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz.
However, Bloom’s list of the 26 authors whom he believes to be “central” to the canon strays only as far as Chile, with the inclusion of the poet Pablo Neruda. Bloom also grounded his concept of the canon in a thorough rejection of the many multicultural authors who were coming to prominence in his day, whom he dismissed as part of the “school of resentment”—a style of literary criticism that surfaced in the 1970s and focused more on political and social activism than on the pure “aesthetics” that Bloom most admired. In a 1995 interview with Eleanor Wachtel of Queen’s Quarterly, Bloom harshly condemned this approach to literature: “But unfortunately what is called ‘multiculturalism’ in the United States never means Cervantes. … It means fifth-rate work by people full of resentment, who happen to be women, or who happen to be Chicano or Puerto-Rican [sic], or who happen to be African-American, and they are by no means the best writers who are African-American, or women, or so on.”
Part of the tension between Bloom and the “school of resentment” may be explained by Bloom’s conception of the canon as an exact list of authors. While this definition is certainly precise and easy to work with, it can also be logistically difficult, oddly specific, and problematically exclusive. According to Harvard professor Homi K. Bhabha, the canon should not be reduced to individual authors in this way. Instead, Bhabha says, “The canon is a whole way of thinking about literature and culture. It’s a way of answering the question: what are works of enduring value, irrespective of the time they are written?” Of course, the question of “enduring value” is equally subjective and difficult to address, and it does not solve the divide between Bloom and the “school of resentment.” While Bhabha’s definition of the canon is conducive to greater interpretation, it makes it impossible to definitively praise or condemn more modern writers, whose lasting importance can only be proven with time.
What should the “canon” be, if it should exist at all? Today, we are inclined to want to redefine it to include authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Chinua Achebe, who represent perspectives we have come to acknowledge as vital. How can we be empathetic, understanding, and informed citizens of this multicultural society without having struggled alongside Janie Crawford of Their Eyes Were Watching God or without having stood with Okonkwo of Things Fall Apart?
But such a shift toward more recent texts is a conscious choice that carries several political consequences worth examining. The humanities have historically been important precisely because they help set the tone for a country’s cultural dialogue, values, and politics. For many students, the books that they read in school form the majority of their exposure to literature and can stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Historically, there has always been a dynamic and confusing relationship between the Western canon and its political implications, In his World Literature Today review of Bloom’s The Book and School of the Ages, Leslie Schenk points out how intricately tied to historical context the canon is: “What I do find argument with is how ramshackle and makeshift, when all is said and done, our Western canon turns out to be … too many worthies are omitted not for lack of merit but on the basis of time and chance or geography, or on the choice and deficiencies of translators.” Much of the “canonicity” concept is based on an author’s fame—but fame is fickle, often unpredictable, and not necessarily the best measure of a book’s merit or even impact. Schenk specifically mentions Stendhal, whom he believes to be one of “the greatest novelists of all time,” and bemoans that he is so thoroughly overshadowed by inferior authors like Charles Dickens.
Schenk also pulls us away from our preoccupation with what constitutes the “Western canon” to reflect on the complete lack of a “worldwide canon.” Bloom focuses primarily on arguing the merits of preserving the ancient, classical texts that comprise the Western canon instead of refocusing on the more recent, multicultural literature that “the school of resentment” championed. However, neither Bloom nor his critics bother to consider how we should approach the ancient, foundational texts of non-Western cultures. Bloom does give cursory mention to some of these texts, such as the Koran or the Egyptian Book of the Dead, but he ignores most Asian or African literature. As Schenk laments, the concept of a “Western” canon necessarily excludes works that have profoundly shaped other parts of the world, like the Japanese epic The Tale of Genji or the Hindu Ramayana. In a world that has become so interconnected and traditionally Western, countries once self-regarded as superior must face a new reality. And now, we find ourselves having to reconsider the limits of the Western canon.
How do we come to terms with the limits of the Western canon? Given its fraught history, does it represent such a fundamental bedrock of the humanities that we should continue to prioritize it? Should we keep only select parts in order to make room for texts that expand our gaze beyond the West? Or should we take the radical step of scrapping the entire Western canon altogether, in favor of texts that better reflect our modern, liberal values?
The Future of the Canon
When speaking with the HPR, Bhabha warned against one possible approach: “In America, when there was the sense that demographic plurality was important—which it is—we suddenly taught many ethnic authors. But these writers should be read for what they are, not for the fact that they represent a particular ethnic point of view. No writer wants the burden of their ethnic identity.” Following this reasoning, Chinua Achebe should not be remembered chiefly as a Nigerian novelist; his Things Fall Apart speaks to human relationships and the destructiveness of colonialism everywhere. By defining authors primarily by their “diversity,” we risk missing the most important purpose of literature—to transcend political, cultural, and historical boundaries by exploring universal questions that point us to the heart of human values. As Bhabha explains, great authors do not aim to represent their ethnic identities, but rather to represent human experience in general.
Lindsay Johns, who works closely with disadvantaged students in Peckham, England and has written about his own opinion on the importance of the classics, suggests another issue with this approach to literature. He explained to the HPR, “I’m tired of patronizing liberals who say you have to give ‘kids in the ghetto’ literature that relates to them and assume that they can’t enjoy Homer or Dante. The Western canon is everyone’s birthright regardless of their religion, background, et cetera. The canon, for better or for worse, addresses the fundamental bedrocks at the heart of the human condition, irrespective of race.”
As Johns points out, tailoring reading lists to be more “relatable” to students does them a disservice and ignores the universality of great literature. Of course, it may take a few extra steps to help students to recognize the common struggles of love, jealousy, racism, and sexism that are contained in a play like Othello. However, this extra effort is worth it if it means that these students will gain access to a great piece of literature.
Literature emphasizes the pervasiveness of many aspects of the human experience while simultaneously exposing us to different viewpoints and pushing us to find new ways to think about our lives. If we believe that the importance of literature lies in expanding our thinking, then we should actively work to preserve the teaching of the Western canon, which affords students an opportunity to think far beyond their own time and place and pushes them to relate to universal values that lie hidden beneath the challenging language of these texts.
However, with this goal in mind, we should also strive to expose students to the canonical works of cultures that fall outside of the West. Reading the Odyssey alongside the Ramayana would not only enlarge students’ understanding of history and different forms of literature, but also could help them to understand the universal themes for which the canon is designed. By grounding the teaching of history in canonical works while also expanding the scope of these works beyond the West, we can best help students to uncover the many threads that tie all books, and all people, together.
Image Credit: Flickr / Martin Maha