Oct 18, 2007

A Winner Declared in the Canon Wars

The 20th anniversary of Alan Bloom’s famous book on the literary canon, The Closing of the American Mind, has arrived, and the event has spawned a good deal of mandatory reflection on the so-called Canon Wars. One article I found thought-provoking was recently published in the New York Times, which seems to think that the war is over and that it can declare a winner. The article, “Revisiting the Canon Wars,” by Rachel Donadio, came out September 16, 2007. I have not heard of this writer before, but her short essay brought up some good points that are worth considering for those interested in the critical theories of Yvor Winters.

Also, another and much fuller consideration of the Canon Wars, no doubt, will arrive shortly in the New Criterion’s issue dedicated to the anniversary of Bloom’s book. I look forward to that issue, which is forthcoming in November.

The contention of Donadio’s Times piece is that the war over what will be taught in American colleges has been won by the multiculturalists, as this very diverse group of teachers and theorists and advocates were once collectively known. The “canon,” the object of the war, is that consecrated collection of what ought to be taught in college literature courses. It is true that the “multi-cults” have indeed successfully changed the “canon” to some degree, in the sense that a majority of colleges no longer teach some “classic” works and teach in their stead a variety of works written by “people of color” (one of our phrases du jour) and women written within the last 200 years or so. The traditionalists, the diverse Alan Bloom crowd, have lost, according to the Times through its spokeswoman Donadio. Nevertheless, of course, much of what the traditionalists opine should be taught continues to be taught in colleges throughout the land. From this we know that the war did not end in a complete rout or some sort of massacre. Not even the entire land has been conquered for the newer canon. “Bloomians” still hold territory as enclaves (meaning some colleges) in which the traditional canon is still taught as of yore -- though not enough, it would seem, for the Times to count their movement as still viable.

There, now I’ve had my fun with the war metaphor (though there is much more to be had). So what can we make of this situation as Wintersian classicists? Yvor Winters, as I state repeatedly (though I am aware that I have yet to make a case for the view on this blog), concerned himself intently with the idea of canons, though he never used the term. As a dedicated teacher, Winters probably would have taken deep interest in the battle over the canon that began with Bloom’s book. In addition to his infamous attempt to make refashion the canon of English poetry, Winters tried to revise the canon in other areas, such as in American literature with a book and his longtime teaching on the subject at Stanford University, where he spent his entire career. Much of what he taught can still studied through that book, Maule’s Curse, first published in the 1930s, which forms the middle section of In Defense of Reason, which is still in print. As with his efforts to hone the poetry canon, however, Winters was largely a failure in his canon-making in American literature. His work to rescue James Fenimore Cooper from disrepute and raise up Edith Wharton to greatness were largely ignored (though Wharton has risen in the past 20 years because of a groundswell of support from other quarters).

Concerning the standard or traditional canon, it appears, judging from his letters, that Winters had little objection to what was being taught in the basic literature courses at Stanford University, where he spent his whole career. Those courses encompassed the works that have made up the standard canon for a century and more. I have found no comment in his letters on such courses, even in the midst of his discussions of departmental issues at Stanford. I don’t know whether he ever taught one of these basic courses. I wish that Ken Fields, who was one of his graduate students in the 60s and is still a professor at Stanford, would write and inform us on that. (Fields has never answered an email letter from me, so I won’t bother trying to contact him again.)

There has long been a misconception about Winters’s canon-making, however, that I wish briefly to counter. Many critical opponents of Winters seem to believe that he wanted to expunge various canonical writers from literature courses at all levels of higher education. That, for example, Wordsworth and Pope and Shelley and many another member of the pantheon should no longer be taught or studied. My case will have to wait for later, when I find the time, but this view is erroneous. Winters, I surmise, wanted students to study and professors and critics to analyze the likes of Wordsworth and Pope and Shelley. What he wanted was for the truly finest works of literature to be recognized as such and become more widely studied and taught in academia. I will study this matter in depth some time.

Still, I think that Winters would have been interested in seeing the standard canon opened up and in seeing some works of the old canon put out to pasture, in the sense that some new works should be considered -- and taught -- as “essential” to a liberal education and that other works no longer need be considered or taught as such. But he would have been solely concerned with defining the canon on grounds of evaluation: properly identifying the supreme works of literary art. I think Winters would have found the primary objective to be “inclusive,” as we say, to be misplaced. Only the greatest works belong in the canon. Lesser works can be studied, of course, but the very best works must provide the mainstays of our reading, our writing, our criticism, and our teaching. Whatever comes of teaching the best will bring about the best educational and social results, whether those works promote inclusion or multiculturalism or not. Of course, though this idea has similarities to the traditionalist position, it is theoretically distinct. It is a position that calls for a radical re-assessment of our canon, which Winters did much to accomplish, using fundamentally different criteria, the principles of modern classicism. For Winters, in my judgment, whatever is great, whether written three thousand years ago or three days ago, whether written by a dead white male or a young black female, belongs in the canon, defines our literature, and should play the central role in guiding our literature to the next phase of its realization.

Now, returning to the question of what to teach, what might Winters have wanted to achieve in canon-making as a pragmatic objective? That college teachers shouldn’t teach Wordsworth to freshmen and sophomores? Wordsworth came in for some roughshod treatment in Winters’s final book, for which Winters has been condemned over and again. Did Winters think Wordsworth shouldn’t be taught in basic literature courses? I can’t say for sure, there not being any direct discussion of the matter in his entire published oeuvre. But I think Wordsworth should be taught. Does a Wintersian position imply, nonetheless, that we should work toward the day when Wordsworth won’t be taught? That’s a real issue for Wintersians. It shouldn’t be so strange to think of the possibility of dropping Wordsworth, all in all. For the makers of the standard canon have already made and keep reaffirming decisions like that continually, as Winters pointed out repeatedly. Consider the 19th-century post Robert Southey, who wrote reams of jingly verse and was once exceedingly well known. He’s not studied in our basic literature courses, nor is his poetry a concern in our academic journals. Or think of Abraham Cowley, whom Samuel Johnson once paid close attention to. He’s not taught in basic literary courses, nor does he receive more than a pinch of critical attention. Consider also, from American literature, William Cullen Bryant, who wrote some fine poems in the 19th century (Winters mentions his work from time to time as very good). He’s not part of our basic literature courses. Do I and other Wintersians think Wordsworth should become a Bryant or a Cowley -- or even a Southey? I don’t know yet about other Wintersians because not one has yet come forward in all the years since Winters died, but as for me, no, I think that Wordsworth should be taught in our literature courses and be widely studied, though I would like to see him recognized as of lesser stature than the greater poets whom Winters tried to draw our attention to.

In light of all these issues and a number of others, I think the Canon Wars and the choosing of a winner and loser is something worth pondering in light of Winters’s career. For it is certainly my hope, and probably was his, that professors will some day regard the very best, the greatest of the great literary artworks, as the predominant concerns of the academy, or, at least, in more enclaves of the academy.

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