Today we focused on the different ways that you could respond to a paper in an academic way. I was very interested when I saw the essay that Professor Seaman showed us and the way that it went about doing what it did. The essay took the Tompkins essay that we were assigned and used it to formulate an argument an argument for the inclusion of Appalachian Folklore into the canon and how doing so might benefit the literary understanding of regional works of American Literature like Falkner. This is the kind of response paper I always want to write, but always feel like I would be breaking some code of conduct if I did. The for some reason I feel like integrating knowledge from my background and the other classes I have taken would be frowned on, but I am becoming more and more aware of the interdisciplinary nature of academia and it is invigorating really. By having to focus on traditional responses to a text I feel really stifled and this usually makes writing a paper a chore that I tend to put off, but the discussion in class we had today really broadened my horizons for the kind of creativity that can go into writing a research paper. I don’t know how this response paper is going to turn out, but I am definitely interested to find out…..
Due to our in-depth class discussion on the canon—and amidst much hate and harsh feelings for these literary works of ‘higher importance’—I personally found Jane Tompkins’ essay to be rather enlightening on this subject, shedding light on the canon in a different way than I have previously experienced.
Tompkins uses her example of Hawthorne as an author to sort of represent the misinterpretations of his peers of his works—that is, to highlight the fact that while we may see genius in a contemporary work of literature, in fact for future generations what we found beneficial and ‘meta’ may not be what they will see as important, if they continue to see any relevance in the text at all. This idea was my favorite part of Tompkins’ essay because it at least allows that while some texts of the ‘overarching canon’ may have held a particular significance for the people of whose age it was written, this significance quite possibly has shifted due to our different cultural and time period lenses. Moreover, her use of Hawthorne as an example also shed light on the fact that texts like his and those found in the canon actually serve as the best examples of some crucial skills and techniques that we still consider crucial today, whether for literary criticism, theory, composure, etc. Overall, I found her essay to really make me consider the various works of the canon and question their significance for our literary world today—and actually dislike the canon itself a little less!
I found this article had a lot in it that went back to my previous post on what defines literature, but also did a good job preparing a theoretical foundation for reading Tompkins article. What defines an author? at what point does something shift from being a great work of literature to a canonical classic? This point seems to be compounded when we consider the ‘American’ body of literature, where not only the idea of the ‘author’ is in question but what ‘American’ actually implies? I liked the specific example used of Christopher Columbus’ extensive journals of his voyage. I had never read any of, or even heard that, he kept journals, which moderately surprised me in light of his glorified position in American History. Other journals have evolved into classics that I am familiar with, from the comparatively dry Darwin’s Voyage of the M.S. Beatle, to Plath’s Unabridged Journals and the well known Diary of Anne Frank. How could a journal covering the pivotal journey of discovering the ‘new world’ not make it into America’s classical canon, while ‘Diary of Anne Frank,’ an inherently European work, is literally a classroom staple? I think the answer lies in two things: the intention of the author, and the modern socio-political relevance of what is being recorded. I’m surmising that Columbus’ journals are probably more like logs, with lots of allusions to inventory, navigation and weather, which, though expressly important at the moment the Mayflower sailed, no longer has relevance in modern society. Compare that to the journal of a young girl who is a victim of increasingly hateful and escalating prejudice. There is something human in this narrative that can be applied universally, not just in express instances of prejudice but also as psychologically insightful into the human condition of being oppressed. This sheds revealing light on one of the tenements central to the founding of The United States: the concept of religious choice and freedom from oppression. Might this not say more about what it is to be ‘American’ than the chronicles of the voyage actually discovering America? And secondly, I mentioned authorial intent, which is sure to arise in conversation this upcoming week. Certainly, while Ann Frank may not have been writing with the intent of publication, she was voicing a perspective that fervently needed to be expressed and heard. While Columbus’ voyage, though at its end unique and historical, had no urgency in its message, and no design to convey any message.
Bressler shed some insight on the various levels of criticism, as well as attempting to form a concrete definition of “literature”. When describing the different types of critics, he showed how they relate to one another. I was under the assumption that a literary critic was just a critic who evaluated a piece of literature; after reading Bressler’s definition of the different roles a critic takes, however, I feel much more informed and now view the literary critic with more respect and reverence. He then drew my attention to the theory of literature. I have had a brush with a few key terms from the theory toolbox in other classes, but I found his explanation more comprehensive. I especially like the quote: “Whereas literary criticism involves our analysis of a text, literary theory is concerned with our understanding of the ideas, concepts, and intellectual assumptions upon which our actual literary critique rests” (8). The distinction between the two made these broad concepts more understandable for me, and I enjoy thinking of literary theory as “concerned” with what my personal experiences and knowledge lends to my analysis of a text.
I found the definition of what exactly literature is to also be highly entertaining. I was drawn in by the implications which language and the construction of words can have on something’s meaning. The examples of the Latin term littera and the German word Wortkunst depicted this distinction of carefully chosen words to represent a body of works—whether oral tradition or the “written word”. It never occurred to me that the written word would have its own flaws (hence the example of the phonebook); however, upon reflecting on this crucial part of deciphering just what constitutes “literature” I began to think of many example where the written word wouldn’t actually have any literary merit.
Bressler also brings back the idea of a ‘canon’ when he explains the “hyper-protected cooperative principle” (13). I agree with Bressler when he asserts that though published works may be superior to a phonebook, not all published works are worthy of being included in a significant literary canon.
How can anyone argue about the “correct” or “best” way to interpret literature? I think that is nonsense. Reading and interpreting literature is meant to affect each reader in many different ways and by confining that experience to only the use of certain given knowledge or particular guidelines defeats the purpose of reading for me. The only reason why I read analyses of anything is to broaden my view of the work and for the ability to see another aspect of how it could be read. If everyone was held to the same standard of analysis then writing your analysis of anything would be mundane and pointless.
Also, how can anyone argue that some books are “better” than others? Books in the “Cannon” are expected to be the greats but they aren’t to everyone and most people could care less. We have created the “cannon” ourselves. It is not as if some mystical deity sent us a list of all the great books of the past and ordered us to pry ninth graders eyes’ open long enough to get through them because it is the only way they will be enlightened. So many people complain about having to read or TEACH Beowulf because they don’t see how it betters anything about them or their students…then don’t teach it. I reiterate, We Created This Way of Thinking. What makes Old English stories better than new age English stories? Why are we still looking to the past when we could be creating great things here and now? Do we feel as though we have lost the ability to create a great, new and relevant story? I don’t think we have.
For the first time, I am saying this and I am somewhat nervous. I do not want to be an English teacher who forces students into being a ball in the great reactionary of English Literature. And seeing as how that is all I can see if I continue with my current path as an English Major, I am making a change. I am going to switch majors. I do not see it ending well any other way.
Reading a couple of responses down, it seems clear the canon, or idea of a canon, is seen negatively. I think someone called themselves a “canon hater,” which is hilarious. Any way, I thought it might be fun to play devil’s advocate, and explore an argument supporting the canon. I began thinking: What is it used for, and is it the best tool for that task? The Eaglestone articles talk about the many ways the canon can spread and maintain cultural identity. This is certainly true, however the mentioned use for education, it seems to me, has always been and still is the basic purpose of the canon. It is a collection of works deemed valuable for teaching an appreciation of literature. We must have a standard for teaching skills and concepts related to the English discipline, if we are to quantify one’s education. If each school, or more problematic, each teacher was able to pick his favorite works, we would see an amazing variety of what exactly an English degree was and how it was taught. This lead to other concerns, such as who is picking the canon, it’s ability to change and be updated, and the difficulties surrounding the judgment of a somewhat subjective concept, aesthetics; and I agree. These are valid concerns. That being said, I think the most important thing to consider, if the canon is a tool for learning, is not whether we agree with what is the best work, but which work demonstrates the curriculum effectively. When I would select works for teaching a middle school English class last semester, I maybe wanted to use Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to demonstrate alliteration, but it really wasn’t the best work for those students at that time. I think it would be a tough argument to say a universal canon is not necessary for standardizing the curriculum of the English discipline.
Personally, I think the second question is more interesting. Whether or not this canon, or the concept of a canon at all, is the best tool for achieving a rigorous and uniform curriculum. This really brings up the concerns mentioned above, especially for those with widespread qualms with the list. We need to trust the authorities picking the works. We want them to be advocating the values and elements we think are most important. I would be interested to hear from professors on this matter. Are these books effective in teaching the curriculum? Also, bad decisions and mistakes are made, I am sure, so we need a canon that is able to change and adapt. As expectations and developments within the discipline change the way we look at literature, the canon must change to more effectively teach these new skills and concepts. It would be nice if we could somehow involved everyone vested in this matter in the selecting of these works, however this is impossible. So again, we are left with a trust issue. I’d like to hear what you all think, if you feel inclined to respond. And furthermore, what are some other possibilities, beyond a canon, for an effective tool in teaching the standards of our discipline?
The idea of deciding what is canon struck a chord with me, and (for unknown reasons) made me think of NewSouth books replacing the n-word in all copies of Huckleberry Finn with “slave”. Frankly, the idea that this is going to/has happened makes me a little nauseous, simply because I can’t believe that someone would be so heartless as to feel the need to mess with the text of novels that don’t need to be translated. Last week, we read a entire chapter on why and how Beidler translated a work that would have been essentially unreadable to us, and yet someone can just take Twain’s work, cross out the “unsavory” words and replace it with a word that is easier to stomach, despite the fact that Huckleberry Finn was completely comprehensible before the change, and the change completely detracts from the work.
In regards to how this pertains to our class, it made me think of how unfair the concept of what can be regarded as canon. With this new version of Huckleberry Finn, will we have high schoolers reading this version, rather than Twain’s version, because heaven forbid we have any of our precious minds feel uncomfortable. This, of course, dips into formalism a bit, where they would regard the “updated” version as complete trash and a different piece of work than the original, and (in my over-reacting mind) I would almost be inclined to agree. It’s so bizarre to me that a work that is both interesting and an accurate depiction of that time can be still under scrutiny concerning whether or not it has a place in canon. (Part of the reason I get so impassioned is that my dad read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to me when I was in elementary school. Another reason is that I have a weird crush on good ole Samuel Clemens, even though he’s dead.)
Also, while looking up the name for the publishing company, I discovered that you can actually buy The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, which replaces the n-word with the word “hipster”, saying that the work is no longer offensive and uncool. I suppose that’s one way of getting your point about censorship across…