Gerrymandering the Canon

Gerrymandering the Canon

February 16, 2010

In a recent New York Review article on Byron, Harold Bloom makes the following passing remark: “In the two centuries since Byron died in Greece [...] only Shakespeare has been translated and read more, first on the Continent and then worldwide.” Bloom does not cite any statistics, and one cannot help but wonder: Really? More than Homer and Dante, or, among the moderns, more than Sartre and Thomas Mann? Of course, what Bloom really means is that Byron was translated and read more than any other English writer, and he may well be correct on that count. Yet this omission is telling, as it highlights an unfortunate tendency (recently diagnosed by David Damrosch) among certain English professors to equate literature in general with literature written in English. This disciplinary bias, less prejudice than habit, can distort their scholarship – the authors that they admire tend to be far more catholic in their reading. But this pattern also raises a larger academic question: Why do we still partition the literary canon according to nationalist traditions? Is this really the most intellectually satisfying and authentic approach to literary studies?

For an example of how disciplinary blinders can affect scholars as well-read as Bloom, we need only turn back to his article, where we find Byron described as “the eternal archetype of the celebrity, the Napoleon of the realms of rhyme... the still unique celebrity of the modern world.” What such hyperbole masks is the fact that the model for such literary celebrity is in reality to be located in another author, who unfortunately did not have the good sense to be born in England. Indeed, anyone familiar with the inordinate fame of Jean-Jacques Rousseau knows that he was the first genuine literary celebrity, lionized and sought out across Europe, much to his growing despair and paranoia (as this brilliant study by the historian Antoine Lilti details). Byron himself was smitten by Rousseau, touring the Lac Léman with his friend Shelley to visit the sites from Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse. Rousseau may not have provided his public with the same devilish scandals as the naughty Lord, but his Confessions, with their admission of a fondness for spankings and exhibitionism, were sultry enough.

Bloom is certainly no provincial, and his own, published version of The Western Canon includes German, Spanish, French, and Italian works – although this canon, too, is heavily tilted toward English authors. But can this be avoided? No doubt French scholars would produce a version of the canon equally tilted toward the French, just as scholars from other nations would privilege their own authors. To an extent, this literary patriotism is normal and understandable: every culture values its heritage, and will expend more energy and resources promoting it.

From the viewpoint of literary history, however, such patriotism is also intellectually wrongheaded. To be sure, writers are often marked most strongly by their compatriots: one must read Dante to understand Boccacio, Corneille to understand Racine, or, as Bloom would have us believe, Whitman to understand T. S. Eliot. But such a vertical reading of literature (which Bloom himself mapped out in The Anxiety of Influence) overlooks the equally – sometimes far more – important horizontal ties that connect authors across national borders. T. S. Eliot may have been “hopelessly evasive about Whitman while endlessly revising him in [his] own major poems,” yet by Eliot’s own admission, the French school of symbolist poetry had a far greater impact on his work. Some of Eliot’s first published poems, in fact, were written in French. Conversely, the French novelist Claude Simon may have endlessly revised Proust, but his own major novels – such as La route des Flandres and L’herbe – owe far more to William Faulkner. Such examples could be multiplied ad infinitum: they are, in fact, the stuff that literary history is made of.

To this criticism, English professors have a ready-made answer: Go study comparative literature! But they have only half a point. Comp lit programs are designed to give students a great deal of flexibility: their degrees may impose quotas for number of courses taken in foreign language departments, but rarely, if ever, do comp lit programs build curricular requirements around literary history. Yet that is precisely the point: Students wishing to study English Romanticism ought to have more than Wikipedia-level knowledge about German Idealist philosophy and Romantic poetry; students interested in the 18th-century English novel should be familiar with the Spanish picaresque tradition; and so on and so forth. Comp lit alone cannot break down the walls of literary protectionism.

The fact that we even have comp lit departments reveals our ingrained belief that “comparing” literary works or traditions is merely optional. Despite Bloom’s own defense of a “Western canon,” such a thing no longer exists for most academics. This is not because the feminists, post-colonialists, or post-modernists managed to deconstruct it, but rather because our institutions for literary studies have gerrymandered the canon, department by department. Is it not shocking that students can major in English at many colleges without ever having read a single book written in a foreign language? Even in translation? (Consider, by contrast, that history majors, even those desirous to only study the American Revolution, are routinely required to take courses on Asian, African, and/or European history, in many different time periods, to boot.) Given that English is the natural home for literary-minded students who are not proficient in another language, it is depressing that they can graduate from college with the implicit assumption that literature is the prerogative of the English-speaking peoples, an habeas corpus of the arts.

But wait a minute: how dare I criticize English curriculums for not including foreign works, when the major granted by my own department, French, is not exactly brimming with German, Russian, or Arabic texts, either? To the extent that French (or any other foreign language) is a literature major, this point is well taken. But there are differences, too. First, it is far more likely that our students will have read and studied English literature at some point in high school and college. They will thus already have had some exposure, at least, to another national canon. Second, and more importantly, a French, Spanish, or Chinese major is more than a literature major: it is to no small degree a foreign language major, meaning that the students must master an entire other set of linguistic skills. Finally, language departments are increasingly headed toward area studies. German departments routinely offer classes on Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, none of whom are technically literary authors. Foreign language departments are sometimes the only places in a university where once-important scholarly traditions can still be studied: Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes tropiques probably features on reading exam lists more often in French than in anthropology departments. A model for such an interdisciplinary department already exists in Classics.

I do not wish to suggest that English professors are to blame for the Anglicization of literature in American universities: they reside, after all, in English departments, and can hardly be expected to teach courses on Russian writers. The larger problem is institutional, as well as methodological. But it bears emphasizing that this problem does not only affect undergraduates, and can lead to serious provincialism in the realm of research, as well. An English doctoral student who works on the Enlightenment once openly confessed to me that she had not read a single French text from that period. No Montesquieu, no Voltaire, no Rousseau, no Diderot, rien. Sadly, this tendency does not seem restricted to graduate students, either.

Literary scholars are not blind to this problem: a decade ago, Franco Moretti challenged his colleagues to study “world literature” rather than local, national, or comparative literatures. He also outlined the obvious difficulty: “I work on West European narrative between 1790 and 1930, and already feel like a charlatan outside of Britain or France. World literature?” While the study of world literature presents an opportunity for innovative methodologies (some of which were surveyed in a recent issue of New Literary History), students already struggling to master a single national literary history will no doubt find such global ambitions overwhelming.

What, then, is to be done? Rearranging the academic order of knowledge can be a revolutionary undertaking, in which ideals get trampled in administrative terror. And prescribing a dose of world literature may ultimately be too strong a medicine for the malady that ails literary studies, particularly at the undergraduate level. In fact, a number of smaller measures might improve matters considerably. 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.

Will such measures suffice to pull down the iron curtain dividing the literary past? Unless they manage to infiltrate the scholarly mindset of national-literature professors, probably not. Then again, as many of us know firsthand, teaching often does transform (or at least inform) our research interests. A case could of course be made for more radical measures, such as the fusion of English and foreign language departments into a single “Literature Department,” as exists at UC San Diego. But enacting this sort of bureaucratic coup carries a steep intellectual (not to mention political) price. It would be unfortunate, for instance, to inhibit foreign literature departments from developing their area-studies breadth, and from building bridges with philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, religious studies, political science, and international relations. English departments, moreover, are developing in similar, centrifugal directions: in addition to teaching their own majors, English departments contribute more widely to the instruction of writing (including creative writing), and have their own ties with Linguistics and Communications departments. This existing segmentation of the university may appear messy, but has the benefit of preventing new walls from being erected, this time between neighboring disciplines.


Dan Edelstein is assistant professor of French at Stanford University.



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