Is the Literary Canon Still Relevant?

By Julia Dolinger

Education—literary and otherwise, high school and higher education—must persistently deal with the question of the canon. From the British works of Shakespeare to that of modern authors like Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat, academics are presented with a rich variety of high-quality texts they are forced to evaluate in terms of a single concept: “the literary canon.” Which authors and works does it include, does it still exist or is it extinct, what form does it carry forward, and why does it matter? These questions have been answered differently over time, and they remain in flux. 

The canon is invoked as both the name for the specific literatures essential for study at various academic institutions, as well as an abstract, hovering “authority” over literary learning. The most basic definitions, such as that offered in the Oxford English Dictionary, associate canon with value-formation in literature, meaning the works which are the most important, most significant, and most worthy of study. The Merriam-Webster dictionary simply suggests the cannon is a point of convergence for related works, accepted for study in a particular group. As I found in conversations with professors, the canon has positive connotations as a group of texts and authors that enable shared knowledge and scholarly conversation, in addition to negative associations among students and professors who view the concept as outdated, overworked, and in opposition to contemporary, progressive literary engagement. 

From the above variations alone, the issue of the canon does not seem one that is easily resolved. However, a look into canon debate, past and present, informs current ways of engaging with literature, in the way we learn, read, and culturally converse with others—regardless of any agreement (or lack thereof) on one set of “great books.”  

Susan Perabo and Sha’an Chilson, both creative wring professors in the English Department at Dickinson College, provide their own introductory impressions of the canon. “I think it is a common body of knowledge that is expected of people who study literature,” Perabo said. “At its core [the canon] is a body of literature that people of a certain understanding of literature have in common,” Chilson reiterates. 

Though both professors highlighted shared engagement as the basis of the canon, they admit the idea is slippery. In Perabo’s experience, “Every institution or program defines its canon differently, every organization, every country.” Chilson added, “The part where [the canon] gets dicey, and flexible too, is where you might have [in the United Kingdom] a canon that is skewed in a slightly different direction than a canon you might find at a college or university in the United States.” Despite the commonality that is perhaps intended in a canon, this shared experience begins to fragment across borders, literary fields, and even generations.

“There has been a cracking open of the idea of one singular canon […] the idea that different nations or groups will have canons that are made up of the work they feel best reflects their journey […] this is also true for writers of various styles,” Chilson noted. “Playwrights have a canon. My canon as a poet and/or essayist is different than [Professor Perabo’s] canon as a writer of short fiction and as a novelist.”

Perabo voiced, in turn, that she has found younger professors and students do not hold up the solitary idea of the canon as she and others of her generation do, specifically in relation to her image of literary anthologies as representative of traditional canon, particularly The Norton Anthology of English Literature. (See this NY Times article for more information on The Norton)

According to Perabo: “People bristle at the word [canon]. Most student concerns I get have to do much more with wanting to learn more outside the canon than inside the canon. [Many] students come to college with the expectation that the canon is outdated, or that if you are a progressive person, politically and socially, it goes hand-in-hand with [the view that] the canon is something negative.” 

Perabo cited a major debate about the canon in the last few decades that critiques its “white male focus,” she said, a make-up that largely deals with the historical issue of access to publishing, an audience, and to education among, other resources.

Beyond scholarly debate about how to define the canon, or what texts it should conclude, is discussion about what to “do” with the concept itself. Edward L. Rocklin, a professor of English at California State Polytechnic University, summarizes opinions regarding the canon’s existence and what forms it should take, including: defense of the standard canon as is; adding new texts while defending the standard canon; broadening the canon through new categories of authors and works that include women, Native American, African-American, Hispanic American, Asian-American, gay and lesbian authors and different styles/genres of works; or abolition of canons altogether. 

However, professor, author, and scholar of institutions Gerald Graff argues scholarship has moved past even these debates. As early as the 1990s he asserted: “It is becoming increasingly clear that the usual alternatives in which the debate is posed—should we teach the traditional canon of Western culture, or a multicultural canon reflective of the increasing diversity of our society—are misleading. [Twenty-first century students are] going to be exposed both to the traditional canon and a new and more multicultural canon.” 

In accordance with Graff, Perabo encourages a balanced course load to combat educational tensions concerning the canon. She urges students to take a wide variety of courses both in topics and methods, including those of the “coverage model,” which discuss periods of literature, and the more thematic classes that address issues of inclusion and exclusion in these periods and acknowledge diversity. Perabo’s vision of a balance of courses is a nod to traditional and progressive conceptions of the canon, as Graff indicates, and to requests for a wider textual scope of study which Rocklin notes are one response to “outdated” literary canon. 

Still, Perabo and Chilson acknowledge the merits in this potentially “dated” canon of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and other British authors. Perabo confessed: “I still have a kind of old-school feeling, even though I understand people who don’t think it’s the way to go, [in support of] those ‘Major British Writers’ classes I took [in college and graduate school], because I still rely on those. When somebody says something about Edmund Spencer, I know several things about him, or I can converse about Milton, or Chaucer—I have a nodding acquaintance with all of those people and I use that throughout my teaching career.” 

“I think the idea is also that it is not just a nodding acquaintance with those writers and their work but with the changes and what the value of what their work means to the literature that came after,” Chilson added.

Here the relevance of the canon is in its connections to more modern, diverse works that respond in some way to these known British authors. In our conversation, Chilson compared literary lineage to the study of dance. In the same way that dancers trace their histories through their teachers and who their mentors studied with back to the beginning of the art, the canon can provide information about where literary ideas originate. 

“I think not having that background makes it difficult to make those connections and leaps and see how something comes down the literary ‘family tree.’ I always got this with the romantic poets [Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge],”Chilson explained. “They in a way bounce off of each other, and you see that when you read them together or talk with someone who has studied them.” The canon at its best, for Chilson, is a space where students can make these comparisons, analogies, and connections between texts. 

Ultimately, because the canon is still debated and developing, the conversation becomes less about the canon’s contents and more about the word or idea itself, and what conversations about literary relationships can do in the classroom. Chilson and Perabo agreed that there are no “easy answers” to the question of the canon anymore, but that it is a constant work in progress is what makes the conversation interesting. 

Claire Seiler, also a professor in Dickinson’s English Department, similarly referenced the import of this exchange among students within her department. “We are past the era of locked-down, canonical imperatives for undergraduate literary studies. Instead, our major is methods- and theories based,” Seiler said. “We hope that this curricular design, together with the atmosphere of interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange at Dickinson, enables students to argue the value of diverse works of literature.” 

Graff also points out that “it is easy to get so caught up in the fight for one list of books against another list of books that we forget that for many of our students the problem is books period, regardless which side gets to draw up the syllabus. It is easy to get so caught up in the conflict between traditional and revisionist canons that we forget that for these students the very words ‘traditional,’ ‘revisionist,’ and ‘canon’ are mysterious and intimidating.” These statements affirm that today’s canon is a more abstract idea than a body of literary knowledge that individuals should presumably know. 

Rather than a collection of agreed upon authors or titles, this “must-have” knowledge is becoming more about books period. Chilson explained: “[The canon] exists now in a really interesting way that it may never have existed before in that it is constantly open to conversation and in constant flux. One of the ways I think it exists that is really fascinating is the ‘100 books you have to read’ lists that are on everybody’s e-platforms (Amazon, Goodreads, etc.). These lists exist all over the place […] I think that is where you see the canon in everyday life now, that we all kind of receive these ‘you have to read this’ messages.”

Perhaps the evolving concept of the canon is not about reading certain books or authors in order to be a cultured individual. Today’s canon might instead locate the “must read” in acts of voracious reading and scholarship more generally. Because, ultimately, this widespread readership can offer the analogies, understandings, and linkages that are at the core of the canon’s basic definition: a site of literary commonalities. 

Julia Dolinger is a senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, majoring in English. Dickinson College is home to the Alpha of Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.