Defending the Canon vs. New Attacks

Salomon Koninck, "An Old Scholar"

Salomon Koninck, “An Old Scholar”


Here’s a Slate article very much to my taste. In it, Katy Waldman responds to attacks by Yale students against its English curriculum:

Recently, the requirements for the Yale English major have come under fire. To fulfill the major as it currently stands, a student must take either the two-part “major English poets” sequence—which spans Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, and Eliot—or four equivalent courses on the same dead white men. Inspired in part by articles in the Yale Daily News and Down magazine, Elis have crafted a petition exhorting the college to “decolonize” its English curriculum. Their demands: abolish the major English poets cycle and revise the remaining requirements “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity.” “It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the letter concludes. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

Regular readers of this blog probably already know my response. Many canonical works speak to our deepest concerns, including those relating to “gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity,” and marginalizing them deprives us of vital resources. To borrow from Ben Jonson’s famous observation about Shakespeare, they are not of an age but of all time. Hardman points this out:

I want to gently push back, too, against the idea that the major English poets have nothing to say to students who aren’t straight, male, and white. For all the ways in which their particular identities shaped their work, these writers tried to represent the entire human condition, not just their clan. A great artist possesses both empathy and imagination: Many of Shakespeare’s female characters are as complexly nuanced as any in circulation today, Othello takes on racial prejudice directly, and Twelfth Night contains enough gender-bending identity shenanigans to fuel multiple drag shows and occupy legions of queer scholars. The “stay in your lane” mentality that seems to undergird so much progressive discourse—only polyamorous green people really “get” the “polyamorous green experience,” and therefore only polyamorous greens should read and write about polyamorous greens, say—ignores our common humanity.    

I would take this a step further. Sometimes the power of older works arises from the very fact that the authors have to push against oppressive ideologies. Twelfth Night is particularly ingenious because homosexuality was a capital offense in the Renaissance. Shakespeare couldn’t talk directly about same sex attraction and transgender longings so he came up with a pearl of a disguise. Meanwhile, Sophocles in Antigone, Euripides in The Bacchae, and Chaucer in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale create towering women protagonists who stand out precisely because the societies in which they reside are suffocatingly patriarchal. One could even make the case that today’s female and queer protagonists seem lesser because they exist in a more tolerant society.

I’m giving a version here of Herbert Marcuse’s argument in One Dimensional Man. Marcuse argues that Flaubert is able to voice “the great refusal” to consumer capitalism through Emma Bovary’s suicide because the society was less tolerant of adultery. Today’s permissiveness, he says, defangs her protest. People nowadays wouldn’t think twice when she tried to fill up the emptiness of her life with lovers.

I don’t entirely agree with Marcuse, however, because to a degree he denigrates contemporary literature. We need writers to keep writing regardless of the conditions because literature helps us to know ourselves and know our world. I depend on Lucille Clifton’s insights into racism just as I rely on Beowulf to teach me about murderous resentment. Fortunately, because of the heroic struggles of various oppressed groups, we now have far more diversity amongst our authors than we used to. But we can’t just focus on the present or, looking at the past, pretend that Margery Kempe teaches us as much about humanity than Chaucer (and I say this as a Margery Kempe fan).

One place where I agree with the Yale students is the need for greater diversity in English departments. Waldman agrees as well:

Also, you’ve pointed elsewhere to some deplorable statistics: Of 98 English faculty members, only seven identify as nonwhite, and none identify as Hispanic or indigenous. Yale urgently needs to address the homogeny of its professorship, both for students’ sake and its own.  

Diverse authors and diverse faculties shake up the traditional canon, both by adding authors and by causing us to see old works in a new light. On the one hand, Virginia Woolf rediscovered Aphra Behn and Alice Walker rediscovered Zora Neale Hurston. On the other, Women’s Studies have prompted us to sympathize with Bertha Mason, and Queer Studies have gotten us to rethink all of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies. We no longer regard works by dead, white men the same way that we did when live white men men were doing most of the writing and teaching.

Waldman makes another important point, which is that, whatever Yale English majors think, practicing authors themselves do not denigrate the canon:

The canon is what it is, and anyone who wishes to understand how it continues to flow forward needs to learn to swim around in it. There is a clear line to Terrance Hayes (and Frank and Claire Underwood, and Lyon Dynasty) from Shakespeare. There is a direct path to Adrienne Rich (and Katniss Everdeen, and Lyra Belacqua) from Milton. (Rich basically says as much in “Diving into the Wreck.”) These guys are the heavies, the chord progressions upon which the rest of us continue to improvise, and we’d be somewhere else entirely without them.

Like Waldman, I applaud these students for challenging received wisdom. That’s their job as students. I’m always excited when people take literature seriously, even to attack it. I just don’t agree in this case.

The solution is both/and. And while I know there are only so many courses that students can take, Yale’s requirement of two surveys or four equivalent courses hardly sounds like an imposition. A major, after all, generally requires 11 or 12 courses. As Waldman points out, it’s not as if Yale is teaching only canonical courses:

Here is what I am not saying. I am not saying that Yale shouldn’t offer a rich panoply of courses on female writers, queer writers, writers with disabilities, and writers of color. And it does! In addition to featuring names like Elizabeth Bishop and Ralph Ellison in its survey classes, the course catalog presents such titles as “Women Writers from the Restoration to Romanticism,” “Race and Gender in American Literature,” “American Artists and the African American Book,” “The Spectacle of Disability,” “Asian American Literature,” “Chaucer and Discourses of Dissent,” “Postcolonial World Literature: 1945-present,” “Black Literature and U.S. Liberalism” … and I’m not even counting the cross listings with the comparative literature; American studies; and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies departments.

Moreover, I am not arguing that it is acceptable for an English major to graduate from college having only read white male authors or even 70 percent white male authors. But you cannot profess to be a student of English literature if you have not lingered in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male…

English majors who graduate from college without having encountered Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton or Wordsworth would be like math majors who graduate without having taken calculus. And just think of all the richness they would miss out on if these authors were not a part of their lives.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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