Ask a random current student if he or she has read something by William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, or Mark Twain, and the answer will almost certainly be a yes— whether that “yes” is voiced with fondness, indifference, or bitterness. Ask that student’s parents or grandparents the same question, and despite generational gaps, the answer likely will not change.

The literary canon, or the elite preserved body of “high-merit” books in Western culture, has served as a backbone for English education across America for hundreds of years. It would seem natural, then, that only the best of the best could survive these centuries of criticism and fluctuating standards. However, despite withstanding the proverbial test of time, the canon is inescapably subjective, which raises a problem for students and teachers alike.

Many of the oldest books that still rest snugly in every curriculum were written by well-off, predominantly white authors, a fact which makes sense when you consider the wealth and respect an author would need to get published at the time. That wealth and respect was reinforced by a patriarchal, generally prejudiced society until revolutionary advocates for women, minorities, and other oppressed groups were able to garner attention.

I don’t want to be misunderstood as demeaning the literary and cultural achievements that our canon currently holds—I’m an English major, for crying out loud—but our tight tether to the past should be loosened to include works that may have gone unappreciated. The common student misconception is that our current curriculum focuses on books that are old, and therefore seemingly unrelatable.

It seems hard to convince an apathetic student otherwise, but perhaps through a wider representation of cultures, genders, and time periods, they may feel a stronger connection to groups from which they would otherwise feel estranged. Why not heap the same praise on Booker T. Washington’s chronicles of slavery as Mark Twain’s, or J.K. Rowling’s tales of fantasy alongside Shakespeare’s stories of wood fairies and sprites?

It is important to preserve our current cornerstones of literature, but they are not the be-all end-all on their subjects; that is exactly what makes literature great. We can expand it, edit it, and enrich it as a curriculum. There is always room for improvement, and everyone can be a critic—what would you like to see added or removed?

7 Comments

  1. This is an excellent article, Emily, because you are challenging the very foundation of what should minimally be included in an English major’s canon of study as an undergraduate. We have a bunch of White Men in the canon because, in history, they were the only ones lucky enough to have the time to put pen to paper. They weren’t building machines or working the fields. They were rich, or sponsored, and their lives were enchanted. Many of the slave and immigrant voices were not able to write in English, or they were functionally illiterate in their own language, and so their stories and tales were lost and only handed down through live storytelling.

    When I was teaching literature at NJIT, I offered two “Word Literature” courses that tried to round out the experiences of our international student base:

    World Literature 1 330 (North America; Latin America & the Caribbean; Australia & Oceania)

    World Literature 2 331 (Europe; Asia; Africa; and The Middle East)

    The courses were incredibly popular and successful, but only advanced English major students tended to take the courses because they were the only students who needed to fill out their major. The rest of the students were fed the standard White Men canon.

    Another risk we have in trying to create a proper literary canon is creating newer niches with Godheads like Tony Kushner, “The Gay Writer” and Toni Morrison, “The Black Writer.” They tend to get read because they have found financial success and it becomes “enough” to cover those cultural experiences in a university setting — so we have one or two voices who now speak for an entire generation of people, and that is almost as wrong as never including them in the first place.

    1. Exactly my problem– good exposure to different cultures is out there, but the typical student probably won’t have it. Even still, I’ve experienced exactly what you said: representation of groups delegated to one writer or story. Despite the good intention that their inclusion suggests, that’s still far from equal. It’s hard to really diversify your own curriculum without taking a “niche” class, which is sometimes impractical for non-lit majors.

  2. I was reading this and thinking – OK who would you suggest? Then you asked us! I am no literary major and yes I have read the classics – but I have very little knowledge outside of the white english cannon. I took “Modern” English at uk “A” level – age 18 – part of which was to chose an author and write about why we thought they were relevant. I chose Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – so I will offer him up as my choice in answer to your question.

  3. Great article! I was fortunate in high school to get a wide variety of authors and pursued them at Rutgers. I appreciate what you’ve written.