We court peril when we comment on books we have not read. Many of us do it. I have and almost certainly will again. Without time enough to read everything, at best we fall back on trusted critics and reviewers for information about writers and books on which we have occasion to comment. At less than best we echo what we have heard, what is in the air, common knowledge, received wisdom, a practice that can be treacherous.
Recently my long-time friend Connie Venuso referred me to a New York Times Sunday Book Review “Bookends” column with the provocative headline Who Should Be Kicked Out of the Canon? It seems that Bookends is a weekly feature where two writers take on questions about the world of books. I suspect that Connie brought this piece to my attention because I have recently written about Harold Bloom in this space, and Bloom is among the foremost champions of a Western Canon that has been under cultural assault for several decades. Thank you.
Francine Prose is author of more than twenty works of fiction, Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bard, and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, where I enjoy her essays and reviews. Of the fiction, I have read only the novel Blue Angel, which I quite liked. I like Francine Prose and hold her in high regard, but I think she just gets it wrong here about Bloom:
One problem with trying to decide who should be kicked out of the canon is that I’m never exactly sure who is in it. I’ve always felt that the canon was like the guest list to a secret party, a roster drawn up by covert hosts at some undisclosed location. I know that Harold Bloom wrote a book in which he ruled, quite definitively, on which writers do and don’t belong. But not having read his book, I have only some vague memory of the brief controversy that erupted when someone noted how few women Bloom included.
Depiction of the canon as guest list to a secret party, a roster drawn up by covert hosts, is a little lightweight but could be let pass. What she said about Bloom, though, did not seem quite right. As it has been more than a few years since I read The Western Canon, I revisited Bloom’s introduction, titled “Preface and Prelude,” the opening chapter, “An Elegy for the Canon,” and his “Elegiac Conclusion”; I found my instinct confirmed.
Bloom states explicitly, more than once, that the canon is not a mere list of books, and neither he nor anyone else can establish definitively what writers and works belong to it.
No one has the authority to tell us what the Western Canon is, certainly not from about 1800 to the present day. It is not, cannot be, precisely the list I give, or that anyone else might give. If it were, that would make such a list a mere fetish, just another commodity.
Not that this deters Bloom, unabashed apostle of bardolatry, from offering one categorical list, a list with a single name:
Shakespeare is the secular canon, or even the secular scripture; forerunners and legatees alike are defined by him alone for canonical purposes.
…there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever…. Shakespeare remains the most original writer we will know.
Bloom’s brief is not to establish a definitive canon but rather to argue for the principle of canonicity, that some writers and works offer a greater reward for the time and labor devoted to reading them. Canonical works are marked by strangeness, memorability, and a demand to be reread. Canonical status is bestowed not by professors of literature or critics, no more than it a matter of social relevance or ideological correctness, but by later writers seeking to overcome earlier writers who influenced them.
Poems, stories, novels, plays come into being as a response to prior poems, stories, novels, and plays, and that response depends upon acts of reading and interpretation by the later writers, acts that are identical with the new works.
Ideological defenses of the Western Canon are as pernicious in regard to aesthetic values as the onslaughts of attackers who seek to destroy the Canon or “open it up,” as they proclaim. Nothing is so essential to the Western Canon as its principles of selectivity, which are elitist only to the extent that they are founded upon severely artistic criteria.
The Canon is not eternal and unchanging; it is not cast in stone or codified by Bloom or anyone else. There is broad consensus about the canonical status of some writers, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, for instance, with degrees of contention about who belongs and who does not as we move out from this core, especially as we approach the present. Writers pass into and out of fashion. As Prose notes, Alexander Pope was considered indisputably canonical not so long ago, while today his status is open to debate, if he has not fallen away altogether. I am not so much concerned, and I think Harold Bloom is not so much concerned, with whether this or that particular writer, with the exception of Shakespeare, is to be considered canonical as with the criteria and principles on which a work should be judged, which always comes down to aesthetic values, strangeness, memorability, the demand to be reread.
A fair portion of The Western Canon is taken up with Bloomian polemic against what he terms the School of Resentment, “who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to advance their supposed (and nonexistent) programs for social change.”
I began my teaching career nearly forty years ago in an academic context dominated by the ideas of T.S. Eliot; ideas that roused me to fury, and against which I fought as vigorously as I could. Finding myself now surrounded by professors of hip-hop; by clones of Gallic-Germanic theory; by ideologues of gender and of various sexual persuasions; by multiculturalists unlimited, I realize that the Balkanization of literary studies is irreversible. All of these Resenters of the aesthetic value of literature are not going to go away, and they will raise up institutional resenters after them. As an aged institutional Romantic, I still decline the Eliotic nostalgia for Theocratic ideology, but I see no reason for arguing with anyone about literary preferences. This book is not directed at academics, because only a small number of them still read for the love of reading. What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read.
And why do we read? Certainly not so that we will be better people and better citizens. Bloom is at much at odds with “right-wing defenders of the Canon, who wish to preserve it for its supposed (and nonexistent) moral values,” as with the School of Resentment.
The study of literature, however it is conducted, will not save any individual, any more than it will improve society. Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves. Subsequently, he may teach us how to accept change, in ourselves as in others, and perhaps even the final form of change.
Reading deeply in the Canon will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or harmful citizen. All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.
As for Prose’s charge that the list Bloom does not give does not include enough women, to the extent this holds water at all, the paucity of women is a function of historical marginalization of women, and other groups. These exclusions are our cultural loss, books and poems we will never have. This loss will not be ameliorated by denigrating the dead white males whose works still matter to us, nor by including writers for the sake of gender and other inclusivity when they do not measure up aesthetically. One need only read Bloom on Emily Dickinson, in any of a number of his books, or on Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf, Anne Carson, to see that he champions strong women writers with the same enthusiasm and vigor as he does men. Conversely, he resists including women, or members of other marginalized groups, without good reason, and that reason always comes down to aesthetic values.
I am not familiar with Parker, a contributing editor at The Atlantic who has written for Slate, The Boston Globe, and Arthur magazine. Parker would boot Wordsworth from the Canon, not just or even primarily because he has no affinity for Wordsworthian sensibility—which for him “means stony and humorless and moralizing”— or for authorship of “The Prelude,” a work of “almost geological boredom,” but for his unfair and unkind treatment of his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, laying blame for Coleridge’s “spiraling off into opium and German philosophy” on Wordsworth’s criticism of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads.
Well, now, serious charge indeed. Opium is one thing, but German philosophy, that is really hitting bottom. I speak from grim experience, having spiraled into German philosophy myself from time to time. How seriously Parker expects to be taken is up for grabs. He seems to be writing at least somewhat tongue in cheek.
I once found Wordsworth pedestrian and deadly dull, epitomizing a sensibility altogether at odds with what drew me to poetry. I was well into my forties when I first began to recognize extraordinary passages in “Tintern Abbey” and other poems written up until about 1807, after which Wordsworth’s poems are pretty much without exception stony and humorless and moralizing until his death in 1850. Neither bad poems nor bad behavior, not even Wordsworth’s artistic crime against Coleridge, negate the earlier works of indisputable sublimity that place Wordsworth in the first rank of poets writing in the Western tradition.
I do not want to make too much of all this stuff. The Bookends feature, to judge by this entry, seems more akin to a bullshit session at happy hour than occasion for serious treatment of the topic of the day. I imagine Prose and Parker dashed off their contributions without a great deal of reflection. This is light entertainment, and they seem to have approached it as such. Nonetheless, Francine Prose’s remarks about Harold Bloom perpetuate misrepresentations and inaccuracies that are “out there” in the realm of what “everyone knows,” and they should be called out as such. That the Times let it slide is typical of that once great paper. While Prose’s exercise in Bloom bashing, fashionable sport in certain circles, is inconsequential next to the paper’s recent sloppy reporting about Hillary Clinton, “sloppy” being a generous characterization, its publication without demurral reflects editorial standards that fall more than a tad shy of rigorous.