ENL 121 (Pennsylvania College of Technology)
Dr. Ed Vavra

The Literary Canon


     People read (and write) literature for a variety of reasons, but the reasons fall into two basic categories -- pleasure and knowledge. [Add a third, money, for the writers.] People who read primarily for pleasure tend to read a particular genre, for example, romance novels, adventure stories, Westerns, etc. When I was in my mid-teens, for example, I read most of Zane Gray's Westerns, primarily because I saw my father always reading them. Wherever he went, fishing, golfing, to the bathroom, a Zane Gray was always in his back pocket. I was curious, and started reading. They were enjoyable, and they most assuredly improved my reading skills. My mother, on the other hand, rarely read anything, but she collected books from book clubs. Thanks to the Classics Club and the Heritage Club, we had Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy in our home. In tenth grade, I had to do a book report, and, too lazy to go to the library, I decided to do it on Tolstoy's War and Peace. I didn't know it at the time, but War and Peace is in the Canon -- and it changed my reading forever.

     Even English professors and teachers disagree about what the Canon is, but basically it is a list of the best books ever written (and/or authors who ever wrote). The Canon is for people who want to read for knowledge, knowledge about what it means to be a human being. Whereas Zane Gray had given me pleasure, Tolstoy challenged me. He presented me with characters who had values different from my own. He presented me with situations in which characters had to make choices, choices that I myself might have to make. There was Pierre, worried about whether or not Natasha would like him. There was Andrei, trying to decide if he should join the Army and the war against Napoleon. There was Natasha, worried about whether or not anyone would dance with her at her first formal ball. A typical male teenager, I had never thought about a dance from a woman's point-of-view before, but Tolstoy made me do it. Like all the works in the Canon, War and Peace forced me to step out of myself and look at the world through other people's eyes.

     The Canon is not, like the Ten Commandments, etched in stone. In fact, the Canon literally does not exist. There is no "official" list of works that comprise the Canon. Instead, the Canon exists as a variety of lists, plus what we might call inherited wisdom. There are some literary scholars who write books about the Canon, and who make lists of works that they believe should be included. But the Canon also exists in histories of world and national literatures. Read any history of Russian literature, and you will find that the author spends a fair amount of time on Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. These are the writers whom most readers of Russian literature have found meaningful. Hence, they are in the Canon.

     The purpose of the Canon is quite simple. There are more books in the world than anyone can read in ten life times. So, if one wants to read the best, what does one read? The Canon is a guide. And that is all it is. It is the collective evaluation of previous readers. And there is no agreement about the size of the Canon. For some people, the Canon includes only the fifty or so best writers in our history. For others, the Canonical list is much more extensive. Harold Bloom, for example, is a literary scholar and voracious reader who is nearing the end of his career. At the end of his The Western Canon (See below.), he devotes 37 pages, just to listing the authors and works that he believes belong in the Canon. Lists such as Bloom's are interesting to me, because I have read most, if not all, of the works at the center of the Canon. But such a list can be overwhelming to students.

     Some parts of the Canon are stable. Shakespeare's Hamlet is included in every listing of the Canon that I have ever seen, and it will probably always be included. Works such as Hamlet are at the center of the Canon because so many people have found that reading (or seeing) the play is a rewarding experience. Relative position within the Canon also changes. For decades, War and Peace was considered Tolstoy's greatest novel. Then, in the 1970's critical opinion shifted in favor of Anna Karenina. Both novels are hugh, and if you want to try one to see what Tolstoy is like, your best bet is probably Anna. At its edges, the Canon may include works such as John Skelton's Poems, which are included by Bloom, but which I had never heard of before reading Bloom. Unfortunately, most lists of the Canon are just that -- lists. In A Beginner's Canon, I attempt to present a smaller Canon (hopefully from the center) and to explain briefly why each work is included.

     Even many English teachers don't understand the purpose of the Canon. Feminist and minority critics often complain, for example, that the Canon does not include enough works by women and/or minority writers. But the Canon is not a smorgasbord, intended as a sampler of sexes, races, and/or nationalities. The Canon is, theoretically, a hierarchy, an attempt to present us with the best, not with the widest variety or broadest sampling. What makes the best the best? Among believers in the Canon, there are different opinions. Some believers (myself included) are looking for the works which most clearly, originally, and artistically deal with the universal human situation. Other believers, such as Harold Bloom, believe that aesthetics and artistry are the most important qualifications, i.e., he wants to judge the works as literature first. Morality, psychology, and social implications are further down on his list of what makes a work worthy of the Canon. As I think about the question, there are actually several different reasons for inclusion:

     Originality of Form  -- In some way, the work needs to shock us. Part of the reason that Sterne's Tristram Shandy is in the Canon is that Sterne plays with the form of the novel in ways that no other writer has. To my knowledge, for example, no other novel includes line drawings to illustrate how the plot of the novel is set out. No other novel so consciously describes and discusses its own form. Tristram, the narrator, sets out to give us his "Life and Opinions." About a third of the way through the novel he informs us that he is falling behind. Sterne has been writing for years, but has only covered a few days of his life. Originality of form helps move a work into the Canon.

     Originality of Content  -- Zola, on the other hand, primarily deserves inclusion because of his content. Like Dickens, who is also in the Canon, Zola describes the lives of manual laborers. But unlike Dickens' novels, Zola's embed a deterministic, pessimistic philosophy that make his view of the human situation much different from that of Dickens.

     Originality of Perspective -- Any work which presents a new perspective on the human situation may be a candidate for the Canon. Sartre, for example, is included because his characters live in a world without God. Chekhov is included largely because his characters are almost stoically resigned to the world in which they live.

     Aesthetics -- To be included in the Canon, a work must be artistically better than competing works. There are, for example, lots of plays, novels, and poems that deal with the same subjects and perspective that Sartre does. Sartre made the Canon not just because of his "original" perspective, but because his works are the most artistically satisfactory of the works that take that perspective.

     Influence -- Some works remain in the Canon because of their literary influence. Shakespeare's works, for example, are alluded to, played upon, and otherwise reflected in, Bloom would say, almost all of the literature that comes after him. In order to fully understand the later works, one has to have read Shakespeare.

     Representativeness -- Some works, I suspect, remain in the Canon primarily as representatives of major movements in literary history. At the risk of offending fans of Friedrich Schiller, I suggest, for example, that Schiller is in Bloom's Canon not because of any of the preceding reasons, but rather because he was the best of the typical German Romantic playwrights. The rest are no longer in the Canon.

The closer a work is to the center of the Canon, the more it will embed the reasons just discussed. But note that, except for the last, all of these reasons are universal.

     Thus far, I have been writing about the Canon as if there is only one, but actually there are many. THE Canon is a theoretical list of the greatest literary works in the whole world. But Harold Bloom titled his major work The Western Canon. I take this as his acknowledgment that his book does not include the major works from China, Japan, etc. Likewise, there are national Canons -- English, French, Italian, etc. Those who criticize the Canon as being the elitist list of white males haven't thought about the Canon, or about history. Historically, especially here in the West, white males have done most of the writing. There are women and minority writers included in most of the Canonical lists I have seen, and the sections in Bloom's list include "Yiddish," "Hebrew," "Arabic," "The West Indies," "Africa," etc.

     Rather than complain that female and/or minority writers are not included in the Canon, people ought to compile their own Canons. I, and I think others, would be interested in seeing, for example, a "Canon of Women Writers Before the Twentieth Century." If the complainers are right, such a list should include works that are not in Bloom's Canon. And, if the complainers are right, they should be able to explain why some of the works in their Canon, currently excluded from Bloom's, should be in Bloom's. Such a Canon would enable the rest of us to focus on those works, read and discuss them, and, perhaps, add them to THE Canon. But without such a list, where is one to start? There are, after all, thousands of works written by women.

     Finally, I have seen people complain that the Canon does not include works written after 1940. In many listings, this may be true. But given the number of works that are written, it takes time to sift out the most important, the most original, the most enduring. There are many journals and books which discuss contemporary literature, and as discussions continue, literary works of our era will be added to the Canon. One reading, after all, should not be limited to the Canon, but it should be nourished by it.

Books on the Canon

     In this section, I will try to collect books (and perhaps some articles) which discuss the canon. If you find other works which you think belong here, please give me a complete citation to them. In addition to the works listed here, you may want to explore my bibliographies.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1994 [For Bloom's canon and similar listings, click here.]

Hirsch, E.D. Jr. Cultural Literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987

Electronic Book Collections

     Many Canonical texts are available in electronic versions on the internet. The following links will take you to some of the major collections: