The Western literary canon revisited

By Robert Lamb

News item from the Boston Globe:
“… Universities are full of trendy English professors who don’t read Shakespeare for the beauty of the poetry or its peerless insights into human nature. The point is to uncover the oppression that’s supposed to define Western culture: the racism, ‘patriarchy,’ and imperialism that must lurk beneath the surface of everything written by those ‘dead white males.’ (The latest book from University of Pennsylvania professor emerita Phyllis Rackin, for example, investigates how ‘Macbeth’ contributed to the ‘domestication of women.’)”

I don’t believe for an instant that the Western literary canon should be changed to accommodate social and political agendas. Aesthetics shaped the canon in the beginning and should continue to shape it. Besides, art pressed into the service of a cause becomes propaganda, the aims of which are very different from those of art.

Yes, the canon’s shapers were mainly men, mainly white, mainly European, and, like all men, not without bias. But nowhere have I seen evidence that any work was admitted to the canon for any reason except that it was believed to be an outstanding work of serious intent.

But this should not be construed to mean that the Western canon is sacrosanct. It isn’t, nor should it be. Time changes everything, including the pertinence of art, and esthetic distance can reveal that a work’s admission to the canon might have been hasty or at the very least is ripe for review. Some inferior works also sneaked into the canon as companions of superior relatives. Any critic who believes, for instance, that all of Dickens’ novels are co-equal in quality simply hasn’t been paying attention.

Anyhow, of esteemed works in general, here are some nominations, purely random, for either demotion in the ranks or outright discharge from the canon (no pun).

–Moby Dick, by Herman Melville – Rather than a whale of a story, which might qualify it for canon membership, this novel is largely a treatise on whaling, with no more relevance to modern life than a how-to manual on buffalo-hunting. Moreover, Melville never uses one word when a few thousand will do, violates the most basic (and common-sense) rules of first-person storytelling (such as repeatedly entering the mind of another character, Ahab), and interrupts the story ad nauseam to deliver lessons on the anatomy of the whale. The best use of this novel is as an antidote to insomnia. If the celebrated (?) chapter on whiteness (yes, whiteness!) doesn’t put you to sleep, alas, your insomnia is incurable.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy – This novel is the best argument for abridged novels ever written. As with Moby Dick, we have in War and Peace a novel that is largely a polemic disguised as a story. In fact, you can’t read War and Peace attentively without seeing that Tolstoy wrote it mainly to rebut history’s traditional accounts of the War of 1812. The novel’s beguiling love story is merely a Trojan horse designed by the author to sneak his version of history into the reader’s mind. In fact, when abridgers abridge this often-abridged novel, they simply throw out Tolstoy’s meticulous recounting of Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign against Russia. Is the abridged version worthy of admission to the canon? Well, as I said, it is a beguiling story. So maybe. But it would have to wait in line behind Tolstoy’s Anna Karinana, which is truly a great novel and fully deserves inclusion in the Western canon.

–King Lear, by Shakespeare – Inexplicably, some literary critics declare this disjointed and tiresome work to be one of the Immortal Bard’s best plays. It isn’t even close; in fact it’s one of his worst, exceeded only (perhaps) by The Tempest. Lear, a foolish old monarch with three daughters, divides his kingdom between two of them and banishes the third daughter for refusing to compete with her sisters in banal blandishments of filial love and gratitude. What follows is a tedious testament to folly and ingratitude proving only, ho-hum, that a fool and his kingdom are soon parted – but leaving unanswered, and even unasked, the question of how they got together in the first place. Then, grafted onto the story like scenes left over from another, unfinished play, is the story of Edmund, the bastard son of Glouchester, whose evil schemes are no more believable than is the credulity of those who fall for them. And Kent? He could have stayed home for all the use he was to the plot. Only Edmund’s father lucks out in this mish-mash of a play. Blinded early in the action, he doesn’t have to watch much of it.

The Devine Comedy, by Dante – This work hasn’t been relevant to man, not even spiritual man, in at least 150 years.

Lest it appear that I’m mired in the classics, let’s look at some contemporaries who are presumptive canon-ites. (So help me, I’m picking my targets solely from works that I read or re-read, for various reasons, sometimes mere curiosity, in the past year or so.) One that I had the misfortune to stumble upon (and stumble all the way through) was John Irvin’s A Widow for One Year. First, full disclosure: I’ve never read The World According to Garp. The dust-jacket notes alone induced yawning, as did the movie’s previews. I did tackle (in good faith, I promise) A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I threw in the towel (prayer shawl?) around the half-way mark. More yawning. Now A Widow for One Year has cured me forever of any interest in a John Irvin* novel. Long story short (which you’ll certainly never get in an Irvin novel): The author is a literary windbag with a Victorian guilt about sex. And to the press agent who dreamed up the absurd comparison of Irvin to Dickens, I say with all the fervor I can muster: 1) Get an honest job, and 2) stop defaming dead authors.

Next, in the grip of a burgeoning disbelief, I read to the end of Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, which more aptly would be titled Lunacy Park. I pushed on for one reason, and one reason only: His Less Than Zero is a small masterpiece. After Lunar Park, I have not taken him up again, and I won’t until I’m assured that he will never again write while in a marijuana haze or while trying to outdo Stephen King in the supernatural genre.

Speaking of which, the Keepers of the Canon Gateway, chief among them literary critic Harold Bloom, long ago launched a propaganda campaign aimed at forestalling any suggestion that King be admitted to the Inner Chamber. But Dr. Bloom is often as absurdly wrong as he can be brilliantly right, and where King is concerned Bloom has uncorked another of his many bloopers. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is a fine novel, better than many that hold a charter membership in the canon, and King’s novella The Body (which on film became “Stand By Me”) is a masterpiece. (Be it noted that Bloom has also tried to block the canon’s entrance to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by damning it with faint praise as “a period piece.” Take my word for it, the period piece is Bloom. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of America’s greatest novels, ranking easily among the top ten.

But let’s hurry on before I run out of space:

*Hemingway qualifies for inclusion in the canon largely on the strength of his short stories and writing style. Only one of his novels, The Old Man and the Sea, is aging well. The others, which were at birth mannered and stiff, now seem downright arthritic. No matter. All of his short stories are clinics in good writing, and the best of them, “The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber” and especially “The Snows of Killamanjaro,” are sublime.

*Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby fully deserves its reputation as one of the best American novels ever written – and is very nearly the best. His other novels, and the short stories, leave me cold.

*Steinbeck. Several years ago, I heard a visiting academic at the University of South Carolina dismiss Steinbeck as “second-rate.” The speaker invited his university audience to agree with him, and I was shocked to see heads nod in the affirmative, and to hear mutterings of general agreement. I have since learned that “second-rate” best describes academic literary opinion. At any rate, Steinbeck’s range alone, not to mention his very American voice, guarantees him a place in literary memory. No such luck to the academics who dissed him.

*Faulkner. Time again for full disclosure: I am not a Faulkner fan. I’ve tried; god knows I’ve tried. I’m even willing to believe that the fault is mine, not his. But I just don’t get it! So there. Sorry, Malcolm.

*Flannery O’Conner. See Faulkner, above. O’Connor is a mix of the religious nutty and the Southern-Gothic batty. Except for her short story “All That Rises Must Converge,” put O’Connor aside in favor of a book by a really good Southern female writer: Carson McCullers. For proof, read her Member of the Wedding.

*Thomas Wolfe. He is, simply, the American Proust, which is to say that his writing is among the very best though his novels are not. Professor Bloom is wrong about Wolfe, too, who will still be read long after Bloom has been forgotten.

Obviously, I can’t cover here (or anywhere else) all the authors and poets and playwrights of Western literature, but I would feel conscience-stricken if I closed without mentioning such truly great writers as Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Crane, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Robert Frost, Jane Austin, E.A. Robinson, Robert Browning, Robert Frost, Truman Capote, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Willa Cather.

Nor can I close without naming the book that deserves, hands down, the title of The Great American Novel. It is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (and it’s also one of the best movies ever made).

I know, I know: in all these years, it has yet to gain entry to the canon. Academics and other so-called serious literary critics have long been loath to give this fine novel the laurels it deserves (or to even read it, which of course explains a lot). But it is these same critics who have put the Western canon in the mess it’s in today, mainly by using political and social templates to interpret literary works.

There. I feel so much better now.

(*Earlier this year, on NPR’s “Radio Reader,” I listened, in disbelief, to Irvin’s latest novel, Last Night In Twisted River — disbelief that a name writer could write so badly and disbelief that a respected radio show could select so undeserving a novel (from the many available) to air to its readers.)

(Robert Lamb teaches writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina. He has published novels, short stories, and poetry, and is a 2009 winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project.)

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