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  • Silko’s Arroyos as Mainstream: Processes and Implications of Canonical Identity
  • Kenneth M. Roemer* (bio)

At the 1996 Modern Language Association Convention in a provocative paper entitled “When Contemporary Literature Isn’t,” Molly Hite indicated that she had taken an informal survey of American literature professors, asking them which contemporary American novels they considered most important. Four titles dominated the responses: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. I was delighted to hear that Ceremony was included in this select group, but not totally surprised. In the January 1986 issue of ASAIL [Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures] Notes, Andrew Wiget announced the results of another informal survey: “[b]y far the most frequently taught novel (over 50%) was Ceremony” (4). More recently, in March 1993 when I guest lectured at Connecticut College, Ceremony was being taught in four programs: women’s studies, American literature, religion, and anthropology. In 1995, Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination established Ceremony as a crucial text in the tradition of the best American nature writing. In 1992, 1994, 1996, and [End Page 10] 1998, the book most often mentioned by the several hundred inquirers and applicants to my American Indian literatures National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for high school teachers was Ceremony. As of 1998, Silko was the only Native American author included in the popular Twayne introductions to authors (Salyer). And most recently—just try typing the key words “Silko, Leslie” into the Internet to verify the virtual popularity of Ceremony (Dinome 223–24). In one article, I certainly cannot pretend to explain why Ceremony is so widely recognized by specialists in American Indian literatures and by many other literature and nonliterature teachers in universities and high schools. I can, however, touch upon several important forces that contribute to its current stature and point to some significant literary, cultural, and political implications of Ceremony’s canonization.

Before I begin my “touching upon” and “pointing to,” I should state three important qualifications. First, much of this essay, indeed most canon-formation studies, could be labeled as speculative Monday-morning quarterbacking—a process of reading current evidence backward to reach self-evident conclusions. Americanists already know that Ceremony has won its literary place (at least “for now,” to borrow a Silko refrain); and they know that it is much easier to explain Ceremony’s canonization than to try to determine which of the many new novels by young Native American authors will be respected. Second, analyses of the developed or developing reputations of several other Native American authors—including those often associated with the beginnings of the “Native American Renaissance,” as well as younger authors—could offer fascinating case studies in the journeys from the margins to the mainstream(s). For instance, consider the breakthrough role of N. Scott Momaday during the late 1960s and early 1970s; the media attention paid to one of the rising stars of fiction and filmmaking, Sherman Alexie; and, of course, the striking commercial and critical successes of Louise Erdrich. Third, many of my arguments about Ceremony’s reputation stress cultural, historical, institutional, publishing, marketing, and reception contexts. This approach may seem to denigrate the aesthetic and didactic strengths of the novel. Certainly this is not my intent. In the second section of this essay I emphasize the compelling literary qualities of Ceremony that were crucial to its canonization. But one of the significant contributions of the canon-formation studies of the past two decades—whether the authors focused on [End Page 11] American Indian literatures, as Larry Evers, Arnold Krupat, Daniel Littlefield, and I have; or other “minority” literatures, for example Nancy J. Peterson and several of the contributors to her Toni Morrison; or authors as mainstream as Nathaniel Hawthorne (Jane Tompkins’s “Masterpiece Theater”) and Herman Melville (Paul Lauter’s “Melville Climbs the Canon”)—has been the identification of the central roles played by “external” forces in the shaping of the literary culture transmitted from generation to generation. Such an emphasis is especially the case when the texts examined are identified with marginalized groups that have been prevented from speaking...

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