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Reviewed by:
  • Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century "British" Literary Canons
  • Laura E. Donaldson
Karen R. Lawrence, ed. Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century "British" Literary Canons. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1992. viii + 291 pp. $42.50 cloth, $15.95 paper.

In an era when too many anthologies have very inconsistent scholarly qualility, it is a pleasure to read one whose essays are not only uniformly excellent, but also reveal new insights into the politics of literary canon formation. While the addition of writings by women, peoples of color, and gays and lesbians to the existing canon have irrevocably enlarged its boundaries, Decolonizing Tradition challenges the notion of boundary itself and, in so doing, makes visible how canons come to assume a publicly naturalized shape. Editor Karen Lawrence succinctly summarizes how the anthology as a whole foregrounds this process:

Although diverse, these essays seek to analyze and complicate the geometry of cultural inclusion and exclusion in twentieth-century British literature. They take up challenges to the British literary tradition which have been mounted on a number of fronts: by writers interrogating the cultural implications of generic boundaries; by feminist writers plotting gender in relation to tradition, often in conjunction with other categories such as race and class; by multicultural [End Page 400] ticultural writers whose work emerges from and addresses the postcolonial condition.

I would add to this list a structure that allows the essays in each of the anthology's three parts—"The Politics Of Genre, "Cultural Legitimation: The Cases of Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Waves, and "Postcolonial Configurations"—to comment upon each other.

For example, one could read Derek Attridge's brilliant analysis of J. M. Coetzee's Foe as an answer to Ian, the teen-aged nephew of Lillian Robinson ("Canon Fathers and Myth Universe"), who several times passed over a regular babysitting customer because "she's just writing some book about women in the French Revolution." When Robinson asked why he was so prepared to dismiss this work, Ian replied: "It can't be very important. I mean, / never heard of any women in the French Revolution!" Of course, a more sophisticated version of this view circulated in male-dominated English departments for decades and negatively impacted the scholarship, promotion, and tenure of many nascent feminist intellectuals.

In his essay, "Oppressive Silence: J. M. Coetzee's Foe and the Poliitcs of the Canon," Attridge points to the suppressed premise of Ian's response:

It is a necessary property of any canon that it depends on what it excludes, and since culture as we understand it could not exist without canonic processes at all levels of its functioning there is no question of eradicating this source of exclusion. To be made aware of it, however, is to be reminded of the violence always implied in canonization, in the construction of cultural narratives, in the granting of a voice to one individual or one group, necessary and productive as that process is.

For Attridge, then, canon formation is as much shaped by aporias as it is by a positive content—a definition which, if adopted, would revolutionize how we come to recognize and validate the "straight rule" of literary norms.

Other essays have different variations on this theme. For example, Celeste Schenck's '"Corinna Sings: Women Poets and the Politics of Genre," attends to the ways in which constructing genre as both "drenched in ideologies" and "power-conferring agents" possesses important implications for understanding the exclusion of women poets from the canon. In her exploration of the epithalamium in terms of this double-edged process, Schenck addresses not only the masculinist ideology of this traditional ode to the bride—its exaltation of patriarchal marriage and its regulation of female sexuality—but also the way women poets have seized and transformed it in order to appropriate an authority long denied them. Women's momentary seizure of the epithalamium marks only the transitory empowerment of a "newly privileged group," however, and does not absolve them from the question of the genre's canonical silencings. As Schenck notes, its "class-burdened, heterosexist imagery" spawns an exclusionary politics that makes working-class, racially marked and...


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