Given the current scrutiny of the literary canon, it is not surprising that a number of books on contemporary literature deal implicitly or explicitly with the concept of "heritage," for the word implies a genealogy, a set of ideological assumptions, without which a canon could not exist; at the same time, the word also implies the cultural conditions against which an ostensive canon can be critiqued. If one were to claim, for example, that the American heritage is comprised by contributions from men and women of a multiplicity of ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds, then the body of works that have passed as canonical over the bulk of the twentieth century fail to reflect that heritage. To claim the heritage, then, would be to disclaim the canon. Such disclaimers, however, also unavoidably identify the inherited canon as part of a cultural heritage, for certainly it is possible to inherit misconceptions, prejudices, lies, just as it is possible to inherit property that did not belong to those who bequeathed it, or that was acquired illegally. To contest an inheritance necessarily requires recognizing the fact of that inheritance and of its material consequences, prior to disputing its validity or fairness.
Any discussion of canonicity or tradition thus requires recognizing a heritage, whether to be claimed or disclaimed, bolstered or amended. As T. S. Eliot prophetically implied in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," the only way a tradition can be changed is from the inside. Circumscribed as he was by a far more narrow range of literary issues than we find today, Eliot, of course, could not have anticipated the complex political debates over canonicity or the concomitant theoretical debates over the distinction between inside and outside. Eliot would very probably be aghast, moreover, at any connections between his essay and Derrida's essay on "The Law of Genre." And yet their striking similarities—too extensive and complex for treatment here—located in drastically divergent philosophical and aesthetic understandings, highlight the problematics of literary heritage, doubling in on itself as it always must, marking the return of its own otherness as an inside version of its own outside.
The books at hand all attempt to engage the relationship of contemporary fiction to its heritage, and as a group they thus reveal some of the difficulties in navigating its problematics. The greatest failure in this regard is Donald Greiner's Women Enter the Wilderness. What the book succeeds in showing is that some white, male authors of the 1980s—Fredrick Busch, John Irving, Larry Woiwode, Ben Greer, Richard Russo, Padgett Powell, and Robert B. Parker—view women's role in society and particularly their relationship to male bonding in a way significantly different from that role and relationship as presented in The Last of [End Page 491] the Mohicans. This is not a difficult argument to make, and Greiner makes it in roughly eight pages per author. The hard part comes in giving significance to his discussion, a task to which Greiner devotes the first half of his slim volume. The tortuous and slippery argument constructed there fails to clarify what constitutes a heritage, what it means to inherit, how we identify the heirs, and what kind of influence an inheritance has (questions that Henry James certainly knew were fundamental to understanding American experience and the art it produces). Greiner deals with white, middle-class male writers because the novels that have "dominated the literary canon and . . . inspired the notions of culture which [D. H.] Lawrence and [R. W. B.] Lewis defined was written by white, middle-class males," and, he argues, we "cannot ignore the effects of literary history—however distorted—on succeeding literary generations."
Greiner's understanding of a literary generation thus makes contemporary white males the canon's...