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Critical Discussions CANONS, CRITICS, THEORISTS, CLASSROOMS by William E. Cain In their contributions t? Wild Orchids and Trotsky—a series of "intellectual autobiographies" by academic critics (p. 4)—William Kerrigan and Harold Bloom assail the attention paid in current scholarship to "race, class, and gender," lament the spread of theory and the decay of prose style, and condemn efforts to make literary studies "political." Both testily dwell in particular upon the expansion of the literary canon. Kerrigan states that while the reasons for including works by "women, nonwhites, and postcolonial authors" sound plausible, "the educational program they support is a prescription for mediocrity": "Nothing I have ever read or heard has made me doubt for a moment that the greatest figures in English literature are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Swift, Pope, Johnson, Austen, the Romantic poets, Dickens, Emerson, Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messagesfrom American Universities, edited by Mark Edmundson; viii & 340 pp. New York: Penguin Books, 1993, $12.00 paper. Introduction to Scholarship in ModernLanguages andLiteratures, 2nd ed., edited by Joseph Gibaldi; iv & 377 pp. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992, $35.00 cloth, $15.00 paper. RedrawingtheBoundaries: The Transformation ofEnglish andAmericanLiterary Studies, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn; vii & 595 pp. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992, $45.00 cloth, $19.50 paper. Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 302-314 William E. Cain303 Melville, Whitman, and so on" (p. 165). Bloom in turn maintains that "gender and power freaks" have foolishly concluded that literature can be made to function as "an instrument ofsocial change or an instrument for social reform" (p. 203). They have lost sight of aesthetic principles, are too ill-equipped and tone-deaf to understand major authors, and have incarcerated one another and their students behind the bars of political correctness—"Stalinism without Stalin" (p. 213). Yet Kerrigan and Bloom are optimistic. "Quality will out," Kerrigan prophesies: "Great literature, I guarantee, will one day bury theory, and its scandals will outlive all the political correctness in this confused world" (p. 170). Bloom says with a rumbling chuckle that in fact "the intolerance, the self-congratulation, smugness, sanctimoniousness, the retreat from imaginative values, the flight from the aesthetic" are "not worth being truly outraged about": "eventually these people will provide their own antidote, because they will perish of boredom. I will win in the end" (p. 213). Many will find Kerrigan's and Bloom's views compelling, because these seem briskly to straighten out a complex, confusing, often exasperating state of affairs in academic criticism and scholarship today. But it is important to resist the temptation to echo Kerrigan and Bloom. Major authors matter: all can agree about that. But who are the major authors? Who belongs on the list and who does not? These are the questions that are harder now to answer. And it is easy to understand why by glancing at Kerrigan's list with its revealing "and so on." To it one could add: Spenser,Jonson, Marlowe, Marvell, Richardson, Hawthorne, HenryJames, Yeats, Frost, Lawrence, and Joyce. And Jefferson, Lincoln, Henry Adams, William James. One could also cite Charlotte and Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Dickinson, Cather, and Woolf, and Du Bois, Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ellison. And so on. Perhaps it was formerly the case that a list like Kerrigan's could settle the argument. But the critiques and revisions of the canon have shown that however attractive is the naming of imposing names—I am almost swayed myself—it is a rhetorical gesture. It reassures the like-minded, but not others, especially not women and minorities whom the profession has excluded and whose authors have been omitted from roll-calls of the Greats. Most persons are aware, or should be, of the shortcomings of past pedagogy and criticism. Every one of the chapters in the 1,511-page Literary History oftL· United States (3rd ed., 1963), for instance, was written 304Philosophy and Literature by a white male. Senator Stephen Douglas is mentioned four times in it, Frederick Douglass not at all. The most important postwar anthology of American poetry, the Oxford Book ofAmerican Verse, edited by F. O. Matthiessen, published in 1950, does not include a single African American ; Matthiessen in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 302-314
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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