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What is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and invention of the Canon. Ankhi Mukherjee. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014. Pp. 296. $24.95 (paper).

What is a classic? Taking her lead from Augustin Sainte-Beuve, T. S. Eliot, and J. M. Coetzee, Ankhi Mukherjee offers an eloquent case for the question’s continuing relevance to literature, literary criticism, and, above all, to the language arts of the postcolony. What Is a Classic? Post-colonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon brings fresh energy to the longstanding study of imperial cultural authority, attending to both the ideological imposition of that authority and the split literary consciousness of postcolonial writing produced in its wake. The canon, Mukherjee argues, is “an achieved anxiety, an imagined unity, an inclusive stance on the diverse literary genres produced within the tradition of literature in English” (216). Rising above the twinned optics of skepticism and condescension towards the concept of a Western canon, this study casts an unwavering gaze on the canon-bred aspirations of postcolonial writers such as Orhan Pamuk, V. S. Naipaul, Tayeb Salih, Arundhati Roy, and Tsitsi Dangarembga. Across the British Empire’s spatiotemporal conjunctions and disjunctions, Mukherjee declares, the canonized literary classic emerges as “a thing of splendid and defensive isolation as well as a textuality mutilated by time over iteration and critical intervention” (214). Mutilation, iteration, and intervention are the historical acts and forces through which Mukherjee’s study establishes that “the invention of modern classics is sustained by a dynamic and variable conversation between the past and present of English studies” (8). What Is a Classic? locates such conversations in the works of a truly impressive range of artists, including the nineteenth-century “Eurasian” poet Henry Derozio, the Nobel laureates Naipaul and Derek Walcott, the contemporary filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj, and the Hamara Shakespeare project in India. These and numerous other artists are bound together by a struggle over whether, as Salman Rushdie once put it, “It is perhaps one of the more pleasant freedoms of the literary migrant to be able to choose his parents” (20–21). Pleasant freedom or torturous exile? History has not exhausted this question, and Mukherjee reminds us that twentieth-century postcolonial literature’s filiative crises continue to exert definitive power over the “formation of an alternative canon for a postcolonial, global age” in the twenty-first century.

Mukherjee’s rigorously researched and passionately argued study is a welcome corrective to misguidedly democratic visions of imperial modernity’s cultural transactions. The move to globalize postcolonial literature can dilute national literary traditions born of violent centuries of colonization, but Mukherjee, attentive to the canon reformations inaugurated by Franco Moretti, David Damrosch, and Wai Chee Dimock, upholds vital, nuanced distinctions between the postcolonial and the global. World literature, she summarizes crisply, “is not so much a canon of texts as it is a mode of circulation” (31), and the term postcolonial “does not … amount to [End Page 255] rooted and antagonistic reprisals of colonial power/knowledge” (220). Her standard-bearers for her keywords—“classic” and “canon”—are, surprisingly and daringly, Harold Bloom and John Guillory. Testing a dazzling array of primary postcolonial texts against Bloom’s oft-derided valuation of difficulty and Guillory’s vision of the canon as an aristocracy, Mukherjee illuminates a historical-ideological reality that critics engaged in the act of “worlding” twentieth-century literature often resist: the unrelenting psychological grip of the Western literary canon in the British Empire’s former colonies. To illustrate how the albatross weight of Western literature—Ovid, Virgil, Shakespeare, Defoe, Dickens, the Brontës, Conrad—hangs around the necks of non-Western writers, What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon returns to postcolonial methodologies that have been occluded by a decade dominated by theories of cosmopolitan, global, and planetary literature. Relying on the now decades-old work of Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Abdul JanMohamed, and Frantz Fanon (as well as Patrick Brantlinger, Henry Louis Gates, Mary Louise Pratt, Benita Parry, Jahan Ramazani, and Terry Eagleton), Mukherjee reminds us why center-periphery models of nationhood, culture, and the racial self dominated the first wave of postcolonial theory and criticism. It is...


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pp. 255-257
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