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  • Once More to the Essay: The Essay Canon and Textbook Anthologies
  • Lynn Z. Bloom (bio)

Essays live-and die-in freshman English, read annually by some 2.2 million American students. Indeed, composition textbook anthologies (Readers), purveyors of the academy’s humanistic and ideological values, are the only places where essays are widely reprinted. Thus the essay canon, enduring essays by 175 authors, is the only literary canon that is determined by teachers’ choice and classroom use. Using contemporary canon theory and an extensive analysis of textbooks, this paper will explain how the essay, a belletristic genre in the 18th and 19th centuries, became critically undermined in the 20th century as a consequence of pedagogy that emphasized its utilitarian rather than aesthetic and intellectual functions. I will then analyze the way in which the 20th century essay canon has evolved, and identify the possible changes that may occur in the 21st century as individual teachers compile their own anthologies from print-on-demand lists of essays.

Contingencies of Canonicity

A canon may be seen as a map of the territory it encompasses. In Contingencies of Value, Barbara Herrnstein Smith explains canon formation as an orderly process influenced by and embedded in a broad context of various cultural norms (see also Wendell Harris, “Canonicity”). Smith anatomizes the “diverse forms of evaluation” of literature performed by those who publish, “purchase, preserve, display, quote, cite, translate, perform,” imitate, and judge a given work-or, I would add, a genre. One canonical type is the critical canon, which may be further subdivided into historical, national, and cultural canons, often presented as if they were universal, as in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Critics create this canon by publishing reviews and criticism, rank-orderings, evaluations and re-evaluations, awarding prizes. Another type is the teaching canon, sometimes labeled pedagogical or [End Page 20] institutional; a teaching canon—the subject of this article—is invented and reinvented in anthologies, curricula, syllabi, and reading lists (Smith 42–53; Golding 70–113; Rasula 415–69). Kermode sees critical canons as “strategic constructs by which societies maintain their own interests, since the canon allows control over the texts a culture takes seriously and the methods of interpretation that establish the meaning of ‘serious’” (qtd. in Altieri 42). Because, as Golding observes, “any given period has its canonical genres; its canonical critical paradigms, or ways of seeing and reading” (59), the reinterpretations or advocacy of any powerful group-or even a single influential person—can produce a revisionist canon such as that presented by the multi-ethnic Heath Anthology of American Literature. Its editors, spearheaded by Paul Lauter, deliberately set out to re-map a brave new world of American literature, using as their guide not “previous anthologies or our graduate school training” but a survey of “a new literary world . . . the vast range of the literary output of this country” (Preface xxxv), reflective of women writers, “colonization and decolonization, urbanization, and the color line” (Canons 39) including a great deal of nonfiction prose.

Thus canons, it would seem, are more deliberate than casual readers might realize. Collectively teachers have more influence over the pedagogical canon than might be apparent to the single individual or department that constructs a curriculum, prepares a syllabus or reading list, adopts a textbook, and holds students accountable for reading—as Matthew Arnold says—“the best that is known and thought in the world;” or works by women, or ethnic minorities, or that fit any other desired criteria. A work gains pedagogical value through “repeated inclusion” in anthologies (Smith 46) and frequent assignment to many students over extended periods of time-even if it is ignored by critics, as essays are.

As I’ve explained in “The Essay Canon” (from which some parts of this essay are adapted), I am currently engaged in analyzing 20 percent of all the Readers published in the United States for the past half century, 1946–96, with ongoing updates. This means every Reader published in four or more editions, 58 titles in 325 volumes. These canonical Readers contain approximately 21,000 reprintings of some 8000 different essay titles by 4246 authors; this information...

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