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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 341-358



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Generational Canons

Jeffrey Insko


Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1982 [1837]: 87-88)
Each generation should produce at least one literary history of the United States, for each generation must define the past in its own terms. A redefinition of our literary past was needed at the time of the First World War. . . . It is now needed again; and it will be needed still again.
—Robert E. Spiller (1948, 1: vii)

Judging from literary scholars' continuing preoccupation with the question of the canon, one might reasonably conclude that the job of English teachers is to produce canons. This conclusion might help explain the ongoing interest in questions about what the canon is: which authors have been or should be included or excluded, the various sites of canon production and reproduction, and the institutional, economic, and ideological factors involved in canon formation. That is, often it seems as if the grounding assumption of such inquiries were that the more we are able to understand these factors, the closer we will be to getting the canon right, to arriving at a corpus of texts that strikes just the right balance among material, pedagogical, aesthetic, and political exigencies. Yet even if it were possible to strike such a balance and construct the Ideal Canon, what would follow? [End Page 341]

Of course, this is not to suggest that anyone (among reformers, at least) actually believes in an Ideal Canon. If anything, two decades of lively, sometimes rancorous, canon debate has proved just the opposite: literary canons are always contingent on a host of factors. These factors are, in large measure, the focus of the conversation about the canon in the inaugural volume of Pedagogy. Susan VanZanten Gallagher (2001: 54) begins the discussion by revisiting the question of canon formation. Drawing on John Guillory's argument that the canon is "imaginary," rather than an identifiable, generally agreed-on body of texts, Gallagher contrasts the "imaginary canon" to the "pedagogical canon"—the canon created by course syllabi. By tracing the rising academic fortunes of one novel, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions, Gallagher effectively demonstrates how "material conditions, accidental encounters, pragmatic needs, and ethical commitments all influence the formation of pedagogical canons" (54). But even more important for Gallagher, the case of Nervous Conditions illustrates how "pedagogy often begins the canonical process rather than existing only as a product of that process" (66). The classroom, in other words, is often the principal site of canon production.

But while Gallagher adds nuance to our understanding of how canons are produced, she has less to say about what canons, imaginary or pedagogical, do. This question, which she raises implicitly in her discussion of the novel's "teachability" (Gallagher 2001: 61-64), remains largely subordinate to her argument about canon formation. The same might be said of her interlocutors. For instance, Mark A. Eaton (2001: 308) points out some of the instances in which the "imaginary canon" takes concrete form in curricula and syllabi in order to show that "the pedagogical canon is not as different from the imaginary canon as Gallagher thinks." Yet later in his essay Eaton claims that "the most serious challenge" facing English teachers may have less to do with the canon than with "the diminishing cultural capital of literature" generally (313). Along the same lines, Salah D. Hassan (2001: 300) uses Gallagher's essay "as an occasion to question theories of canon formation." Focusing on postcolonial texts, Hassan describes the "stigmatization" of marginal works that find their way into the canon; thus he draws attention to some of "the inadequacies of postcolonial criticism and canon reform" (298, 303). Both Eaton and Hassan register a certain dissatisfaction with the canon debate and suggest, though only tentatively, that a shift in focus is due. Hassan, for example, ends by asserting that "if postcolonialism's goal is to go beyond the canonical practices that characterize literary pedagogy and scholarship, then attention needs to be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6255
Print ISSN
1531-4200
Pages
pp. 341-358
Launched on MUSE
2003-09-10
Open Access
No
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