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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.3 (2001) 37-66

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Writing American
Between Canon and Literature

Joseph G. Kronick
Louisiana State University

A living literature is always in process of change; contemporaneous living literatures are always, through one or more authors, changing each other; and the literature written in America in future generations will, you may be sure, render obsolete any formulations of "what is American" based on the work of writers up to and including those now writing.

—T. S. Eliot, "American Literature and the American Language" 1


Were Alexis de Tocqueville alive to witness the battle of the books that has been going on for the past twenty years, he would hardly be surprised. Judging from Democracy in America, we can venture to say he predicted it. Attacks on "canonical" American literature as elitist and racist would confirm his prediction that democratic societies are driven by the love of equality, for it is in the name of equality that the canon has been "opened." The overturning of the "canon" gives proof that "in a democracy, each generation is a new people. So it is difficult to establish strict literary rules among them, and out of the question that they should be lasting." 2 What [End Page 37] would surprise Tocqueville, perhaps, is all the talk of the canon itself, because he not only denies there is one in America but implies that the equality of conditions, the central principle behind American democracy, makes the establishment of one unlikely. But, ultimately, this very absence explains the furor of the debate. The present battle is yet further proof of Tocqueville's predictive genius.

In "Literary Characteristics of Democratic Cultures" in the second volume of Democracy in America, published in 1840, Tocqueville sets forth the reasons why "the Americans have not yet, properly speaking, got any literature" (Tocqueville, 471). (As an aside, it is worth noting that Tocqueville uses the word "literature" in its modern sense as the generic term for aesthetically pleasing writing. I will return to this point.) This assessment of American literature was common enough in the first half of the nineteenth century and persisted into the twentieth century, at least among the modernists. Tocqueville, however, does predict that America "will have one in the end. But it will have a character peculiarly its own, different from the American literature of today. It is not impossible to trace this character in advance [Il n'est pas impossible de tracer ce caractère à 1'avance]" (Tocqueville, 471). 3 This literature will be without a canon. Although Tocqueville says that this condition is "not due to democracy alone," and although he does go on to speak of the American love of utility and pursuit of money as hindrances to the love of art, his case is built upon a comparison between democratic society and an aristocracy. In an aristocracy, literature is largely the province of the ruling class: they are typically its readers, patrons, judges, and, though by no means always, its producers:

The labors of the mind as well as the business of government are controlled by a ruling class. Literature as well as politics is almost entirely confined to that class or those nearest it. That gives the key to all the rest.
When a small unchanging group of men are concerned at the same time with the same subject, they easily get together and agree on certain guiding principles to direct their efforts. If it is literature with which they are concerned, strict canons will soon prescribe rules that may not be broken. [Si 1'objet qui attire 1'attention de ces hommes est la littérature, les travaux de [End Page 38] 1'esprit seront bientôt soumis par eux à quelques lois précis dont il ne sera plus permis de s'écarter] (Tocqueville, 472; Nolla, 61).

This translation of "lois" as "canons" is defensible, as a comparison of Lawrence's translation with others reveals. 4 Canon means "rules" or "laws," which, as we will see, has been the most common understanding of the word...


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