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  • Introduction:A Survey of Survey Courses
  • Maurice S. Lee (bio)

Discussions of canonicity involve, among other things, questions of premise, privilege, and preference. Accordingly, this introduction will be brief so that the following essays can make their cases with a minimum of editorial meddling. This forum emerged from a paper I presented at the 2014 C19 conference in Chapel Hill at a roundtable organized by Robert S. Levine and Samuel Otter titled “The Commons and Us: The Field of C19.” The data I presented on survey courses generated a good deal of interest, and so the editors of J19 and I invited nine scholars to submit short essays on canonicity that might or might not respond to my paper. The group—diverse though of course imperfectly representative—was encouraged to write pithy and polemical pieces. We then met at Vanderbilt University on May 1, 2015 for a daylong workshop to discuss each other’s precirculated drafts. The time together was collegial, demanding, sometimes contentious, and (for me, at least) fun. Our debates may not have changed any minds, but they sharpened the final forms of the essays. Immediately below is my C19 paper (lightly edited and with some additional data), followed by contributor essays, followed by an afterword with some thoughts on the forum as a whole.

“The End of the End of the Canon?” (presented at C19, Chapel Hill, March 2014)

Talking about the canon can be like talking about religion at a wine-fueled holiday dinner: people have their personal beliefs, no one can invalidate anyone else’s convictions, and attempts to adjudicate deep-seated differences often end uncomfortably. No wonder literary scholars often practice what Gerald Graff (following Laurence Veysey) has [End Page 125] called “patterned isolation.”1 Peace through pluralism. Pass what’s left of the gravy. Just don’t mention the canon.

Yet questions of canonicity lurk—not only behind curricular and hiring debates, and not only in the ever-lengthening shadow of our Crisis in the Humanities—but also under the ideology of accountability, which increasingly requires literature programs to measure pedagogical outcomes. Assessments can ecumenically focus on critical writing and thinking, but we ought to be wary of justifying our pedagogical work solely in this way, if only because (as Richard Rorty once pointed out) people can write and think critically about anything.2 At least in theory, assessing literary analysis and argumentation can retain some amount of disciplinary distinctiveness without privileging specific authors and texts, and yet I find myself sharing Rita Felski’s sense that canons and metrics are increasingly ineluctable.3 It seems to me that as a profession we should make the case that our specific objects of teaching matter, and to do so we should probably have some sense of what those objects currently are.

What follows brackets the history, ideology, and aesthetics of canonization to ask a basic question: Which nineteenth-century US authors are being taught in American literature survey courses? This is not the only way to think about the canon, of course, and does not apply equally to all instructors, programs, and subfields, but survey courses can help to clarify what we have—and do not have—in common.

The method here is descriptive and statistical, for better and for worse. After posting a request to the C19 listserv in January 2014, I received 131 survey course syllabi from a diversity of instructors, institutions, and regions. Of the syllabi received, 120 included the years 1800 to 1865, so analysis was limited to that period for reasons of critical mass. Because syllabi differed in their range of dates and number of class meetings, the emphasis given to each author was expressed as a percentage of the total class time each syllabus spent between 1800 and 1865. For example, if a syllabus allotted 10 classes to the period and spent 3 of them on Hawthorne, then Hawthorne received a 30 percent value. If a syllabus allotted 20 class meetings to the period and 3 to Hawthorne, then the weighting was 15 percent. And if Lydia Sigourney appeared as one of three poets in a single class from a syllabus that allotted 10 meetings to the period...