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  • We Have Never Been Anti-Exceptionalists
  • Dana D. Nelson (bio)

In March 2014, at the C19 Conference in Chapel Hill, NC, Maurice Lee presented on his survey of nineteenth-century American literature survey courses. It became one of the most talked about papers at that event. For his presentation, entitled “The End of the End of the Canon,” Lee had simply solicited syllabi on the C19 listserv, tallied, and crunched the results. Not a statistically valid sampling, but noteworthy nevertheless. He found that in 120 syllabi with the date parameters of 1800–1865, 95 different authors appeared. The highest-ranking author averaged almost 12% of class time; the lowest ranking authors received less than 0.1%. He found that the top decile of authors—that is, the highest-ranking nine authors—occupied 72% of class time (127). And, he discovered, those top nine authors in 2014 were: Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, Douglass, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Poe, and Stowe. Two women, one African American. No Harriet Jacobs. No David Walker. No Harriet Wilson. After everything—canon-busting and rediscovery, new historicism, feminism, postcolonialism, antiracism, scholar-activism—it’s still, by and large, F. O. Matthiessen’s Fabulous Five: Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

Obviously, Lee’s results are not just limited by their statistical invalidity; they are also limited to one version of an American literature survey. It’s possible to speculate that the results might be different were we to sample American colonial literature surveys (my sense is that Puritans have lost their shine and that the field is distinctly more international and multicultural) or include postbellum [End Page e1] literature (where we can bank at least on the recession of James), or look at twentieth-century surveys (Hemingway down; Baldwin, Morrison, and Silko up?). There are important questions implied here about a possible disconnect between what we talk about amongst ourselves as professionals and what we teach to students, or about what our critical classroom framing can do in the face of our ongoing reliance on the canon, or about what it has meant to expand the offerings of anthologies starting with the Heath and culminating in the Norton, and to what extent those additions are actually ever utilized in classrooms. We won’t assign an anthology that hasn’t been expanded, but can it be true that we then don’t do much more than page through those other texts? None of these are questions that Lee’s survey can actually answer, as he is the first to admit.

Still, the snapshot is startling, not the least in its fairly rigid preservation of what one waggish scholar refers to as antebellum literature’s Mt. Rushmore. To honor the flap it caused, my coeditor, Chris Castiglia, and I decided to create our first “double-wide” forum for J19. We invited nine (rather than the usual four) scholars to weigh in on Lee’s findings and asked the author himself to reflect on the brouhaha. There was a lively range of responses, mostly anti-canon, from different angles, and some proposals for remediation or remedy. Mark Rifkin comments on the tyranny of the association of “literariness” with the old canon. David Kazanjian, figuring we’ll never get rid of the canon, aims to create a radical relation to it, to understand how our own personhood is produced as a canon-effect, and urges us to give up on liberal fantasies of reform, practicing instead disformation and critique. Cecilia Konchar Farr calls for a renewal of literary critical consciousness-raising, going back to fundamental questions and remaking them intentionally with an eye toward how entire classes of identity get roughly excluded from categories of excellence in spurious ways. Taking a different tack, Nan Da reminds that we come to surveys across vast differences and that it’s worth remembering the crucial fact that canons serve as common grounds for people from very different cultures and life experiences. Robert Levine, editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, observes that the writers may be the same but are read radically differently today than they were in Matthiessen’s day. If the objects haven’t changed too much, the subjects certainly have: from...


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