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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Sarah Says: The problem with tossing out the literary canon

In March of my senior year of high school, I told my best friend that I couldn’t wait to be at an institution where more people had read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” a text that at the time struck me as the apex of literary pretension. Thankfully she laughed in my face. Yet I remained committed to this ideal of the elevated text with a seriousness that was not infringed by my usual eighteen-year-old cynicism or the fact that I had yet to read “Anna Karenina”.

A few weeks later, when the Covid-19 lockdown left me with an abundance of spare time, I had the chance to sop up Anna’s passion for Vronsky between paging through Levin’s tedious introspections. At the time, I considered reading such a book a testament to intellectual discipline and preparation for the work I would soon undergo as an English major. Nearly four years later, I am happy to say I have read “Anna Karenina,” a book I recommend to anyone with patience and a passionate heart. Now I see my devotion to this behemoth of the literary canon as charmingly out of step with the current state of affairs in English. 

By the time I arrived at Middlebury, I was anxious about all the “great books” I neglected to study and felt desperate to catch up. But the prevailing attitude against the canon remained trenchant. Why did I, an intersectional feminist, want to waste my time on the works of dead, white men? 

In the decades since legendary critic Harold Bloom released his prescriptive list of works that make up the “Western Canon,” a byword which should now prime any undergrad with dread, the pulse of the literary world has shifted. Much of this change is for the better. Bloom’s list was dismissive of women, writers of color and most non-English written work. The critic himself has been reexamined within our culture’s evolving understanding of consent. Modern audiences have granted more legitimacy to the charges of sexual misconduct filed by students while Bloom was a professor at Yale University.

Thanks to the academy’s reappraisal of the canon, we are now more inclined to highlight the work of marginalized authors who have been excluded from proper literary study for far too long. I, for one, never felt wholly seen by a work of art until I read Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth in ENGL 275 “Multi-Ethnic British Literature,” which is one of the few novels in which multi-racial identity is not rendered tragic. 

However, this reorientation might come at a fatal cost to the old canon, whose place in American academia now often seems old-fashioned at best and, at worst, prejudiced.

I attended a small, progressive high school that was much like Middlebury in its mission to ground the curriculum in diverse voices and treat its students like independent scholars. Instead of “The Scarlet Letter we read “Passing.” Instead of “Hamlet” we read “Anthony and Cleopatra.

On my own time, I read George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” gobbled Jane Austen’s works down like candy and luxuriated in Edith Wharton’s wicked prose. Dead, white female authors were okay by me while I nursed my grudge against the old masters of the canon. Then, I left for my semester abroad at Trinity College Dublin, perhaps only eclipsed by Oxford and Cambridge in literary reputation, where I took courses on Irish Literature and Chaucer. I found myself thoroughly out-classed. My peers were far more schooled in “the canon,” able to proffer points of reference from the Bible and all manner of classic literature in their analysis of the text. 

Last spring, as I prepared for fall course registration, I was endowed with an intimidating degree of academic freedom. I had already finished the requirements for the English major and my only requirements left from the college were a science course and one more P.E. credit. So, the only question was how did I want to make the best use of my degree, and what did I still yearn to learn? 

I went “full English” — an advanced poetry course, an independent study with my advisor, “Shakespeare’s Career” and a Faulkner senior seminar. Before the semester began, I warned my friends to not let me get away with complaining. Finished with my pre-1800 and senior seminar requirements, there was no one but myself to blame for the instruments of my torture. 

Yet, to my surprise, the semester comprised the most academically invigorating work of my college career. If not in class, it felt like I lived at Davis Family Library, either between the pages of Faulkner and Shakespeare, or at work on my own poetry and novel. At times the work was grueling, but always deeply rewarding. 

Since I was in high school, one of the most pressing questions in English is if we should still read “offensive” work.  That we should not read work that is racist, sexist or prejudiced in any other way is one of the main arguments leveled against the canon. If we are to eliminate all work with prejudice we will lose the vast majority of classic literature. There goes Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dickens, Hemingway and even the great stalwart of the high school curriculum, “The Great Gatsby. 

I understand the impulse not to read this type of work. It can be uncomfortable and, especially for marginalized students, emotionally taxing to read the virulent evidence of the world’s prejudice. But closing our eyes does no more to extinguish the realities of this prejudice than setting the books we disagree with on fire prevents the flourishing of what some lawmakers believe is sexual obscenity

By no means do I advocate we read the canon the same as we did ten or even two years ago. Essential to the canon’s futurity is the ability to criticize it fully. Nearly all of my recent academic papers can be boiled down to one question: Where are the women? 

The last few weeks of my Faulkner seminar looked at the work Faulkner inspired: Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” and Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” I had read Morrison for class and pleasure, but until that course, I didn’t realize how much her work was in conversation with Faulkner’s. By reading her in conjugation in Faulkner, I gained a greater appreciation for both of their canons.

Or, as a Harvard English professor put it, “There’s a real misunderstanding that you can come in and say I want to read post-colonial texts — that’s the thing I want to study and I have no interest in studying the work of dead white men… If you want to understand Arundhati Roy, or Salman Rushdie, or Zadie Smith, you have to read Dickens. Because one of the great tragedies of the British Empire… is that all those writers read all those books.” 

The more I study literature, the more I come to realize that writing, like reading, is one conversation spanning countries as well as centuries. Removing any link in the chain depreciates our understanding of all literary work. 

In a convocation address, the famous poet Adrienne Rich argued, “Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts.” 

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So by all means, go and hate the canon (I’m not such a Dickens fan myself), but just read it first. 

Perhaps the reason I argue so vigorously for the canon is my suspicion that our new resistance is as much founded on anti-intellectualism as modern social concerns. We might protest reading Shakespeare’s work because we believe it to be racist, but also because it’s difficult. And, in an era in which the English major is already in rapid decline, teachers might fear students won’t read Shakespeare and don’t want to risk a class premised on Sparknotes talking points. 

To that point, I would urge us to trust students more. To trust them with difficult work, challenging work, and even long work. 

They might just rise to the occasion.


Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller '24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large.   

She previously served as Opinions Editor and Staff Writer. Miller is an English major on the Creative Writing track. She hails from Philadelphia and spent the spring studying English at Trinity College Dublin. She has interned for The New England Review and hosts a WRMC radio show where you can still listen to her many opinions. 


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