of THE Books
for an update on the recent canon wars, U of C professor James
Chandler begins with some clashes that echo past conflicts in
the centuries-old Battle of the Books.
the canon wars over? That is the question I have been asked to
address for a Magazine issue on "Books." The
question's intended frame of reference, it is clear, is the series
of national debates about literary education over the last couple
of decades. How one characterizes these debates will depend on
one's position-on one's place in (or out) of the academy, on one's
side in the disputes. They are variously described as quarrels
about the fate of poetry or literature or "reading"
in modern society, about the centrality of the great books in
a great education, about issues of cultural diversity in the contemporary
classroom, about issues of race and gender: why study only dead
white males when we reject the bigotry and oppression of the world
is itself everywhere endemic to the process, but I hope it is
fair enough to say that much of the debate concerns how the books
we claim to care about represent the world, how our selection
of them constitutes a reflection of it. Since a canon usually
figures as a "list," and since the debate is cast as
quite a recent one, we can perhaps rephrase the initial question
to ask whether the cultural list assumed to be dominant a quarter
century ago has now been restored, replaced, or renegotiated?
Or rephrased again: are we now agreed on what books-what literary,
cultural, and aesthetic objects more generally-we care to make
central to the teaching of humanities, indeed to General Education
Yet in the face of the question
thus clarified I find myself raising others. The most pressing-and
obvious-has to do with the work of the first-person pronouns "we"
and "our." To ask if "we" are agreed again
raises the immediate question of whom that "we" stands
for. Another question, equally obvious, is that of how settled
"the canon" was before the so-called canon wars began.
What ancient violence has been forgotten in any prior settlement
to which we might point? Then, slightly less obvious, is the question
of whether we are right to understand "canon" in the
narrow sense of favored "list" or whether there isn't
more to it. And, finally, is there something "canonical"
about "books" themselves in all this?
Taking a longer view of the
canon wars than is normally assumed, I mean to outline an instructive
history of struggle, revision, and self-contradiction. It is one
in which questions of politics and cultural identity have long
been shifting grounds, in which the canon-as-list is bound up
with the canon-as-rule-of-value, and in which the relation of
technology to reading has to be seen as part of the history of
the book itself.
For those of us long connected
with the University of Chicago, the question of the canon assumes
special relevance because of the College's ancient association
with Mortimer Adler's program in the Great Books, which became
something of a national movement in the 1950s and remained so
for years. And Allan Bloom, PhB'49, AM'53, PhD'55, during his
years in the Committee on Social Thought, is surely one of the
best known popularizers of the academic issues surrounding the
issue of the canon. I will have something to say about the Great
Books project in closing, but in pursuing these questions, I turn
to the case of another Bloom, Harold, perhaps the fiercest and
most ubiquitous of recent canon warriors.
Before turning against the
academy that bred him, Harold Bloom was best known for promoting
a doctrine he called "the anxiety of influence," a theory
that poetry is constituted in the Oedipal struggle of aspiring
poets against those who came before. This theory is certainly
suggestive for some poetic relationships, especially between males
and especially in the Romantic period where Bloom began his work
(Wordsworth and Milton, say, or Keats and Wordsworth). I have
always thought, though, that it made most sense as an account
of the literary academy he has since renounced. For while it is
not at all clear that every poet must Oedipally "misread"
a poetic forbear in order to produce a poem, such a psychology
does prevail with graduate students and assistant professors for
whom the library shelves often loom as so many obstacles to fulfilling
the injunction to produce an "original" work of scholarship.
Having long since broken
with the Yale School, and with much else about contemporary literary
scholarship, Bloom has not only turned against most forms of what
is called "theory" but also against the new forms of
historical attention to literature that have developed in the
wake of the American New Criticism. Sensing that he was losing
ground among the recent generations of literary scholars, Bloom
has gone public with his case for "the Western canon,"
which he now claims has come under attack by what he chooses to
call a "rabblement of resentment," a misguided revolutionary
generation led by critics who insisted that, for example, questions
of race and gender matter to the aims of education in the humanities.
This is an insistence that Bloom sees as the thin edge of the
wedge, the opening of the aesthetic into a politics of representativeness.
As Bloom's sense of desperation
gains in intensity, his rhetoric gains in stridency. In a recent
Boston Review article allusively entitled "They have
the numbers; we, the heights," Bloom's lamentation waxes
apocalyptic: "A country where television, movies, computers,
and Stephen King have replaced reading is already in danger of
collapse." Like Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom returns us to the
1960s and the "Great Awakening of Rock Religion": "It
was clear to discerning spirits that the consequences, though
minimal for our capitalist society's ruling powers, would be endless
for any cognitive and aesthetic activities throughout the Western
One key difference between
the Blooms, I should say, is that whereas Harold Bloom sums up
the problem in Nietzschean terms, what he succinctly calls "cultural
guilt," for Allan Bloom Nietzsche was a main source of the
problem itself. I should say, too, that I'm not one of those who
finds what Sacvan Bercovitch has termed "the American jeremiad"
a helpful way to stage debate about issues as important as what
gets taught in our universities. The polemic about the Western
canon offers only caricatures in its accounts of the cultural
scene it addresses, and it would take more space than I have to
redraw the whole array of events, positions, and persons, and
to detail the engagement with questions of aesthetics and value
(among other questions, to be sure) on the part of many of Bloom's
imagined enemies of culture.
I do want to call attention,
however, to how Bloom's participation in the canon wars curiously
echoes a similar conflict from two centuries ago, what Jonathan
Swift called "The Battle of the Ancient and Modern Books."
One can begin to see the uncanny connection between Bloom's account
and Swift's in the very title of Bloom's Boston Review
polemic. For while Bloom cites Thucydides's narrative of Thermopylae
as the source for his titular phrase, I think readers might agree
that it also recalls the terms of Swift's witty exposition of
the cultural warfare in the early 18th century:
This quarrel first began,
as I have heard it affirmed by an old dweller in the neighbourhood,
about a small spot of ground, lying and being upon one of the
two tops of the hill Parnassus; the highest and largest of which
had, it seems, been time out of mind in quiet possession of
certain tenants, called the Ancients; and the other was held
by the Moderns. But these disliking their present station, sent
certain ambassadors to the Ancients, complaining of a great
nuisance; how the height of that part of Parnassus quite spoiled
the prospect of theirs [and] offered them the choice of this
alternative, either that the Ancients would please to remove
themselves and their effects down to the lower summit, which
the Moderns would graciously surrender to them, and advance
into their place; or else the said Ancients will give leave
to the Moderns to come with shovels and mattocks, and level
the said hill as low as they shall think it convenient.
After thus establishing that
the Ancients "have the heights," Swift completes the
invidious figure by noting that the "Army of the Ancients
was much fewer in Number" than the Moderns.
Swift and Bloom are alike
concerned about "levelling," a term that in fact came
into English in the 1640s in the political debates about the English
Revolution, debates that form part of the deep background of Swift's
own cultural landscape. This by itself ought to be enough to suggest
how the political and the aesthetic have been mutually implicated
in our most canonical authors themselves since the notorious quarrel
of the Ancients and Moderns first erupted in the late 17th century.
Further, metaphorizing the battle in terms of "heights"
vs. "numbers" was not meant to be any more neutral in
Swift than it is in Bloom.
Swift was certainly no impartial
chronicler of his contemporary culture wars, either in The
Battle of the Books or in A Tale of a Tub, where the
irony is easy enough to read in his account of how modern books
The whole course of things
being thus entirely changed between us and the ancients, and
the moderns wisely sensible of it, we of this age have discovered
a shorter, and more prudent method, to become scholars and wits,
without the fatigue of reading or of thinking. The most accomplished
way of using books at present is two-fold: either first, to
serve them as some men do lords, learn their titles exactly,
and then brag of their acquaintance. Or secondly, which is indeed
the choicer, the profounder, and politer method, to get a thorough
insight into the index, by which the whole book is governed
and turned, like fishes by the tail.
In his broadening of the issue
to include the changing material form of books, one sees a parallel
to Bloom's suggestion that America is going to hell in a hand
basket-or at least a dot-com shopping basket. Like Bloom, Swift
raises a question about whether a book produced in a new technology
even counts as a book in the same way as the old ones did. Indeed,
another part of "modernity" that Swift mocked, like
his friend Pope, but likewise appropriated to his own ends, was
the scholarly edition with full editorial apparatus, exactly the
kind of book in which canonical literature is now typically lodged.
In Tale of a Tub, as in Pope's Dunciad, hostile critics'
replies to early editions were folded in as footnotes to later
editions with appropriately ridiculous framing. Such satirical
practices bespeak a kind of scorn that makes the rhetoric of our
modern canon wars seem tame by comparison. One possible exception
in our time is a review by the philosopher Robert Paul Wolff of
Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, to which
Saul Bellow, X'39, wrote a preface. Wolff responded as if the
book were a new academic novel by Bellow, one with a dyspeptic
and slightly crazed protagonist whose name Wolff cites only within
quotation marks, "Bloom," heir to such earlier Bellow
creations as Herzog and Mr. Sammler and uncanny forebear, perhaps,
of Ravelstein, whom Bellow went on to fashion in Bloom's image.
to place the contemporary "battle of the books" in the
longer perspective of early modern England is, first, to discover
that "canons," not least the "Western canon,"
have been fought over for some time. But it is also to notice
something vaguely self-contradictory in the highly conspicuous
position that Harold Bloom has assumed in this recent round of
fighting. To see how, it helps to recall first that the neo-classicists
"won" the battle of the books, at least for a time,
and what later became known as the school of Pope was established
with weighty authority for decades, later championed by no less
a canon warrior than Samuel Johnson. James Boswell's Life of
Johnson (1791), itself an aggressive canon-confirming performance,
is a testament to the survival of Augustan values into the beginning
of the period of the French Revolution.
But the next great avatar
of English criticism, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, lived long enough
to look back with satisfaction on his role in changing things.
It was in that same tumultuous decade of the 1790s, as Coleridge
recalled in his Biographia Literaria (1817), that he and
William Wordsworth, writers we now call "Romantic,"
staged their act of resistance to the school of Pope in the form
of the poetic experiments they published in 1798 as Lyrical
Ballads. In that publication, and in the movement that followed,
the figure of Alexander Pope and the neo-classicism he stood for
became (as Shelley pointedly noted in 1821) "the pivot in
a dispute in taste."
The oddity of Bloom's aggressive
posture in the canon wars, then, is that he argues a Classical
notion of the canon-"they have the heights, we have the numbers"-with
a Romantic sense of poetic value. Not only did Bloom make his
name writing about Shelley, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Emerson,
Yeats, and Stevens, but also his book on the Western canon jumps
from Milton to the Romantics with just a nod to Dr. Johnson and
a few passing remarks on the Augustans. The backers of the Ancients
even questioned that Modern named Shakespeare, whom Bloom now
calls the "center of the Western canon." It's as if
Bloom were calling for the dismantling of his own Romanticized
Western canon by virtue of the very rhetoric he chooses for its
Curiously, in one of those
passing remarks about the Augustans in The Western Canon,
Bloom says of Swift's Tale of a Tub that it offers the
best prose in English outside of Shakespeare and that every time
he goes back to it he feels "reproved." He does not
say why. One wonders if the reproof has to do with the contradiction
between the Romanticism he espouses and the Classicism with which
he guards it, a contradiction scarcely resolved by his attempt
to recycle the "anxiety of influence" paradigm for the
Looking beyond Bloom to the
those earlier canon wars he echoes and merges, it is worth noting
how the scope and frame of reference for the canon shifts ground
between the canon struggle's Augustan and Romantic phases. For
Pope and Swift, the battle of the books is conceived as dispute
about the relation of modernity to the classical past. For Coleridge
and Wordsworth, it is a dispute about the relation of modernity
to the national past. It is telling, therefore, that when Coleridge
looks back on his challenge to Pope, he casts Pope not in the
role of an "ancient" antagonist to the moderns, but
as a modern poet who has, through his involvement with French
(neoclassical) theory, turned his back on the great English writers.
Just as tellingly, for such
key figures as Wordsworth and Coleridge the Romantic movement
was conceived, in the words of Wordsworth's famous Preface to
Lyrical Ballads, as a "return to the spirit of our
elder writers." There is that first person pronoun "our"
again, now signaling a shift from Pope's epicene "man"
(as in the Essay on Man) to a nativist British context
during the nascent jingoism of the wars against Napoleonic France.
Wordsworth and Coleridge defended their denigration of Pope and
his school by way of resort to a critical system, of course, rather
than on nakedly nationalist grounds.
But Byron, who admired Pope
more than any system of poetry that might be used to exclude him
from the English canon, later took violent issue with the proceedings.
Ridiculing the Lake Poets' "system" as "unintelligible,"
Byron offered his own wry summary of the canon wars of 1819 with
his terse and witty "commandments" in Don Juan:
Thou shalt believe in Milton,
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey.
What came to be known as "the
Pope controversy," a heated dispute that restaged the Battle
of the Books in which Pope himself had been a warrior, makes clear
that there are two relevant senses of canon in play in any such
quarrels. One is the canon as list, but the other is the canon
as the rule-of-value according to which works are read and assessed.
So long as the one changes the other will change, and both will
always be discussed in terms of the other. So long as there are
cultural values and the occasion for educational choices, there
will be canons. One key role for educators in this process is
to clarify the relation of certain cultural lists to the values
according to which they are formed and informed.
To return now to the question:
are the canon wars over? The answer must be: not so long as people
debate principles of taste and interpretation and connect them
with problems of general value and cultural representativeness.
And though you wouldn't know it to hear all the complaints about
recent constituencies who ask to be represented in what works
we teach, the canon has long involved issues of "representativeness"
in this sense: even before the unwashed generation of the '60s
got into the picture, one seldom saw a selection for a course
or anthology that was not meant to be "representative"-of
an author, a period, a movement, or a nation. For Wordsworth himself,
whom Bloom overzealously defends, the canon functioned to "represent"
the English nation as the poet's comments on early English anthologies
Indeed, it was the Romantics
who elaborated the very notion of cultural representativeness
as a dimension of literature, and as an aspect of canon formation.
William Hazlitt, Coleridge's great critical rival in the period,
responded to the idea of a culturally representative canon in
his own greatest book, The Spirit of the Age (1825). But
the fact that he first published the essays for his "gallery"
of contemporary portraits under the title "Spirits of the
Age" suggests that each spirit-Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron,
Scott-could "stand for" different aspects of English
literary culture in the period of the "great transformation."
Hazlitt aspired to a certain
catholicity of critical judgment that has stood him in good stead
with posterity. A radical himself, he said, for example, that
it was the test of an honest reformer whether he could admit that
the conservative genius Edmund Burke was "a great man."
If Hazlitt could find no place in his canon for a Jane Austen,
Maria Edgeworth, Mary Shelley, or Oladah Equiano, that betrays
a limitation in the values that governed his own choices. It is
not a limitation by which we need to feel bound in our own time.
As a good example of a welcome
addition to the "English" canon, we might single out
Maria Edgeworth, the brilliant Irish writer whose work taught
both Austen and Scott how to produce their respective kinds of
fiction soon afterward. Edgeworth's cause has been abetted not
only by feminist arguments about literary history but also by
historically minded scholars-such as Marilyn Butler, Catherine
Gallagher and, here at the University, Katie Trumpener-who have
recovered some of the modes of reading and codes of reference
that established Edgeworth's high reputation among her most talented
contemporaries. New editions of novels like Belinda and
The Absentee, introduced by scholars who have come into
their own since the 1960s, are enabling readers to appreciate
the more general appeal of even Edgeworth's more "regional"
I believe that some books
are "greater" than others but also that the criteria
for greatness are irreducible to a single principle. Adler's "great
books" were certainly not chosen according to a uniform criterion-nor,
for that matter, according to an evenhanded sense of judgment.
Nationalist considerations obviously come into play in his selections.
Why else would Melville and the Federalist papers be represented
in the 50-odd volumes of the collection but not Dickens or Flaubert,
say, or Edmund Burke? And there is not a single woman writer included
in the 54 volumes, not even Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Virginia
Woolf, though room was found for Boswell's entire Life of Johnson
and William James's Principles of Psychology.
Some such "canon"
as Adler's was still in place in Humanities Core courses when
I came to graduate school at Chicago in the 1970s, and though
I hold fast to a commitment to teach students to read great books
well, we are long since past the point when that particular list
or the values that informed it can be enough to serve the goals
of sharpening the critical faculties and expanding the powers
of the imagination.
The common core course in
which I now teach addresses questions of aesthetics centrally
but it does so in a variety of media and manifestations. We teach
Browning and Wyatt alongside Cindy Sherman and Chuck Close. We
teach both Plato and Aristotle on the problem of "imitation,"
but apply their theories not only to Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde
but also to Foucault's account of Velázquez's Las Meninas.
We teach the problem of compositional form both in Schubert's
Lieder and in W. C. Handy's 12-bar blues, the cultural analysis
of music in both Nietzsche and W. E. B. Du Bois, rhythmic structure
in Gwendolyn Brooks and Caedmon's Hymn. We do not teach Stephen
King, and almost certainly will not, but we are trying to involve
computers pedagogically in the course, and in each quarter we
include the intensive study of a major film into the sequence.
Like Stanley Cavell, we think that some films "call for philosophy"
every bit as insistently as some books do.
We do not think of ourselves
as taking sides in a culture war. We do not think of ourselves
as "teaching the conflicts." We see the course itself
as a kind of "composition," as putting together an array
of elements and reflections, fraught with ethical tensions and
rich in human rewards. And it is unlikely that we will ever teach
exactly the same array twice over.
James Chandler, AM'72, PhD'78, is the George
M. Pullman professor in English language and literature, the Committee
on the History of Culture, and the College. He has written widely
on 18th- and 19th-century literature, and is currently at work
on the Cambridge History of English
Romantic Literature. Some issues
he addresses in this article are discussed in greater depth in
a recent book, England in 1819:
The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism
(University of Chicago Press, 1998).