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Battle of THE Books
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Asked 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.

PHOTO:  Canon, Battle of the BooksAre 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 they represent?

Dramatic oversimplification 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 itself?

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 world."


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 are written:

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.


Certainly, 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 defense.

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 canon question.

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, Dryden, Pope;
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 confirm.

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" narratives.

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).

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