The Literary Canon

A Room of One's OwnI recently read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time (I know, but I had been meaning to get to it). Woolf argues in this classic essay that the main reason women do not populate the canon of Western literature is simply that they haven’t had time and opportunity (never mind encouragement) to write. She points out, and rightly so, that we do not begin to see major women writers until the nineteenth century (with a few exceptions, of course).

Harold Bloom, that famous champion of the closed canon, once opined,

I began as a scholar of the romantic poets. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was understood that the great English romantic poets were Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But today they are Felicia Hemans, Charlotte Smith, Mary Tighe, Laetitia Landon, and others who just can’t write. A fourth-rate playwright like Aphra Behn is being taught instead of Shakespeare in many curriculums across the country.

I have never heard of the women he mentions, with the exception of Aphra Behn, and I have no plans to ditch Shakespeare in order to teach her, but Bloom’s argument bothers me on a number of levels. First, I see no mention of Mary Shelley, arguably the most influential of the Romantic writers in that Frankenstein so captured public sensibilities that it continues to be adapted and even remixed up to the present day. He is insinuating women can’t write as well as men, and even if that is not his intention, he mentions later in the article I quoted above that four great living writers include Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Philip Roth.

Last weekend, I worked very hard on a list of major works for the British literature curriculum at my school for next year. It’s not finalized yet, but I was very proud of it. I deliberately tried to find good works by women that not even a Harold Bloom could object to opening the canon to (and I don’t think he objects to Jane Austen), but it was difficult, and I was reminded again of how many “Shakespeare’s sisters” we probably lost over the centuries, for we surely did. I chose works by Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf, A.S. Byatt, and Mary Shelley, among others.

I do not advocate throwing higher caliber works out of the canon in favor of lesser works written by women, but are we not to consider the possibility that a woman is as worthy of a spot in the canon as a man? I don’t think a high school survey course can begin to address the entire canon of American or British or world literature, or whatever the course is, but I do think it is our responsibility to expose students to a variety of representative works. And I don’t think neglecting women writers so one can teach more Shakespeare plays is representative. What is wrong with studying one or two Shakespeare plays at most in a high school class? That would still expose students to the great Shakespeare while allowing room for other authors. Then, when students are studying in college or even reading on their own, they might decide to read more Shakespeare.

I suppose I’m just thinking out loud about curriculum choices. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised at the reticence to welcome women writers, even in this day and age. Even as far back as the 1850’s, Harold Bloom had a compatriot in Nathaniel Hawthorne:

America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash — and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these inumberable editions of The Lamplighter (by Maria Susanna Cummins), and other books neither better nor worse? Worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the hundred thousand. (Letter to William D. Ticknor, 1855)

[tags]literary canon, scribbling women, women writers, teaching, literature, education[/tags]

3 thoughts on “The Literary Canon”

  1. When you are speaking of the best female writers, you can't leave off George Eliot. Middlemarch is one of the books profiled in Bloom's "The Western Canon" and clearly one of the best novels ever written. For the record, I admire Bloom greatly and don't believe that he's sexist, he just disapproves of diversity for diversity's sake.

  2. I don't know how I feel about Bloom. On the one hand, I do admire him and his work in literary criticism, but I do think he's a bit of an elitist — who can forget the flap over J.K. Rowling and Stephen King? — and I do not think that he is open to including more diverse writers in the canon — at least not that I have seen. You can call that not approving of diversity for diversity's sake, I suppose, but I happen to disagree with a lot of his opinions about what a "good" writer is. Frankly, it doesn't look to me as if he does include a large number of women writers among his current favorites. Take a look at this post — "scorched earth policy"?

    I actually haven't read Middlemarch. One of these days…

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