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Friday, July 14, 2017

Canons (1984) Edited by Robert von Hallberg


Book Review 
Canons (1984) 
Edited by Robert von Hallberg

   A canon is a collection of works, typically art works, considered to be the best representatives of their form.  The 1001 Books project is a canonical attempt for the novel as an art form.  The major development in the discussion surrounding literary canons in the last generation has been an assault upon the "classical" canon as being too white, too male, too exclusive.   This is a discussion that began in the 1950's, but really took flight in the 1970's and 1980's, when professional canon-establishers (professors, critics and readers) began to elevate contemporary authors from previously excluded groups.   This was a logical response to the more critical approach of denying the possibility of any canon, or deriding the concept of canonization as somehow irrelevant for a modern, enlightened era.

  Canons, published in 1984, represents the state-of-the-art of academic literary critics towards the idea of canons.  This came after the revolt of the 1960's and 1970's, and the introductory essay, Contingencies of Value by University of Pennsylvania professor Barbara Herrnstein Smith does a great job of summarizing the status quo circa the early 1980's- a position that has not been materially altered by new criticism in the last 30 years.    Smith describes the progress of serious literary critics and their attitude towards the project of literary canonization.

  She begins with the (much derided) "magisterial mode of literary evaluation," which is typically associated with the 19th century, and forms the "before" of canon formation. In the mid part of the twentieth century, the magisterial approach was attacked by critics, influenced by developments in philosophy and linguistics, which questions whether the type of critical project represented by the "magisterial mode" was even possible, let alone valid.  These critics ultimately foundered on the rocks of cultural relativism, and left people without a canon.  As Smith points out, this had the impact of keeping the existing canon in place.

  The "modern" period- which covers the early 1980's and beyond, acknowledges the validity of the concept of a canon, but vigorously contests the boundaries and representatives of canonical project.   That is where we are today, in 2017.   Canons are constructed by groups who are critical of the canonical project, but acknowledge it's importance, whether teachers who need to teach or critics who need topics to write about that people will read. 


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