Criticism — From the March 2014 issue

What Is Literature?

In defense of the canon

There’s a new definition of literature in town. It has been slouching toward us for some time now but may have arrived officially in 2009, with the publication of Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America. Alongside essays on Twain, Fitzgerald, Frost, and Henry James, there are pieces about Jackson Pollock, Chuck Berry, the telephone, the Winchester rifle, and Linda Lovelace. Apparently, “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form” — in which case maps, sermons, comic strips, cartoons, speeches, photographs, movies, war memorials, and music all huddle beneath the literary umbrella. Books continue to matter, of course, but not in the way that earlier generations took for granted. In 2004, “the most influential cultural figure now alive,” according to Newsweek, wasn’t a novelist or historian; it was Bob Dylan. Not incidentally, the index to A New Literary History contains more references to Dylan than to Stephen Crane and Hart Crane combined. Dylan may have described himself as “a song-and-dance man,” but Marcus and Sollors and such critics as Christopher Ricks beg to differ. Dylan, they contend, is one of the greatest poets this nation has ever produced (in point of fact, he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996).

“Two Tall Books,” by Abelardo Morell. Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York City

“Two Tall Books,” by Abelardo Morell. Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York City

The idea that literature contains multitudes is not new. For the greater part of its history, lit(t)eratura referred to any writing formed with letters. Up until the eighteenth century, the only true makers of creative work were poets, and what they aspired to was not literature but poesy. A piece of writing was “literary” only if enough learned readers spoke well of it; but as Thomas Rymer observed in 1674, “till of late years England was as free from Criticks, as it is from Wolves.”

So when did literature in the modern sense begin? According to Trevor Ross’s The Making of the English Literary Canon, that would have been on February 22, 1774. Ross is citing with theatrical flair the case of Donaldson v. Beckett, which did away with the notion of “perpetual copyright” and, as one contemporary onlooker put it, allowed “the Works of Shakespeare, of Addison, Pope, Swift, Gay, and many other excellent Authors of the present Century . . . to be the Property of any Person.” It was at this point, Ross claims, that “the canon became a set of commodities to be consumed. It became literature rather than poetry.” What Ross and other historians of literature credibly maintain is that the literary canon was largely an Augustan invention evolving from la querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, which pitted cutting-edge seventeenth-century authors against the Greek and Latin poets. Because a canon of vastly superior ancient writers — Homer, Virgil, Cicero — already existed, a modern canon had been slow to develop. One way around this dilemma was to create new ancients closer to one’s own time, which is precisely what John Dryden did in 1700, when he translated Chaucer into Modern English. Dryden not only made Chaucer’s work a classic; he helped canonize English literature itself.

The word canon, from the Greek, originally meant “measuring stick” or “rule” and was used by early Christian theologians to differentiate the genuine, or canonical, books of the Bible from the apocryphal ones. Canonization, of course, also referred to the Catholic practice of designating saints, but the term was not applied to secular writings until 1768, when the Dutch classicist David Ruhnken spoke of a canon of ancient orators and poets.

The usage may have been novel, but the idea of a literary canon was already in the air, as evidenced by a Cambridge don’s proposal in 1595 that universities “take the course to canonize [their] owne writers, that not every bold ballader . . . may pass current with a Poet’s name.” A similar nod toward hierarchies appeared in Daniel Defoe’s A Vindication of the Press (1718) and Joseph Spence’s plan for a dictionary of British poets. Writing in 1730, Spence suggested that the “known marks for ye different magnitudes of the Stars” could be used to establish rankings such as “great Genius & fine writer,” “fine writer,” “middling Poet,” and “one never to be read.” In 1756, Joseph Warton’s essay on Pope designated “four different classes and degrees” of poets, with Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton comfortably leading the field. By 1781, Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets had confirmed the canon’s constituents — fifty-two of them — but also fine-tuned standards of literary merit so that the common reader, “uncorrupted with literary prejudice,” would know what to look for.

In effect, the canon formalized modern literature as a select body of imaginative writings that could stand up to the Greek and Latin texts. Although exclusionary by nature, it was originally intended to impart a sense of unity; critics hoped that a tradition of great writers would help create a national literature. What was the apotheosis of Shakespeare and Milton if not an attempt to show the world that England and not France — especially not France — had produced such geniuses? The canon anointed the worthy and, by implication, the unworthy, functioning as a set of commandments that saved people the trouble of deciding what to read.

The canon — later the canon of Great Books — endured without real opposition for nearly two centuries before antinomian forces concluded that enough was enough. I refer, of course, to that mixed bag of politicized professors and theory-happy revisionists of the 1970s and 1980s — feminists, ethnicists, Marxists, semioticians, deconstructionists, new historicists, and cultural materialists — all of whom took exception to the canon while not necessarily seeing eye to eye about much else. Essentially, the postmodernists were against — well, essentialism. While books were conceived in private, they reflected the ideological makeup of their host culture; and the criticism that gave them legitimacy served only to justify the prevailing social order. The implication could not be plainer: If books simply reinforced the cultural values that helped shape them, then any old book or any new book was worthy of consideration. Literature with a capital L was nothing more than a bossy construct, and the canon, instead of being genuine and beneficial, was unreal and oppressive.

Traditionalists, naturally, were aghast. The canon, they argued, represented the best that had been thought and said, and its contents were an expression of the human condition: the joy of love, the sorrow of death, the pain of duty, the horror of war, and the recognition of self and soul. Some canonical writers conveyed this with linguistic brio, others through a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of experience; and their books were part of an ongoing conversation, whose changing sum was nothing less than the history of ideas. To mess with the canon was to mess with civilization itself.

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’s most recent book is Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic (Oxford). His essay “The Worst of Times” appeared in the November 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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October 2019