[Milton-L] [Fwd: Re: When and how did the canon die?]

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Sat Nov 19 11:14:09 EST 2005

This is from an ongoing discussion re coneptions of "the canon" on
C18-L. The penultimate paragraph might be of interest to Miltonists. Is
it accurate?


-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: (On Topic) When and how did the canon die?
Date: Fri, 18 Nov 2005 21:50:09 -0400
From: Russ Hunt <hunt at STU.CA>
Reply-To: 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion
<C18-L at lists.psu.edu>
References: <BAY104-F389BD70979E62C294E609CB4510 at phx.gbl>

I'm hearing both that the canon never existed and that it's still alive
and well. And, oddly, I agree with both. Depends on what you think it

The question about its relation to school curricula and textbooks is a
powerful one. It seems to me we're talking about a couple of different,
but related things.  One is the set of assumptions about what
constitutes "the essential texts" or "the essential writers" embodied in
the textbook industry and the school/university curricular structures
which are symbiotic with them.  The other is the more theoretical set of
assumptions about the existence and nature of a literary tradition
(examples are, of course, Harold Bloom and F. R. Leavis -- and, on the
other end of some kind of spectrum, T. S. Eliot's redefinition of the
canon as including the metaphysicals and pushing Milton out of the

They're related, obviously; those lists that the Norton Anthology's
tables of contents defines are related to scholarly agreements about
which writers and works embody, in Arnold's phrase, the best that has
been thought and said. It's equally obvious that the relation works
reciprocally: what scholars decide or assume affects what publishers
produce and teachers teach -- but also, what teachers teach from
textbooks shapes the careers of those who graduate, go to grad school,
and start looking for a job. 

But my colleague's view is that the possibility of Irish literature
being taught and studied in mainstream English departments was dependent
on the decline of the idea that we all knew what was "worth teaching"
and it wasn't obscure Irish writers -- or women (except maybe Jane), or
even Canadian or Anglo-Indian or queer. 

I don't think there's any real question that that idea _has_ declined,
even if the Nortons and their ilk are still out there in the market (and
even there, as we all know, the "canon" has been extensively extended,
as those books get bigger and bigger and Dryden and Milton fade into the
subchapters and indexes). 

His question, and mine, is "did that start somewhere, or become
inevitable at some point?" Is there a story here that has definable
characters and events, and maybe even a climax or two?

-- Russ

Russell Hunt
Department of English
St. Thomas University

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