Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Loose Canon, Part 2

A couple of days ago I wrote here about how--when I was a young student--the literary canon (accepted standard works by accepted standard writers) was fairly fixed and fatuous: pretty much all works by dead white males.

I noted, too, that over the ensuing years, the canon has broadened, become far more inclusive and generous than it once was. And that is more than good; it's wonderful.

The last ten years of my teaching career (2001-2011) I taught college-prep high school juniors at Western Reserve Academy. The eleventh-grade curriculum then was American lit + Hamlet ("that great American hero," as I used to joke--oh, wag that I was!).

And I believed it was an important aspect of my job to have the kids read writers and works that they would hear about later on--writers and works that have been important in some way in American literature and culture.

And so--except for Hamlet, of course--I took them on a sequential (and obviously somewhat superficial) tour of the American literary landscape, beginning with the earliest of our writers (Phillis Wheatley, Philip Freneau, etc.) to some of the most recent. As the year ended, we often memorized a poem by the current American Poet Laureate--and we read something brand new by a contemporary American writer--some of whom we were able to lure to campus to spend the day with us: Tobias Wolff, Sharon Olds, Robert Sullivan, Matthew Pearl, Brock Clarke--these were some of those who sat in our classrooms and talked with us about the work(s) that we had read.

I had the kids keep a Timeline, as well--charting the births and deaths of the writers, the dates of publication of their key works, plus important events in American history and culture that appeared throughout the centuries. I wanted them to see the patterns, the coincidences.

This, I believed, was my job. And so I did it.

But now I wonder (and this is what Joyce and I were talking about the other evening): Is the whole idea of the canon corroding? Disappearing?  Or is the canon just changing so fast that--as I mentioned the other day--as the new writers come in the front door, the older ones, unable to compete, find themselves being forced out the back door?

How many high schools still teach novels by Charles Dickens?  (Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield used to be fairly standard. As did Eliot's Silas Marner.) Are the works by Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins and so many others of their ilk now taught only in college--and grad school to an ever-decreasing number of English majors? And how often are those works and writers taught there? I've read (and heard) that student patience for long novels with long sentences and long paragraphs is evaporating. I mean, many of us English majors in the 1960s were never exactly thrilled to see on the syllabus a fat novel by Thackeray. But it was unthinkable that the professors would not assign them.

The literary lions of my own youth have mostly died, and I wonder how many youngsters today read Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (he, I think, lingers on), William Styron, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, et al. Would many high school students today even recognize those names? And does it matter?

A glance at the table of contents of an old volume of the McGuffey Reader, a standard schoolbook in the era before my own, is both illuminating and alarming. My maternal grandparents had a set of the books, Grades One through Six, and I have somehow ended up with Five and Six. And here are a few writers included in Six: Samuel Johnson, William Shakespeare, John Dryden, Charles Dickens, Ruskin, Scott, Bryant ... and on and on and on.

my grandparents' copy
Does this mean that kids once were more academic and fascinated with long sentences and sophisticated vocabulary? I seriously doubt it. But I think it does mean that we (we = those responsible for public education) once believed that it was our duty to make sure that our citizens knew these names--knew a bit of what those writers wrote. This knowledge was a form of common currency.

The advent of Young Adult literature has helped change the curricular landscape--and I am not complaining: I've written and published works for the YA audience. Middle grade (and even high school) teachers find that kids are drawn to YA works more than to canonical ones. Better they read something than nothing is the chorus, and I'm not saying I disagree.

Of course, there are--out there--all kinds of other social/cultural factors that have weakened the significance of the book in many kids' lives (the equivalents of the comic-book-TV-pinball machine villains of my own youth): Internet, social media, streaming video, etc.

I am certain that if I'd grown up in this world, I'd be right there, texting and snap-chatting and whatever. It's just too alluring and immediate--unlike, say, Great Expectations.

I don't blame young people at all for any of this. This is the world we gave them, not the world they created. Blaming them is like punishing a pet dog for eating the rich raw steak you left on the kitchen floor.

So what do we do about it? There's probably nothing we can do. People used to rage, rage against novels, against stage productions, against movies, against radio, against record-players, against TV, against rock-n-roll, against ... whatever was popular with the younger generation.

I think there will always be readers who will want to try Dickens, and Austen and Collins. I sometimes see them in the coffee shops where I hang out (maybe I should add "coffee shops" to my list of cultural distractions!). But there are fewer of them. And they will grow ever fewer. And the canon will totally dissolve--and something we cannot even imagine will appear in its place.

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