Tuesday, July 4, 2017
No, I didn't misspell cannon. I was making a stupid pun. In this case I am using canon to mean literary canon--"an accepted or sanctioned list of books" (Merriam-Webster). Joyce and I were talking the other evening on a drive to get coffee, and it occurred to me (I'm slow sometimes) that the canon as I have known it in my lifetime is fading. And fast.
When I was a young student, the canon was fairly fixed and more than a bit fatuous: It comprised mostly Dead White Men (Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, etc.), and even my boyhood deck of cards--that Authors game--featured five men (Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Shakespeare) and but one woman (Louisa May Alcott).
In school we read very few women writers in class. Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrrett Browning, a few others--those were about it.
At Hiram College I read more by women--especially in the contemporary fiction course I took from Prof. Abe C. Ravitz (Shirley Ann Grau is one I remember). I did not take, then, much British lit. (I was into American), but I knew those classes read Austen, the Brontës, Eliot, Mary Shelley, and many others.
But the canon then was not just male-dominated. Writers from other races and cultures and persuasions had yet to make their ways into CanonWorld.
So what I'm saying: The literary canon of my day needed some serious revision. And in the decades since I graduated from college, so much has happened to it. In American lit classes students now read Zora Neale Hurston and Kate Chopin and Richard Wright and Sharon Olds and ...
But what I was thinking about the other night is that this "looseness" in the canon has not only allowed deserving others in; it has allowed deserving others to fall out. For part (much?) of this I'll blame the public schools, in which I worked for thirty years. Well, only partially ... slightly?
When I was going through high school (here we go! an Old-Man cliche!), we pretty much read only those writers who were in the canon. Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens, Shelley (Percy Bysshe), Byron, etc.
I have a copy of the anthology we used when I was in ninth grade (1958-59)--Adventures in Reading (Harcourt Brace 1958). It includes some writers I'd not heard of (and still have not heard of!), like Edward McCourt. But it's chockablock with famous literary names: O. Henry, Selma Lagerlöf (who won a Nobel Prize), John Masefield, Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Shakespeare, Scott, Longfellow, Poe, Kipling, Homer, and on and on ...
And at the end of the anthology is Dickens' Great Expectations (abridged, thank God, though I still couldn't make myself read the damn thing).
All of this was "normal" in my youth.
Of course, adults railed about how all of us were being corrupted by comic books and television and pinball machines--corruptions that seem quaint in these media-mad days. When I was was a teenager in Hiram, Ohio, we had three TV stations available to us--Cleveland stations affiliated with the three major networks (NBC, CBS, ABC). That's it. No video recording. No streaming (duh). No playback possibilities. If you wanted to watch Perry Mason, then you made sure you were in front of your TV set on Saturday night between 7:30-8:30 p.m. (its original broadcast slot, 1957-62--it would change). If you missed an episode, you could catch it in the summer when the re-runs were on.
Oh, and all the stations signed off after the late movie-about 1 a.m.
Years passed. Stuff happened--and that's what we'll get into next time!
To be continued ...