Thursday, August 1, 2013

Why the Canon?

My favorite class in high school was Honors American Literature, junior year. We read a fairly old-school version of the canon, starting with the Puritan poets and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and finishing with Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. We also read Mark Twain's Huck Finn, both In Our Time and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Our summer reading assignment had been to read two books from a longer list of American titles; I had chosen Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Twain's Tom Sawyer. Yup, no women, no people of color. It was a conservative take on the canon even for 1992.

I didn't love every book that we read; I loathed the Puritans and was lukewarm on Steinbeck. Because our teacher loved Hemingway, we read a lot of his work. I fell in love with Hemingway. I still remember the morning that the idea of literature and symbolism and theme finally clicked for me. We were reading Hemingway's short stories, and for whatever reason "The End of Something," with its teen couple breaking up, reminded me of the teen couples breaking up around me. I thought about Nick Adams and his girlfriend, about the girl sitting next to me and her ex-boyfriend, and about the title, "The End of Something" (emphasis mine). 'Something,' I thought, 'It's the end of something, not everything, something. And the couple in the story, and the couple in my class . . . Oh. . . I get it.'

I still have the copy of The Great Gatsby that we used in that class; the notes from junior year are in the colored pens that I favored that year, and notes from my senior Literature into Film class are in blue. There are also notes from at least one of my college-level courses that used the novel. For me, Gatsby is the urtext. When I think of American literature, or even the idea of America itself, I think about Gatsby.

I took a class in grad school called Fictions of Finance (I mentioned it here.) Gatsby was one of our texts, and the professor, a man that I very much like and admire, ranted a bit about his dislike of Gatsby. At least one other student joined in. I sat for a while, listening and gathering my thoughts (I don't like to speak unless I'm going to be right), and then launched my defense of the novel I loved. (In short: As East Coast natives, they didn't buy the outsider status of the novel's characters; as a kid from Washington state who went to college in New Hampshire, I could see very clearly what Fitzgerald was talking about.) Gatsby means a great deal to me. It informs my understanding of the American dream and identity. It's a text that I've read, studied, and taught multiple times. I can't really think about American lit without thinking about Gatsby.

But here's the thing: I can totally understand that not everyone will love Gatsby. My professor friend isn't wrong in his distaste for it. I'm not wrong when I say that it's essential. I think James Joyce's Ulysses is a terrible book, but many people that I trust think it's the greatest book ever written. I would be hard-pressed to teach a course in American Lit without using Huck Finn, but teachers manage, quite successfully, and they're not wrong. I loved my high school American lit class, but I wouldn't use that reading list today (and even when I was in school it was on its last legs). My canon isn't necessarily your canon, and we're both right for ourselves, and we're both wrong for someone else. We pick books to read in courses because we love them, or because they fit with our idea of a culture or a time period, or because they are a part of our school's tradition. No one book is right in every classroom, or wrong for every student.

Read Huck Finn. Don't read Huck Finn. You're not wrong. I'm not wrong.

Except Ulysses. I still really don't like Ulysses.


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