CANONS BY CONSENSUS: Critical Trends and American Literature Anthologies

Buy this book at Amazon.comJoseph Csicsila
University of Alabama Press ($38.50)

by Raphael C. Allison

These days it may seem fair to say that the great war of canon studies has subsided at last. Major combat operations are over; the world, or at least one very carefully policed corner of it in the university, has been made safe for textual democracy. The battle was not about fictional WMDs, of course, but against DWMs who wrote fiction, the imperial Dead White Male militia who maintained their grip on power through force of habit, repressive politics, and canny PsyOps. Over the past number of decades troops of all colors, chromosomes, and creeds have joined forces in this war, and now women authors and writers of color from across the spectrum of class positions are routinely researched and taught. What's left to do but maintain the new order, skirmish with rear-guard reactionaries, and get on with the business of running the state?

Despite this sense that victory has been achieved there are still unanswered questions about what has come to be known as "canonicity." What unstated rules and ideologies, for example, guide canon formation? After decades of attacking the mere fact of canonical prejudices against women and writers of color, this is still unclear. Feminist critics in the 1970s established an alternative history of women's writing, and as a result women now pretty reliably staff the syllabi. Yet this apparent victory does not mean that we fully comprehend the subconscious or hegemonic power relations that structure not simply who's "in" and who's "out" of a literary canon, but also how to conceive of who's a "who" in the first place. In what was once a controversial claim but now seems quite obvious, Judith Butler argues on the very first page of Gender Trouble (1990): "For the most part, feminist theory has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued." The idea of fairly "representing" all races, classes, and genders in the canon relies on a faith in the individual subject, one that has been duly shaken by the minions of Big Theory, of whom Butler is a notorious example. Without the individual subject to do and die, fighting for a canon that represents all constituencies seems like the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Another area of the canon wars still in need of examination concerns how the material production of texts themselves has contributed to who gets read and who does not. Scholars like Jerome McGann, Cary Nelson, Michael Davidson, and George Bornstein have made a good case for the ways in which the material packaging and distribution of poems, plays, novels, and the like greatly affects how they are read, by whom, and in what ways. Adding to this list is Joseph Csicsila, a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University. His book Canons by Consensus makes the case that literature anthologies have played a significant role in the construction of canons, and that criteria for selection of texts have been guided not by bias or prejudice but by prevailing trends in academic criticism. It is a welcome contribution to the debate on canonicity.

Csicsila asks two crucial questions about what anthologies can tell us about the canon. The first is empirical: what "actually appeared in college-level anthologies since their inception soon after World War I?" It is often suggested that women authors have been neglected due to the prevailing misogyny of anthologists. Does the record bear this out? As Csicsila argues, no. We find, rather, that "college-level anthologies of American literature regularly featured the word of female writers." It is only a failure to actually read the bulk of anthologies out there—and Csicsila has read about 80 for this study—that leads to these kinds of mistaken generalizations. In this sense, Csicsila's book does crucial legwork, gathering hard facts and numbers about how marginalized writers have been represented. His findings are often surprising: we learn that "racism" wasn't responsible, after all, for African-American writers being excluded from canon-building anthologies. Csicsila cites various other factors that contribute to neglect of Black authors in the canon of American literature, including simple ignorance of Black-authored texts. He also unearths five anthologies from earlier in the century that do present "certain African American writings," though they have been overlooked because they appear "in chapters devoted to the broader categories of folk songs and spirituals."

One might detect in these claims a reactionary agenda. After all, Csicsila rejects the logic of what he calls the current "multicultural" age to argue that women and Blacks were far more present than current literary historians care to admit. Politics aside, methodological questions immediately arise: is quantification of texts in anthologies really the best way to measure women's or African-Americans' role in the canon? For example, just because women writers appeared in anthologies in greater number than had been supposed, were they taught as much as male writers? Were they discussed in print as much as male writers? Were they valued in the same way as male writers? One might argue by Csicsila's logic that women poets were more "canonical" than men in the 19th century because they published the greater number of poems, which they did; 150 years ago the lyric was a women's genre. Yet in the gross economy of 19th-century literary culture, one poem by Bryant outweighs a brace by Fanny Kemble. Does sheer number really tell us anything?

Csicsila's second major question is more complex: what are the "factors that determined what did and did not appear in these textbooks?" This is, after all, the heart of the matter: what are the criteria for inclusion? His finding is that "prevailing trends in academic criticism" are far more influential in determining what gets included in anthologies—and thus canons—than "personal biases" of editors. To this end he traces a host of authors (including Irving, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, Sidney Lanier, James, Twain, Harriet Jacobs, Charles Chesnutt, and Willa Cather) over the course of the century. He finds that writers who display "a range of versatility within a sizable body of work" have a tendency to become and then remain canonical because they accommodate a particular trend in literary criticism.

Mark Twain is a perfect example: today Twain is read almost exclusively for his "masterpiece" Huckleberry Finn. According to Csciscila, that's because in our "multicultural" age of scholarship, which values issues of race and identity, Huck Finn demands attention. Yet Csicsila points out that most anthologies until the 1940s were guided by ideas of "literary historiography," an approach that saw literature "as a portal to the American mind and spirit" rather than of inherent aesthetic value. Since these anthologies read literature more as history than belles-lettres, "from 1919 until the late 1940s, anthologies of American literature concentrated almost exclusively on the early phase of Mark Twain's writing career," focusing on texts like Roughing It (1872) and Life on the Mississippi (1883), works that serve primarily to document American culture. The rise of the more aesthetically driven New Critics after the War thrust a number of well-crafted short stories into readers' hands, stories that exemplified Twain's effectiveness as a literary craftsman. In this way, academic trends lead to the politics of anthologizing, which ultimately maintain a writer's place in the canon. Twain's wide variety of texts—some "literary," others "historical"—keep him circulating in the canon because he can accommodate a variety of trends. This argument goes some way toward accounting for the relative absence of a once major poet like Sidney Lanier, whose work does not have Twain's range and thus more easily fell out of critical fashion.

Sometimes Csicsila's arguments only beg the question of determining factors further. His reasoning can be, in short, tautological. In his chapter on African-American writers, for example, he argues that editors' "ignorance" of Black writers, rather than deliberate prejudicial exclusion, may have prevented them from appearing in anthologies. Yet what accounts for this ignorance? Later he says that there was a "scarcity of scholarly studies of African American writers earlier in the century [which] meant that these critically neglected authors would rarely have been considered for inclusion" in anthologies or canons. Again, what accounts for this scarcity? The problem with Csicsila's reasoning with respect to race and gender is that he imagines that misogyny and racism are personal, intelligible dislikes exercised consciously with intent and malice by peccable editors. This ignores the more probable explanation that "racism" is an invisible ideology that works systemically throughout a culture. How can one claim that editors were "ignorant" rather than "racist" without acknowledging the "racist" causes behind a cultural refusal to learn about Black-authored texts? "Until recently," he claims, "authors of slave narratives were also overlooked by academic literary scholars because of the problematic genre . . . in which they wrote." This is true, of course. But what forces stand behind a genre's dismissal by the unspoken rules of cultural aesthetics? Simple ignorance, or a vast system of coded values that masquerade as objective criteria for literary excellence?

Csicsila's book is valuable at this moment in canon studies because it calls into question the material history that contributes to canon formation. What we read, and force students to read, depends in large part on what gets disseminated and in what ways, and anthologies are arguably the most common and influential form of textual dissemination. Csicsila makes many helpful observations about ways in which material production of anthologies contributes to canon formation. For example, after the advent in the 1950s of that translucently thin paper now used in anthologies, not only did anthologies swell in size, so did the canon itself. Yet complete understanding of the consequences of anthologizing literature will require an approach that takes into account not simply one thread woven into the web of causes for canon formation. We can't rest with the assertion that individual prejudices play less of a role than academic trends because the latter is an unsatisfactory answer to the former.

It seems, after all, that the war is still on.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005