Professor Myers is investigating one of the canonical mechanisms I hid in the background yesterday: who do researchers in English departments actually research?* He popped names of U.S. writers into the MLA International Bibliography and counted up the results, comparing two periods, 1947 to the present and 1987 to the present. Anti-canon radicals will be disappointed to see that much business is operating as usual: Hank James, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Herman Melville – y’all aren’t tired of those fellas yet?
The "professional commitment" of scholars has grown most rapidly for Toni Morrison, but also for Vladimir Nabokov, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton. By this measure, feminist critics are doing well, but rarefied aesthetes are still doing all right, too, thank goodness.
Are scholars – and teachers, since I have no doubt that this ranking would be reflected in the undergraduate classroom – creating the canon here, or maintaining it? As I wrote yesterday, I typically assume the latter, but Myers also presents a book, Kate Chopin’s 1899 The Awakening, that was clearly taken up by scholars first, not artists. I was assigned the novel twice as an undergraduate, in 1988 and 1991, which I now see was right at the beginning of the Chopin boom. Chopin has proved useful to feminist critics, but for the book to survive, to be canonical, it will have to be taken up by writers. My guess is that it has been or will be – the novel is narrow but aesthetically complex, and it has certainly been assigned to enough young writers.
Who is moving in the other direction, being pushed toward the canonical exit? In front of me is my battered, even ravaged Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume 2, Fifth Edition (1986), 2,578 pages, and a near-mint Seventh Edition (2000), 2,963 pages, and bigger pages, too. Anthologists face the most basic canonical problem: even with 3,000 pages, not everything fits.
I think of canon-building as a slow, slow process; 14 years is nothing. The enormous Victorian section, for example, is barely touched. The unsettled 20th century is rearranged a bit, as I would expect. The novelties are in Romantic poetry. The Fifth Edition began with 70 pages of William Blake, followed by Robert Burns and Mary Wollstonecraft. Now Blake is preceded by Anna Letitia Barbauld and Charlotte Smith, and followed by Mary Robinson (all poets). How did the editors find room for them (and also Joanna Baillie, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon)?
Three writers got the boot, all associated with Percy Shelley: Thomas Love Peacock, George Darley and Thomas Lovell Beddoes. As a result of my week-long exploration of the works of Peacock, he has surely been reinstated to the next edition, so that leaves Darley and Beddoes. Beddoes is actually a favorite of mine, one of the weirdest weirdos of the 19th century, and Darley is a marvel, but I do wonder what professors ever did with them in a survey class.
Honestly, however good he is, George Darley was doomed. Someone was going to replace him. He is not of our moment. Someday, someone else – no idea who – will replace some, but not all, of those women poets – no idea which ones.
My vote is to nix this terrible Anna Letitia Barbauld poem, written “ca. 1792-95,” which is as bad as John Greenleaf Whittier:
The Rights of Woman
Yes, injured woman! rise, assert thy right!
Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest;
O born to rule in partial Law’s despite,
Resume they native empire o’er the breast!
It gets worse after that. But definitely keep her “Washing-Day” (1797), which is about a child’s view of chores, and ends on just the note I want for this post:
Sometime through hollow bowl
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles; little dreaming then
To see, Montgolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds – so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air , and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them – this most of all.
* Be sure to attribute Myers’s work to the MLA – he loves that.