Breaking the Canon Of Western Lit

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by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse blog

Shakespeare, Homer, Conrad, Steinbeck, Lee, Twain. We know these names. We have known these names since before we knew the books to put their names to. These names, and many more are the hallmarks of the literary canon of the English-speaking world. Reference points, guiding principles, and inspirations from which much of literature has evolved in the western world. Yet, slowly, the so-called canons of the UK and US are being disrupted and re-evaluated by many claiming to champion causes such as race, gender, sexuality, and anti-ableism. There is a new narrative in schools, colleges, and universities, which aims to destabilize literary history. We must look into the reasoning behind the current agenda of censorship of the “classics” in order to assess whether the purging of books is a necessary evil to counter the dangerous rhetoric that may lie hidden in the pages of the books we know and love.

Before we begin to dissect the contemporary censorship movement, it might be prudent to examine the history of literary purging as a periodically common practice. In 399BC, Socrates was sentenced to death by poison as a result of the accusation that he was corrupting Athenian youth with his talk of unknown gods along with his opinionated dialogues. Rather than fleeing, he agreed to drink the hemlock poison and accept his fate with composure. While this example of censorship is not of the literary ilk we will be referring to, it is most certainly a worthy starting point for this discussion, and one that embodies the problematic nature of suppression of alternative opinions and philosophies. This statement must not be mistaken for one implying that bigamist, racist, sexist, or other discriminatory ‘opinions’ should be respected in order to keep peace. Rather, that one must not be as naïve as to think that censorship has the capability to eradicate opinions merely by destroying the mouth or pages that sound them. Moral philosophy did not end with Socrates’ death therefore one must not assume that any belief system can be dismantled by removing a single concrete aspect of it.

Carl Kruse Blog - Surreal Socrates

The sheer number of cases of historical censorship means we must resort here to a brief list of the more prominent examples that illustrate the traditions of censorship from the sixteenth century onwards: The Index Librorum Prohibitorum was introduced by Pope Paul IV in 1559 in order to ban or destroy books (and often their authors) deemed sacrilegious by the Roman Catholic Church. This was of particular importance in this period due to the creation of the Gutenberg printing press in 1450. The Spaniards continued their reign of censorship through the destruction of much ancient Mayan literature when Francisco de Montejo invaded the Yucatan in 1521. The rest of Europe followed suit; through the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, by which time the newspaper had become a prolific literary form, censorship began to extend further than religion and into the realms of politics and other aspects of societal beliefs. This was especially notable in times of war. While Milton’s passionately voiced Areopagitica (1644) affected censorship in its demands for freedom of speech, European governments were yet to succumb to allowing total expressive freedom in the press and fiction published in the seventeenth to twentieth centuries and beyond. Reasoning for censorship in both older and more contemporary cases primarily rested on these few topics: blasphemy, sex, opposing political views, and religion.

During my time at university, I encountered swathes of differing views from students who deemed some authors as irrelevant or harmful to the syllabus. I recall debating with a particular student about the relevance and benefits of literary censorship in the case of Conrad’s esteemed novel ‘Heart of Darkness’. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad is himself recounting the dangers and horrors of imperialism, greed, and racism at their worst. Through the medium of fiction, Conrad investigates the psychology of such beliefs, and warns of the perils of implementing these world views upon others. This work does indeed use especially horrifying language towards its black characters, but it would be foolish to suggest that the use of this word renders Conrad’s novel as inherently racist or unworthy of reading. In the context of late nineteenth century Britain, such language was commonplace, thus we should think carefully before imposing our own contemporary narrative of anti-racist terminology upon writers of this time, especially those such as Conrad who were actively challenging the white perspective on people of colour. To erase Conrad doenot mean erasing the Neo-Nazis and modern fascists of today. Rather than censoring Conrad’s literature, we should aim to create a meaningful dialogue around his use of language.

Carl Kruse Blog - Image of Joseph Conrad

I am all for reconfiguring the canon. In fact, many lecturers during my last year of university endeavoured to find great pieces of literature to diversify the curriculum in various modules. My own tastes in literature are elusive, and every changing. I am currently reading Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun’s ‘The Wanderer [and] On Muted Strings’, since being smitten by his darkly comic ‘Hunger’. This book is not so far from what I tend to enjoy in a book; a protagonist that one loves because he does and says all the things that we might, should we faulter under the strain of social normality and drop down from grace.

Of late, I found myself sucked into the pages of a translation of the 13th Century Japanese book ‘Shaseki-shu’ (‘Collection of Stone and Sand), dabbling with Suzuki’s ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’, delving back into the darkness of Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’, and weeping at the last past of Philip K. Dick’s ‘Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said’. There is no rhyme or reason to the fashion with which I pluck a book from my shelf, but I relish it all, for the moment I close a book and see it whole again, then I am changed.

The ‘canon’, as taught in the schools of the United Kingdom and America, is one almost entirely made up of English-speaking authors, unless one decides to study a degree in World Literature. I profess that I am equally swayed by the most American of American authors, such as Twain and Hemingway, as I am by the king of contemporary Japanese Literature, Murakami, the only difference between these authors being that one of them I read in translation. A proposition, on my part, to combat the potentially limited scope of the ‘canon’ in recounting the lived experience of a multitude of people from different cultural backgrounds is to begin including works of translation amongst the works taught in schools and universities. I propose this idea, because I believe that it has more merit to it than simply replacing older texts with books from the last ten years or so, which I believe will be limiting to the minds of young, impressionable readers. I think it to be important to reject the idea that reading should always be easy and that books should always convey the precise morals that we consider to be ‘correct’ to our contemporary society. For, if this is the way we believe that literature should be, then who is to say that we should continue to teach the views of Hitler and Mussolini? Literature, as much as it is enjoyment, is also a part of history, and one we should not attempt to ignore.

I am distinctly aware of the lack of female authors taught in the ‘canon’, especially in schools. For me personally, this disparity did not cause me to believe that I could not become a writer myself, nor that women were less gifted in the craft of writing. Rather, upon further digging on the subject, I discovered – at least, in part – some of the reasoning as to why this divide was so apparent, particularly in my study of early-modern literature; during the Middle Ages in Britain, only around 11% of the population was literate, and the discrepancy between the literate genders was evident: 10% of men and only 1% of women could read and write. And, consider this: in 1820, only about 12% of the world’s population in total could read and write. In the western world, suggestions of extending literary education to women was frowned upon; Chaucer himself wrote this on the subject: “By God, if women had written stories as clerks have written their oratories, they would have written more of men’s wickedness, than all the sons of Adam could redress” (though it should be noted that Chaucer, as a great satirist, may not have meant this statement as a negative). From about the fourteenth century onwards attitudes began to change, but the literacy gap between men and women remained fairly stark up until the nineteenth century. For some sound reasoning as to why this was, observe this comment from Christine de Pizan, poet and author in King Charles VI court in the late fourteenth century: “Not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it upset them that women knew more than they did.”

But we must consider that, in other populations around the world, the case of female education was a very different story. In Japan, by the 1880s, at least one in four students were female and about 20% of all women were literature (Andrew Gordon, ‘A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present’, 2014). This is why I consider it most vital that professors and institutions of education contemplate the possibility of including older translated texts from a diversity of different populations in order to provide students with broad-ranging examples of literary styles from different genders, backgrounds, and upbringings, rather than resorting to contemporary examples.

I am firm in my belief that it is important to read older texts. Literature lives and breathes with us as we move through life, and it dies if we let it lie, which I think would be a shame. And, of course, many of the authors we study in English Literature are indeed gifted at their craft (albeit mostly because they were rich and had the means with which to improve their writing). I will not pretend that Ernest Hemingway is not a brilliant writer, nor that D H Lawrence has not written some of the most beautiful verse we have the pleasure of reading. And it would be difficult to ignore the enduring appeal of many of Shakespeare’s plays (though I think it might be time that we stop putting on endless productions of ‘The Tempest’ – it is good to read, but dull as hell to watch). I think the aim to diversify the ‘canon’ is a good goal to have, but we must tread carefully and considerately in how we approach it.

#DisruptTexts is a movement that was co-founded in 2018 by Dominican-American writer and educator Lorena Germán, beginning with this comment posted on her Twitter account in November of that year:

“Did y’all know that many of the ‘classics’ were written before the 50s? Think of US society before then and the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books. That is why we gotta switch it up. It ain’t just about ‘being old.’ #DisruptTexts.”

The movement #DisruptTexts exploded after Germán’s tweet and was employed by young and old students and teachers as reasoning for removing literature from reading lists in universities, schools, and colleges. In 2021, English teacher Heather Levine posted on her twitter that she had successfully managed to remove Homer’s Odyssey from her high school curriculum in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The argument? That the book is sexist because Penelope is not involved in any of the violent and arduous adventures of her husband, Odysseus. To further illustrate some of the views arising from the #DisruptTexts movement alongside this censorship of Homer’s epic, observe this quote from Germán:

“Though we enjoy reading some of the plots in his plays and acknowledge the depth and complexity within many of his plot arcs and characters, we also find that educators are often taught to see Shakespearean plays as near perfection, his characters as ‘archetypes’, and to persist in… indoctrinating students into a false notion of the primacy (and superiority) of the English language … We do not see these same problematic approaches in other plays where whiteness and the male voice are not centered.”

I understand Germán’s qualms here. I understand that, as a white woman, I do not have the lived experience to comment on the problems associated with never reading texts written by someone who does not have a similar background to myself, albeit that Germán is also commenting on the issue of having primarily male writers on the literary syllabus. But I do not agree with Germán’s implication that students are in need of protection against ‘indoctrination’ from texts, as this is a problematic argument which has been disproved countless times; as Alan Purves writes in ‘The English Journal’ in 1974, “attempts to prove empirically the pervasiveness of […] literary indoctrination have generally ended up with an unclear set of results.” With regards to Germán’s comment on the taught ‘superiority’ of the English language, I would say that this is a case for tutors of literature to tackle, rather than for the literature itself to do so. If we are to teach Shakespeare, we must teach him with due diligence, with consideration for the negative portrayals of people depicted as ‘other’. We should teach these Shakespeare by referring to history books on popular culture and beliefs of the time and approach these tales with a good dose of backwards-facing scepticism and acknowledgements of the faults we may find in them from a contemporary perspective. Shakespeare himself was and is intrinsic to the continued evolution of theatre and the English language, and to ignore this fact is to erase an entire history of literary development.

To expand further on the notion of ‘indoctrination’ of students, I would like to spend a moment considering Shakespeare. In ‘Macbeth’, one witnesses many odious occurrences, including murder, deception, and dark magic. Are we to approach this tale within the milieu of intentional fallacy, and to belief therefore that Shakespeare condones lying, betrayal, and homicide? Are we to perceive these as the ‘values that shaped this nation’ of England? Likely not. In his plays, Shakespeare embraces both the strengths and shortcomings of man in equal measure, and that is what makes his work so enduringly appealing to audiences around the world.

Carl Kruse Blog - Surreal Shakespeare

What can we hope to achieve by erasing books? A dystopian future of literature, whereupon neutrality and safety are the hallmarks of literary study? Any kind of ideology directed towards culture that revolves around censorship becomes problematic, and we should think carefully before imposing any kind of political agenda upon culture. In doing so, we imply that we can ‘solve’ history, and this can lead us to become so complacent as to suggest that because we can look back through time and see what we perceive to be the flaws of literature that we have the right to remedy it. #DisruptTexts continues to rage a war against fiction, with recent developments showing that books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and 1984 as just a few examples of the texts that have been removed from classrooms in the US during the last couple of years. I want to mention this quote from John Warner in the Chicago Tribune:

‘Education isn’t merely transmitting information; students must be taught to make meaning for themselves.’

Education, by default, is merely the transmission of information, especially in the context of younger learners. And, by asking students to write their own essays whereupon they make independent conclusions about what they’ve learned, they are, by default, forming their own understanding of their learning. We are not obliged to enjoy or agree with everything we read. That is the beauty of reading, and why it can be so challenging. During my studies, I relished the moments when I read a book I HATED with a passion, because I would be forced to question why, especially if the book I despised so greatly was one that had been praised for centuries. Studying literature is not about catering to the whims of a particular time in history, it is about finding connections with books, cultures, and periods that we may previously have thought we had nothing in common with. It is about learning what it means to be human, a feat that we simply cannot hope to achieve by solely reading texts of the twenty-first century. It is not conducive to learning and progressing as humans to erase the entire history of fiction just because someone might get offended by an author or novel. I want as much as anyone to see the world become a just and safe place for all within it, but in order to do this, we must read and study the reasons why this is not the case, and to learn from the mistakes of our past.

The Carl Kruse blog homepage is here.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include: A Quick Trip to Cahors, A Good Night, and Brett Morgan’s Moonage Daydream.
A Carl Kruse Bio is here.

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