Saturday, January 3, 2015

Welcome to English 122

Welcome to our Spring 2015 section of English 122, 'Literature and the Canon.'

Of course, you probably have one question: what exactly is a canon? The word goes back to the ancient history of the Catholic church, where it signified conformity to a rule or principle; Church law is known as "canon law." This sense was extended when, in the fourth century, councils met to determine which books would be considered authentic when it came to the Bible. We're not generally aware of it, but there were many candidates; in addition to the four 'canonical' Gospels, there were others -- the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and even a Gospel of Judas. The Apocalypse of St. John, now in every Bible, was one of a great many competing Apocalypses. Those others were rejected, although texts of many of them survive to this day.

Fast forward to the later half of the nineteenth century, when educators such as Matthew Arnold sought to devise a proper curriculum for national schools. They looked at books in terms of the excellence of the writing, their having stood the 'test of time,' and their value in inculcating proper British values. It's no surprise, then, that Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton came out on top, nor that the works of women and minorities were neglected. The list began at once to evolve, and many names that were once familiar on school lists -- John Greenleaf Whittier, Felicia Hemans, James MacPherson, and even Carl Sandburg -- eventually vanished. New names came in their place: Margaret Cavendish, Olaudah Equiano, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Rhys. In the United States, the WW Norton company issued its first Anthology of English Literature in 1962; this book has been through nine editions since then, each subtracting and adding different texts to the core of "generally accepted" ones.

So, unlike the Church's canon, the secular literary canon evolves, changes, alters over time -- and that's as it should be. This semester, we'll be using a rather different form of this canon: Russ Kick's three-volume Graphic Canon. Kick's selections generally follow those of the anthologies and lit. courses of today, though there are a few surprises. And, in its turn, by translating these canonical texts into graphical ones, it is a collection of adaptations, an interpretative canon, one which makes judgements and invites them, and one which embraces a diverse range of styles. It's my hope that, among them, each of you will find provoking texts, provoking images, that will spur thought and discussion as we went our way through the classics from Gilgamesh to Jonathan Franzen.

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