This is a response to “What Counts as a Classic? A Conversation with C. S. Lewis and Goodreads,” a blog post I wrote on 18 Dec. 2018 centred on images like the one above. There was quite a conversation that followed, and I thought it was worth a more visible space than the convo footnotes of a dated post. Dale Nelson, who has recently retired as a literature professor and has written about literature his whole life, provides some thoughts about old books and the literary canon. This reads like–and I think is, indeed–a manifesto of sorts, and if followed would be a revolution of thinking and learning. Unfortunately, perhaps, it is a revolution that few could pull off, though worth giving a try.
While I agree with Dale that his curriculum is enriching and important–I have endeavoured to do it myself over a decade or so of reading–I completely disagree with his position that it should be the standard of any undergrad English lit degree. On the issue of “the canon”–which I have written on before (see here and here)–I largely agree with John Guillory in Cultural Capital, though parts of that make me terribly uncomfortable. Discomfort, though, is a good learning tool. Since I simply don’t have time in my life-space to defend my point of view, I didn’t want to hold anyone else back. Dale forcefully gives the counterpoint and has the goods to argue it. I hope you can be enriched by the debate here!
Key ideas in the piece below are these:
To identify a person as “learned” is, historically understood, not a compliment, but a description. It refers to a person who knows Classical Greek and Latin well and their literatures, and is conversant with modern European languages and their classic works as well.
The term “learned” implied that such learning was a worthy human endeavor for its own sake.
The universities have, it seems, shed this sense of learning, in that they have abandoned the Classical languages except for specialists, and tend not to perceive humane learning as a great good in itself. How learnedness is to survive and thrive without steady and serious commitment from the universities is unclear.
Sir Roger Scruton comments:
“The old way of teaching the humanities was as objects of love. This is what I have loved. This is what previous generations have loved who handed it on to me. Here. Try it out and you will love it too. Whereas the postmodern curriculum is a curriculum of hatred. It’s directed against our cultural inheritance.”
C. S. Lewis was an exemplary scholar and a late embodiment of the learned life. This affected even his understanding of Christian flourishing.
1. Lewis’s “On the Reading of Old Books” is addressed to individual readers and to Christian small study groups. Lewis urges them to include generous quantities of older works in their reading regimen and argues for why they should do this. With the exception of his old favorite MacDonald, all of Lewis’s examples date to before the “watershed” period of approximately 1820 that Lewis identified in his discussion of literary periods, “De Descriptione Temporum.” In writers as different as Boethius, Boehme, and Hooker we will find a common mere Christianity.
2. It is easy to compile a mental or actual list of such books or authors [a] from what Lewis himself lists in “On the Reading of Old Books” and [b] from other sources, such as the bibliography in Thomas Oden’s After Modernity…What?, the Eighth Day Books catalog, Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers (which I warmly recommend), etc. Such works have never been so easy to get hold of as they are now. In fact, thousands of pages of patristic literature and later writings may be read online for free. So what are we waiting for? But the thing isn’t to make impressive lists (like Emma Woodhouse) and not read the works. See here: https://www.ccel.org/fathers.html
3. A truly learned Western person has at least some reading and writing ability in Latin and Greek. I, personally, don’t measure up to this criterion, but I’m sure it is true. (I would accept that someone immersed in Chinese literature but ignorant of Latin and Greek could be a truly learned person. I’m thinking of Gi-ming Shien as an example. See Damascene Christensen’s biography of Seraphim Rose, specifically the early chapter called “Two Teachers.”) I haven’t been able to locate it, but I recall a remark of Lewis’s to the effect that he would give up almost anything before he’d give up his knowledge of Latin and/or Greek.
4. A serious student of literature should be able to read modern French, Italian, and German. This seems too much to expect, now. It wasn’t in Lewis’s day. Today we tend to depend on (a constant stream of new) translations of classic works in these languages. I accept that by this criterion I’m not a serious student of literature. Some students will be able to CLEP out of this requirement. (I refer to the College-Level Examination Program, which those interested can look into.)
5. Lewis contended, convincingly, that the English literature student who does not know Old English/Anglo-Saxon is forever an amateur as compared to the student who does know it. I’m forever an amateur. I am sure he would have assumed the student would become conversant with some Middle English dialects (at least Chaucer’s southern ME, the Gawain-poet’s northern ME).
6. For someone who is going to be a secondary school/high school teacher of English, the rigors in nos. 3-5 above may be relaxed, but there should be at least a degree of acquaintance with these things. I would suggest: [a] knowledge of Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, derived from good translations, with at least some sense of their later influence upon the Middle Ages and Renaissance, etc.; [b] some experience of Old English, centered on Beowulf, the Dream of the Rood, etc., although these will have to be read mostly in translation; [c] considerable experience with reading Chaucer (Middle English) in a glossed text with lightly modernized spelling, such as John H. Fisher’s edition, although the student may read the Gawain poet in a modern version; [d] the prospective high school teacher should have at least a year’s work on the university level (or the equivalent) in one of the modern European languages, to the extent that he or she can read modern authors (here defined as, say, >1700) with some helps.
7. The canon absolutely must be the focus of the undergraduate curriculum in English. Modern English literature may be considered to begin with Sir Thomas Malory (written ca 1470, published by Caxton ca 1485), who, with occasional help for vocabulary (footnotes), can be read usually without aids. The terminus ad quem may accommodate Joyce, Pound, Yeats &c. The canon of English literature must include generous selections from the Authorised/King James Version of the Bible: I would say, offhand, Genesis, Exodus, selections from Joshua and Judges, the material about Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon in the books of Kings and Chronicles, some of the Psalms and Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Jonah, selections from Isaiah, Jeremiah & Lamentations, and Daniel for the OT, and one of the Synoptic Gospels and St. John’s, and portions at least of Revelation, for the NT. Even students from Christian homes are profoundly ignorant of the Bible, and, if they have read in their Bibles, probably did not use the AV/KJV.
Typically, works should be read in their entirety; authors didn’t write their long poems, plays, and novels to be filleted by distant editors and served up to impart to students a bogus sense of “knowing” these authors and works. With the present, common approach – having the students read various excerpts in anthologies – you get editorial priorities and biases. The first example that comes to my mind was the representation, in a Norton Anthology 15 years or so ago, of Sir Walter Scott’s prose fiction by a short story or novella and the first chapter of one of his novels. Now I think that, as a rule of thumb, the first chapter of a Scott novel may be skipped except by the scholarly and the conscientious. Anyone relying on the Norton for this very important author was likely to come away with a false impression. No; the student ought to read The Heart of Midlothian or Old Mortality or The Bride of Lammermoor, etc.
8. The canon must be the focus of the undergraduate curriculum for several reasons. Among these: [a] Students arrive at university having read less and less canonical literature. Barring a serious reform of secondary education, this will probably only get worse, as today’s increasingly ignorant teacher education graduates get jobs. The undergraduate who majors in English, then, is, in fact, at a remedial level. There is an awful lot to make up; for many people, it will be made up only when they are undergraduates, if it is made up at all. [b] There has to be some appreciable passage of time during which a work has demonstrated its value to good readers. Good readers are described in Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. Someone who reads only the literature of his or her own time is almost certainly not a good reader, in Lewis’s sense. The canon is fluid at the edges, yes. Elizabeth Gaskell is, I hope, now recognized as a canonical author as she perhaps was not in 1950. But the notion that the canon needs to accommodate your favorite living authors is counter to the idea of the canon.
[c] The traditional sense of the canon is a valuable resource against pressure from the Right and from the Left, both of which see literary studies in utilitarian terms. The Right sees literary studies as providing a mental discipline that will help graduates to succeed in the workplace, e.g. as writers and speakers communicating with clients, customers, etc. The Left sees literary studies as a means of effecting “progressive” social changes and the inner dispositions needed to make people commit themselves to those causes. Both Right and Left may also see literary studies as helping people to “understand themselves.” That may be a good, but it is, strictly speaking, an incidental one, in this context. The canon represents belief in the study of literature as a worthy human activity in its own right, the disciplined, ongoing attention to works of proven excellence and importance for the imagination, etc. [d] The student will not be able to benefit much from Theory unless he or she is well read in the canon. Without that firsthand knowledge, the student is unprepared to benefit from theoretical writings if they are actually good, and ill-equipped to detect the distortions and errors with which they are infected when they are not good. If Theory is prized, then it should seem all the more certain, to its advocates, that it needs and deserves the attention of well-read people rather than people possessing only vague, sketchy, partial knowledge of the works with which Theory is supposedly concerned. (I myself am doubtful of the value of much Theory. Its advocates say it provides critical lenses. I wonder if, often, a better metaphor is to say that Theory is often like urban light pollution, an unhealthy fog that obstructs vision of the stars.)
9. To say that students should be occupied with the canon in their curricula doesn’t mean they can’t read anything else, either on their own time or in groups, or in occasional elective courses. The canon is primarily a matter of INCLUSION, that is, the making sure that a student’s time in university includes focus on standard rather than peripheral or popular current works that give back to their readers what’s already widely on offer in television, movies, politics, etc. The canon is necessary to the integrity of literary studies.
10. What about non-Western literature? I don’t think there is time for much required study thereof, for university English undergraduates. However, it might be that a semester or two of such study should be strongly encouraged. Such coursework should emphasize canonical works in translation, i.e. Confucius’s Analects, the Dhammapada, abridged versions of the Mahabharata (including core material from the Bhagavad-Gita) and the Ramayana, the Tao te Ching, etc. and later literary classics such as Wu Ch’Eng-En’s Journey to the East (I recommend Arthur Waley’s abridged retelling, Monkey), Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, etc., rather than current works.
There’s no one authoritative list of “the canon” – and so the very term is probably not a good one, since canon implies a definitive list by which other writings may be measured. In Christendom, there are three canonical lists of Scripture, the shortest being the familiar Protestant one of 66 books, the Roman Catholic being a bit longer, and the Eastern Orthodox a bit longer still. Never the less, “the canon” is widely used by people who mean basically the same thing even if they oppose emphasis on the canon (e.g. because most of the works, in English literature, are by white men).
A list of standard works originates in the belief that (1) there is an identifiable body of classic works and that (2) professors should be fair to students and tell them what works and authors they are responsible for, as regards testing for degrees.
Some years ago, W. C. Dowling recreated the list of works that a student (at Rutgers or Cornell, I’m not sure which) graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English should have read prior to taking three days of comprehensive examinations at the end of the senior year. I suppose hardly anyone taking a Ph.D. in English will have read all of these now. Dowling’s list provides a reasonable idea of what “canonical works” in English might mean. (I may be able to scan the list.)
Dowling’s list could have been a list C. S. Lewis would have recommended for students about to start studies in English at Oxford. Here’s another list from CSL. This is from a letter to J.O. Reed, 8 July 1947. Lewis advised:
“The important thing before coming up [to Oxford] is not a ‘course’ but as much reading and book-buying as you can possibly afford without getting tired or bankrupt. Anything between 1400 and 1830 is grist to your mill, and now is the time for any of the long authors: Chaucer, Malory, Sidney, Spenser, Marlow, Shakespeare, B. Johnson [I think he means Ben Jonson], Thos. Browne, Burton, Walton, Donne, Bunyan, Dryden, Addison, Pope, Swift, Thomson, Richardson, Fielding, Johnson, Boswell, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Jane Austen, Lamb, Hazlitt, de Quincey.”
So there’s 30 authors, to which one may add Sir Walter Scott. Note that these are “long” authors—authors who wrote long things or who wrote a lot that you should read, I take it– and so no George Herbert, Blake, etc. Omission of Milton has to be just an oversight.
I would suggest that, for English faculty, a list like Dowling’s might be a good starting point for establishing what students should be expected to have read by the end of their four years. Of course I don’t suppose that any university in the country, except maybe the University of Chicago, would require such an impressive list. But it would be good to start with something like this. Then: let the discussion begin – what are we going to cut, and why?
It will still be found that, however much is cut from the list, a good English curriculum will require so many works that time will not be available for a lot of current authors, theories, etc. If someone says, “Oh, but the students must get a grounding in Lacan,” then I would say: “Fine. What are you going to cut from the Dowling list to make room for Lacan?” Someone else says, “The students have to study postcolonial theory.” I respond: “What further cuts shall be made?” And so on. Is it really better that students should be conversant with (indoctrinated in?) the various forms of Theory that are liked by their professors, than that they should read deeply in British literature, being able accurately to construe poems and prose passages from various periods, and (one hopes) loving much of what they read? Many people will object that the curriculum I advocate lacks enough work by women and authors supposed to be representative of various minority constituencies. I’d say that a serious English program focuses on the literary works we have, not what we “should” have in order to make missionaries for progressive politics happy. Before the present fad of identity politics, women and members of minority ethnicities found these works meaningful to them. Electives and voluntary associations may delve into recent literary works by women and minority group members.
13. There would be time for more of the serious study indicated above if requirements in other subjects were reduced. I’m thinking particularly of Education courses for the teaching majors, which, notoriously, lack rigor, but other reductions could be made, too.
Yes, of course I realize that the reforms implied above aren’t likely to come about. As C. S. Lewis said, in another context, “The establishment must die and rot.”