The following article is reprinted with permission from The Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 12, September 1991, published at Wellesley College.
Canons to right of them...
by Paula Bennett
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1990, 2 vols., 2935 and 2615 pp., $21.50 each, paper.
Canon building is Empire Building.
Canon defense is national defense.
Canon debate...is the clash of cultures.
And all of the interests are vested. 1
In "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," Toni Morrison observes that
What is astonishing in the contemporary debate [over the canon] is not the resistance to displacement of works or to the expansion of genre within it, but the virulent passion that accompanies this resistance and, more importantly, the quality of its defense weaponry. 2
It is to the issues surrounding and generating this "virulent passion" that I wish to address this essay. Whatever its limitations, the Heath Anthology of Arnerican Llterature is the first sustained effort on the part of America's scholarly community to come to terms with the vast wealth of our multi-racial, multi-ethnic literary inheritance. As my students have repeatedly told me, working with it has proved a profoundly enriching experience, one that has brought them in touch, not with the America that "ought to be," but with the America that was--and still is. They are grateful to read many of the recovered works and sad--or, in some cases, angry-- that they were not exposed to these works earlier in their lives.
But as I have also learned, for other students, working with the Heath is more threatening than it is enlightening, and for them, as for multiculturalism's opponents generally, this anthology is (or can be) a dangerous book. In opening up the canon to a multiplicity of voices from America's racially- and ethnically-excluded minorities, the anthology has challenged American identity at its core--in the dream of Adamic innocence that has historically sustained and justified it. Those who are vulnerable will see this challenge as an attack upon themselves--their values, their way of life--and they will fight it with everything in them. The virulence they bring to the canon's defense may prove, finally, the measure of the anthology's "success" in transforming our image of America's past, and present. But it also suggests that nothing is safe about the Heath, least of all teaching it in the charged political climate that now prevails both in the university and in the culture at large.
My students are primarily white, middleclass, returnees, housewives or younger women who for one reason or another, usually economic, have gotten "off-track." A good third, at least, are Roman Catholic. They are hard-working, intelligent and interested, but their formal education has been uneven at best. When they began this course, a yearlong survey of American literature, they were familiar with "the Puritans" (always as a group), Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman and a few others. The first night--the class meets one evening a week for two hours and ten minutes--I gave them a choice.
"This," I said, passing out copies of the table of contents of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, "is what--until this year--you would have studied. I want you to compare it with the Heath's and tell me what differences you see." A list based on categories identified by the Heath, but missing from the Norton, took shape: Native Americans, The Literature of Discovery, Women, the Literature of the Southwest, Spanish-American, Mexican, the Literature of Abolition. They halted. "You missed one," I said. After a few awkward moments, "African?" a voice queried.
I then explained the concept of the canon to them: how over time a sifting had taken place which reduced the vast body of American literature to a select group of authors, largely male, largely white, largely middle-class, who are deemed to possess exceptional literary value. There is, I observed, another way to look at our literary inheritance, one based on inclusion, not exclusion, and that is what the Heath is about. It seeks to restore the voices of those who have been "disappeared." Did my students want to read them, or did they want to study primarily the authors of the mainstream? Curious and timorous at once, they voted to go with learning what they knew nothing about.
On the whole, they have not regretted their decision. But it has not been easy. Not for them, or for me. Early on a context evolved, as patterns began to emerge, and this context has, effectively, dominated everything since. It is a context which makes violence, economic exploitation and racism, not innocence, central to the American experience and, therefore, to the evolution of American character and literature: Columbus (l492) urging his master and mistress to convert the native inhabitants of America to Christianity as quickly as possible "to gain to our holy faith multitudes of people, and to Spain great riches and immense dominions, with all their inhabitants; there being, without doubt, in these countries vast quantities of gold...." Cabeza de Vaca, 30 years later, writing of the decimation "conversion" wrought: "We passed through many territories and found them all vacant: their inhabitants wandered fleeing among the mountains, without daring to have houses or till the earth for fear of Christians." Samuel Purchas, early seventeenth-century Anglican cleric, justifying from his armchair Britain's right to colonial expansion in terms that place the enterprise somewhere between gold-digging marriage and outright rape:
All the rich endowments of Virginia, her Virgin-portion... are wages for all this worke: God in his wisdome having enriched the Savage Countries, that those riches might be attractives for Christian suters, which there may sowe spirituals and reape temporals. (p. 140)
The vision informing this literature is capped in Anno Domini 1637 when the Puritan settlement under William Bradford burns alive 400 Pequot Indians in a surrounded long house. "It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire," Bradford records, "and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice." A note informs readers that Bradford "thus places the Pequot War in a line of great battles waged by God's chosen people." But, for us, Bradford's "holy" war cannot be separated from the 150-year history preceding it, 150 years in which Europeans "reaped tempora[l]" what they "sowed spiritua[l]," by wiping out whole native populations in the interest of colonial expansion.
To read the Puritan account apart from this history is in some sense not to read it at all. Conversely, however, to read it within this context is to acknowledge that our country begins here--in this record of dispossession and slaughter (as well as of "discovery")--not in the "City on the Hill," let alone in the First Continental Congress.
What happens to the passage from Bradford happens throughout. Read against the writers who have been excluded from the canon, whether Native American, Spanish American, black or, merely, female, the mainstream authors beecome "politicized" whether one will or no. For now there is no avoiding the problems they skirt, or, even more important, ignoring the contradictions woven into the very fabric of their lives and thought. It is the contradictions that haunt the most: Ben Franklin, decent enough to be appalled by the mindless massacre of the pathetic remnants of the Conestogoe Indians, yet callous enough to preach a doctrine of hard work and parsimony that makes the acquisition of wealth (not virtue) life's greatest good. Thomas Jefferson writing "All men are created equal," yet keeping slaves. Even poor old Natty Bumppo, having eloquently thundered against the merciless and wasteful slaughter of pigeons, winds up killing one himself.
This contradictoriness becomes, it seems, an American way of being, permeating women's lives and works (a Margaret Fuller's as well as a Mary Chesnut's) along with men's. Eventually, in Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, the capacity for self-contradiction will be openly celebrated. But by the time my students reach these nineteenth-century defenses, they have inevitably acquired a hollow ring and appear all too blatantly self-serving. Not surprisingly, men like William Apes, a Pequot, writing in 1837, felt baffled:
But reader, I acknowledge that this is a confused world, and I am not seeking for office; but merely placing before you the black inconsistency that you place before me--which is ten times blacker than any skin that you will find in the Universe... If black or red skins, or any other skin color is disgraceful to God, it appears that he has disgraced himself a great deal--for he has made fifteen colored people to one white, and placed them here upon this earth.
Now let me ask you, white man, if it is a disgrace for to eat, drink and sleep with the image of God, or sit, or walk and talk with them? Or have you the folly to think that the white man, being one in fifteen or sixteen, are the only beloved images of God? (pp. 1756-57)
If Apes, an ordained minister in the Methodist Church, was perplexed by the heritage which the dominant society bequeathed him, so by this time were my students. Why, they wanted to know, were authors such as Apes lost--authors from whom they felt they learned so much? "I know students I want to give these readings to," said one woman, who works in a high school library. She was referring to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, David Walker and Henry Gamet, as well as Apes, for all these writers were "new" to her and all had moved her--and most of the other students--profoundly. Even as we discussed the racial and ethnocentric biases inseparable from canonization (for what group will not "canonize" its own?), the President asked Billy Graham to the White House so that they could pray together before the United States began its counter-invasion of Kuwait. Without my inviting it, the possibility of another kind of holy war--this one in Democracy's name--had entered the classroom.
Somewhere along the way, my students had begun to bring me presents. A bulletin on the upcoming quincentennial celebration of Columbus's landing in America: some people, the bulletin warned, see this as an occasion for mourning, not for celebration; there could be protests from a variety of quarters. An article by Walter Myers, a black writer of children's books, which observed that since Great Society funding dried up, publishers' interest in literature aimed at black children had commensurately dwindled. A review of Dances with Wolves by Dianne Dumanoski, in the Boston Globe of January 14, 1991, which quoted Donald Worster, a historian at the University of Kansas:
"We've never had good self-understanding...Our national myth is an `imperialistic one' that celebrates conquest of the land and of other people... Our history has been driven by a powerful urge to acquire wealth and power, and that has had very destructive consequences at times." Confronting and acknowledging the imperialistic strand in our culture "should help us mature as a people."
The student underlined the entire quotation.
Like the presents themselves, her italics told me what I already knew. That the issues raised by the literature collected in the Heath Anthology could not be confined to the classroom. They were part of the fabric of American society--the American way of life. They were there from the beginning and, as America launched its latest crusade, they were with us now. Angry--and no doubt out of line--I told my students about B.T.'s, a bar in Dearborn, Michigan, where on "Rambo Wet Panty Nights" men with black plastic Uzi submachine guns squirt water at the vaginas of scantily clad go-go dancers named Vietnam, Nicaragua and now, I supposed, Iraq.3
For one student, the whole thing was too much. She vehemently objected to the way the anthology "turned the class into a political arena," and she objected to my politics as well. She was, she pointed out, a "captive audience." She was furious and I lost her. But her words touched off anxieties of my own and I worried both about my teaching and about the other students. Whether or not the war had forced this turn, the anthology--its principles, its gathered insights--had become our text, and running through it like a fiber of gold (or was it pyrite?) was Jefferson's promise of equality, a promise whose betrayal spoke to the violated vision of America, to the dream that again and again was deferred, and to the constant resort to self-justification that resulted.
I could not treat the writers in this anthology as if they were "apolitical" if I tried. Indeed, to pretend they were, or that political issues did not lie at the heart of American literature itself, would be the worst--and most politically-motivated--of lies. If Bradford and Jefferson are "American" literature, then so are Douglass, the Grimke sisters and Apes. And if this is true, then the issues I was dealing with-- and which so enraged that one student--were ones I could not in all fairness avoid.
"I can't help but think of the irony in a country (my country) that professes to be concerned about human rights in view of its history with Native Americans; blacks, women," one student wrote, speaking of the Gulf war. But by the nineteenth century we were mired in other, multiplying, ironies as well. "Man's warfare on the trees is terrible," Lydia Huntley Sigourney declares in "Fallen Forests" (1854), a poem I brought into class. In 1849, Caroline Kirkland helplessly protests the casual rapes of Western forests and the less immediately noticeable transformation of "our fields of golden grain into `fire water'--a branch of business in which Michigan is fast improving." Meanwhile, back in Concord, America's "first" naturalist, Thoreau, lauds the "bush-whack, the turfcutter, the spade, and the bog-hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hardfought field." The future, he avers, lies in the West. As our continent is larger, so our "intellect" will be "on a grander scale." Predictably, my students, who, by now, have had their fill of self-contradiction, want to know why Thoreau is considered so great. Just as predictably, I want to know how he--so sensitive, presumably, to language--can not hear himself.
Yet, ironically, it is in the work of one of F.O. Matthiessen's five "great" writers that the course, the anthology and the present state of America do finally come together--in Melville's "Benito Cereno." For Captain Delano, the "innocent" American--whose dangerous opacity Melville saw so clearly--has never been innocent. We know that now. He has been implicated in the evil around him from the beginning.
But he has always managed to project his evil onto others: the Pequots, the Africans, witches, the wilderness, the White Whale, Russia, Vietnam, Iraq. The making of the "American Adam" requires that the rest of the world bear the burden of his sin, that the enemy always be other than himself.
No wonder, then, that the defense of the canon has been accompanied by such virulent amotion. To "open up" the canon, to include the voices of those who have been excluded, is to expose the "Adamic" myth for what it is: the impregnable shield of our corruption, the singular vision by which we have been able to justify to ourselves the crimes we have committed in our own name. And what will we be without it? What kind of America will we forge from the knowledge that our idealism has not freed us (pace Emason, Thoreau, Whitman) from Old World sin? That, if anything, our dreams of innocence have led us to commit further sins which are in some sense uniquely our own? How, in short, will we still love ourselves? How will we praise our "famous" man?
And yet a student writes:
It's funny that it's coming together in the "recognized" writers...but I don't think I'd be coming to the same understanding without the "unrecognized" writers as well....[R]eading the recognized and un-recognized voices together makes up a truer reading of American literature--To understand the lack of cohesiveness, the apparent contradictions in Emerson and Thoreau[,] you need to understand what they were ignoring (subconsciously or unconsciously), as well as what they were professing--To appreciate the clarity and certainty of Douglass you have to understand how rare it was, what a victory it was. To understand the richness of Hawthorne and Melville you have to see the underlying tensions. To see the confusions of Wheatley and Jacobs you need to understand the tightrope of cooperation and struggle they walked.
She is right, of course. There is no way to teach one set of writers without the other, however tight a rope this forces us to walk. For both are inextricably part of a whole, that whole, America. But insofar as inclusion of the "unrecognized" writers forces us to be aware that American literature is, in Hazel Carby's words, "centrally concerned with the formation of a national subjectivity and ideology that construct and simultaneously exclude a racialized other"--an "other" on whom, in turn, we have projected our "evil"--and whom we have chosen economically as well as spiritually to exploit--the teaching of American literature will never be safe. The men with the black plastic submachine-guns--or the black briefcases filled with "great books" and initialed, perhaps, NAS (if not NRA)--will always be looking for some way to get back their own. "Virulent passion" will always accompany their resistance.
Postscript: Between the time I began this essay and the time I finished it, a spate of attacks on multiculturalism has appeared in the media. These attacks, ostensibly written in a "liberal" defense of free speech and free academic inquiry, have wildly misrepresented the goals, intentions and methods of multiculturalism, identifying it, among other things, as a movement to throw out "major" authors in favor of a unilateral presentation of, presumably, third-rate (but politically correct) writers. This is nonsense, but it is dangerous and inflammatory nonsense. And its sudden and widespread popularity suggests that the real battle over the canon has just begun.
This essay was written with the cooperation of the students in my Survey of American Literature course at University College, Northeastern University. Its limitations are mine, not theirs.
1 Toni Morrison, "The Canon: Civil War and Reconstruction," Michigan Quarterly, Vol.XXVIII, no.1 (Winter 1989), p. 8.
2 "The Canon: Civil War and Reconstruction," p.40.
3 See Jill Dolan, "Desire Cloaked in a Trenchcoat," The Drama Review, Vol. XXXIII, no.1 (Spring 1989).