I am putting together a syllabus for a Survey of English Literature. Every time I do this, I am torn between covering ‘canonical authors’ (as much as the modern New Historicists deny there is such a thing, the fact they still compile anthologies suggests strongly otherwise) and covering authors that are part of what might be called the ‘popular canon’.
For example, certainly James Joyce is considered a central figure to the modern English canon. But, despite years of honest trying, I cannot see how Ulysses is much more than self-indulgent (masturbatory?) literary experimentation. And on a practical matter, explaining otherwise to my students proves quite difficult. While I’m not afraid of difficult literature, neither do I think ‘difficult’ and ‘edifying’ are the same thing.
On the other hand, this morning I realized I had not included P. G. Wodehouse on my syllabus. In fact, I’ve never taught him in an English Literature course. ‘How can this be,’ I thought to myself, ‘that I’ve never even considered him for this syllabus?’ He is universally admired, even by ‘more canonical’ authors like George Orwell. His prose is stupefyingly witty — a true master of the language — and yet he appears in no course I’ve ever taught or taken.
Or take authors like C. S. Lewis, who continues to sell millions of books. Or J. R. R. Tolkien.
Of course, the naysayers will turn their nose up at authors like Lewis and Tolkien, eschewing their inclusion as kowtowing to mere populism. I don’t know about ‘mere’, but I know that millions more people know and care about Tolkien than they do about James Joyce. Granted, sales do not prove beauty. However, if Tolkien, Lewis, et al. were without great merit, sooner or later I think they would be debunked by the academicians. But (thank heavens), more and more scholarly attention in recent years has proven Tolkien especially more academically durable than the snobbish academicians care for. And I think the same could prove true for Chesterton, Lewis, and most especially Wodehouse. There is great beauty in these authors, largely unrecognized by the literary cognoscenti, but valued deeply by people who love books. They belong in our English classrooms.
So now that we have gained a bit of distance from modernist authors, perhaps the canon is shifting, as it always does. For my part, I’m going to give it a bit of a shove this year. Chesterton: In. Lewis: In. Tolkien: In. Wodehouse: Most definitely (and defiantly) In.
And while I won’t quite give him the boot, Joyce can at least have a footnote.
And luckily, the fashionable New Historicists have no cogent philosophical ground from which to complain.
Not that this has stopped them before.