Introduction: “The Canon Brawl: Arguments over the Canon”

  • Lee Morrissey


In Beyond the Culture Wars (excerpted in chapter 32), Gerald Graff claims “what first made literature, history, and other intellectual pursuits seem attractive to me was exposure to critical debates.”2 Reflecting on his own experience as a student, Graff argues persuasively that we ought to aim to generate discussion in the classroom so that all involved might realize that we already represent a range of critical positions, and that, by extension, we are already taking part in an extended, critical debate, even in ways we are not fully aware of. Graff calls the process “teaching the controversies,” and it can make for an exciting classroom. It is also, though, an excellent description of the dynamic of debate that is embedded within literary traditions, and of how the influential texts of those traditions can shape the terms for subsequent participants. Indeed, traditions are made up of debates, diachronically (as past addresses present, and present the past), anachronically (as something ancient seems to matter for the present, and vice versa), and pluralistically (as an extraordinary range of voices make up a tradition, and the readings of that tradition). Like Graff, I too believe that we ought to “teach the controversies,” although to Graff’s sense of critical debate in the classroom I would add the importance of heightening awareness that such debate is also central to the texts we read and discuss. In this sense, “we” are no longer teachers and students, but the larger community of readers and writers involved in the discussion.


Cultural Capital Mass Civilization Literary Criticism Literary History Critical Position 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), pp. 253–264Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Gerald Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: Norton, 1992), p. 66.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Leavis, F.R., “Mass Civilization and Minority Culture,” in For Continuity, 1933 reprint, (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1968), p. 17.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 557.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lee Morrissey 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lee Morrissey

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations