Charles Altieri (1942–) from “An Idea and Ideal of Literary Canon,” Canons and Consequences (1990)

  • Lee Morrissey


The process of strong evaluation makes clear the interests canons might serve, primarily by fostering two basic functions. One is curatorial: literary canons preserve rich, complex contrastive frameworks, which create what I call a cultural grammar for interpreting experience. Given the nature of canonical materials, however, there is no way to treat the curatorial function as simply semantic. Canons involve values, both in what they preserve and in the principles of preserving. Thus, the other basic function of canons is necessarily normative. Because these functions are interrelated, canons need not present simple dogmas. Instead, canons serve as dialectical resources, at once articulating the differences we need for a rich contrastive language and constituting models of what we can make of ourselves as we employ that language. This interrelation, in turn, applies to two basic kinds of models, each addressing a different dimension of literary works. Canons call attention to examples of what can be done within the literary medium. The canon is a repertory of inventions and a challenge to our capacity to further develop a genre or style. But in most cases, craft is both an end in itself and a means for sharpening the texts’ capacity to offer a significant stance that gives us access to some aspect of nontextual experience. So in addition to preserving examples of craft, canons also establish exemplary attitudes, often while training us to search for ways to connect the two. This means that when we reflect on the cultural roles canons can play, we must take as our representative cases not only those works that directly exhibit exemplary features of craft or wisdom, but also works that fundamentally illuminate the contrastive language we must use to describe those achievements.

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© Lee Morrissey 2005

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  • Lee Morrissey

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