Paul Lauter (1932–) from “Canon Theory and Emergent Practice,” Canons and Contents (1991)

  • Lee Morrissey


This division between the concerns of what I have come to call “canonical criticism” and those of what is called “theory” is, I think, one fact of current literary practice in the United States. In another chapter I have attempted to trace the very differing histories of canonical and academic criticism since the late 1960s; I do not wish to pursue that story here, except to underline the fact that canon criticism was initially an effort to carry the politics of the 1960s social movements into the work sociallyengaged academics actually did, especially into our classrooms. Consequently, canon criticism first influenced curriculum and thus gradually the margins of publishing and scholarship. Somewhat later, it came to affect the selection of texts about which graduate students and critics write; more slowly still, which works became sufficiently revered to find their way into footnotes, indices or other measures of academic weight. More recently, it has begun altering the “mainstream” of publishing as well as generating wide public debate. Such has been the history of books like Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or, more recently, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In the most recent stages of this process, as I shall point out below, some of the concerns of canonical criticism have converged with those arising from academic “theory.” Even so, this division is only one of those that need to be explored. If one were at a convention of educators, one might be struck by the conflict between those advocating and those denouncing the canonical proposals of William Bennett, Allan Bloom, and Lynne Cheney.


Literary History Canon Theory Cultural Literacy Academic Criticism Canonical Text 
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  1. 1.
    As in Lynne Cheney, 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students (Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1989).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    An excellent illustration of this approach is provided in a reading of Aristotle’s Politics provided by Elizabeth Victoria Spelman in Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon, 1988).Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Philip E. Jacobs, Changing Values in College: An Exploratory Study of the Impact of College Teaching (New York: Harper, 1957)Google Scholar
  5. Kenneth A. Feldman and Theodore M. Newcomb, The Impact of College on Students, 2 Vols. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1969).Google Scholar
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    Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), pp. 158Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Nina Baym, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), pp. 63–80Google Scholar
  8. Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)Google Scholar
  9. Cathy Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise ofthe Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986)Google Scholar
  10. Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar
  11. Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Martin Bernal, Black Athena (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987).Google Scholar

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© Lee Morrissey 2005

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  • Lee Morrissey

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