On Cant and Canon Wars

Canon to right of them,
Canon to left of them,
Canon in front of them
   Volleyed and thundered…
Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade [Adapted]


Some critics strain to earn a reputation for being unpleasantly reactionary; some seem to delight in pyrotechnic displays of their own ignorance illuminated by the reflection of borrowed erudition. Then there is Joseph Epstein, who combines these two approaches with a deft skill rivaled only by the avuncular contrarian who once read a Great Books course in college.

December was a real blowout month for Epstein, who laid his pettiness bare in an essay assailing Jill Biden’s use of the title “Dr.” Naturally, he was taken to task for that delicate blend of chauvinism and charlatanry, but he started the season of provocation strong with a hackneyed essay about the literary canon and the limited attention span of kids these days. We have all heard these arguments before, but Epstein’s essay achieved a perfect distillation of the lament for the canon/death of literature eulogy that it seemed worth responding to in these eminently classical and canonical pages of ours.

Because it appeared in an issue commemorating the longevity of The National Review, Epstein’s essay examines the state of literature in 1955 and declares that it was good, because

In American poetry, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and E. E. Cummings were still at work. In fiction, so, too, were Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright. In France, Albert Camus and André Malraux remained productive. In England, Evelyn Waugh and Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym were writing, and the year before, Kingsley Amis had won the Somerset Maugham Award for Lucky Jim. Internationally, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov had not yet quite hit their impressive strides. Randall Jarrell had earlier, in dismay, dubbed the 1950s “the Age of Criticism,” but some immensely powerful critics, among them Yvor Winters, William Empson, I. A. Richards, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Edmund Wilson, and Lionel Trilling, were on the job. Over the entire anglophone literary world strode T. S. Eliot, major modernist poet and a critic who stood in the direct line of Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold. For literature the good times were rolling.

Fair enough – some of these are real literary talents, but some of them have been relegated to the dustbin of oblivion already, and others have preposterously overblown reputations. Epstein then brings us to his real point:

When and why they stopped rolling are complex questions. That they have stopped, that we are in a less-than-rich period for literature today, cannot be doubted. Ask yourself whose next novel among living novelists you are eagerly awaiting. Name your three favorite living poets. Which contemporary critics do you most rely upon?

Challenging the reader to think of upcoming modern novels is a sure bet, in Epstein’s mind, because he began with the premise that no one is reading now anyway. But I can say for myself that I was about to crack in anticipation of Martin Amis’ Inside Story last month; that I am eagerly awaiting Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun; that I am on the lookout for any news about a new Zadie Smith novel. This reads less like a considered argument and more like Epstein’s confession that he doesn’t really keep up with things anymore.

Epstein’s challenge about poetry ignores a point central both to historical and contemporary poetics: ancient poetry was often recited in conjunction with music, and in the 20th century, this connection was made once again. Centuries of purely bookish poetry may have convinced us that it was, in its essence, a project for the page, but many of the people who would otherwise be writing “poetry collections” are writing songs instead. Is there a difference? Epstein probably thinks so. But if the point of poetry, as opposed to prose, is its condensed musicality, why should it not be set to music as well?

Epstein ignores the role of critics and educational institutions in forming the canon. Consider his list of towering 20th century figures. William Faulkner may be a household name, but how many people ever read all of his novels? Set that against how many people enjoyed his Hollywood hackwork. Faulkner’s appeal today rests largely on his enduring reputation as an important part of the canon as enforced by his position on course syllabi. Drop him from the syllabus, and I’m not sure that his popular appeal would be enough to keep him in circulation for another century. Similarly, consider the case of Moby Dick. It has its passionate devotees and its place in the canon, but was out of print for almost all of Melville’s lifetime subsequent to its publication. Perhaps some crotchety reactionary in Melville’s day lamented that the halcyon days of the 18th century were over, that he was stranded in the literary desert of the 19th, all while ignoring the treasure before him.

Moreover, the entrance to the canon is a revolving door, and plenty of formerly canonical work is shown its way back into the street. Epstein asks who rivals Edmund Wilson. I spent a good part of the summer reading through almost all of Edmund Wilson’s collected works, and two things stood out: how many then-canonical works have fallen from public view, and how wrong Wilson often was about which works would have lasting value and appeal.

The villain in Epstein’s world is, naturally, the distractions of the internet. I am not disinclined to argue with him about the stultifying effects of digital distraction. Yet, this argument is also an old one. In the 18th and 19th centuries, serialized novels were deemed a dangerous distraction from serious reading (though they are now held up as models of important literature). In the early part of the 20th century, Ezra Pound complained that the invention of radio was a nail in the coffin for the distraction-free life required to create real literature. We are a distracted age, but do we really need a return of the Victorian triple-decker? We live longer than we used to, and the same technology which distracts us has also freed us from some of the necessities of brute labor which would have formerly kept us from reading. On the whole, distraction in and of itself cannot account for the death of literature.

Novel writing is not a given in human history. Sure, the Greeks and Romans had their novels (pretty poor stuff, mostly, though the Satyricon strikes me as being richly novelistic in its observational nicety), but the novel as we know it didn’t appear on the scene until the 17th century, and didn’t really start rolling in a recognizably novelistic mode until the end of the 18th. If you read every novelist still in print from Cervantes and Rabelais all the way up to whatever was released this week, you would likely formulate this not particularly astonishing observation: that novels are products of their time, and respond to the historical circumstances of their creation. I am a huge fan of Dickens, but re-reading Little Dorrit last week, I couldn’t help but feel exhausted by how bloated it is. And this is true of even the best Victorian serialized fiction, just as it is true of long-running TV series or movie franchises. We live in more distracted, but also more entertained times. Perhaps the pressures of competition from immediately-accessible and rewarding media have forced contemporary literature to become more entertaining, more accommodating to the reader – in a word, better.

Throughout the piece, Epstein takes his shots at other villains: academia, feminists, psychology, “therapeutic” writing. You know that these guys hate what they consider “grievance studies” – but what is conservatism, if not an ideological distillation of grievance? Like much of the semi-literate raving at The National Review, this essay is little more than a confession of a frozen intellect which stopped engaging with the world at some arbitrarily defined point. Maxim: “Popular culture ceased to be important when I ceased to consume it.” We all know that this essay was written for old men (as the reference to the show Dragnet signals clearly enough without all of the reactionary hate). Epstein shakes his fist and warns us to stay off his lawn; but he does not realize that it is bare of grass, and no one wishes to trespass through a patch of mud and filth.

One thought on “On Cant and Canon Wars

  1. There are so many great writers writing now, and in so many more languages than English, French, Russian and Spanish. It just seems silly to say that the 50s were some sort of heyday, or leave out all of Africa, Australia and most of Asia. Even his picture of the 50s literary scene seems restrictively limited; “Things Fall Apart” was written in the 50s, after all, and Mishima wrote two of his most respected novels in that decade. Conservatism (my feelings about it aside) used to mean more than railing at whatever displeased one in the present.

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