In his essay, “In Praise of Dead White Men,” Lindsay Johns argues that efforts to make education more “relevant” to black people can be both patronizing and harmful, and that western literary canon should be taught to everyone. While I agree with him in general, I think that teaching literature written by women and men of color as a genre separate from and in lieu of western literary canon. The importance of Homer, and Shakespeare, and Milton, and Melville to the culture of western civilization is undeniable, but it’s also about time that the physical and metaphorical shackles and chains applied to people who played as much a role in western civilization as those honored dead white men became an integral part of our literary tradition.
A few days after I posted The Art of the Novella: Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, my brief précis and commentary on Saul Bellow’s 1957 novella, I received an email from an old friend complimenting the piece, but also with an admonishment about my somewhat narrow view of what literature is all about. Tommy Wilhem’s fight against the abyss, a common theme throughout the history of western literary tradition, from Odysseus to Bloom (Leopold), is certainly one of the major themes of the book, but, as my friend Maria pointed out to me, it is a theme largely owned by middle and upper class white men. It is one of the dominant themes of western literature largely because western literary canon has always been, and to a large extent still is, defined by Dead White European Males. Battling the abyss is a luxury of the privileged and empowered. Literature created by women and minorities, she pointed out, tends to be about more immediate and worldly challenges — poverty, discrimination, subjugation — human experiences not common to privileged white men, dead or otherwise. Essentially, she was telling me as politely as possible, “Fred, your Updikean life in suburbia has made your brain go soft, you need to get out more.”
This discussion has been going on, or raging, between us for nearly thirty years. When we met in the English department of SUNY Albany there was a heated battle going on there, and in colleges and universities everywhere for that matter, over literary canon. There were the traditionalists, the old guard, who defended the traditional curriculum defined by Dead White European Males, plus a few tokens: Austin, Bronte, Wharton. On the other side were those who thought that literary canon itself was oppressive, excluding not only women, but anyone of color. There were extremes on both sides of the argument. On the establishment side there were those who didn’t think anything written after 1850 was literature at all, On the other side, feminist professors who interpreted every piece of accepted literature as misogynist, no matter what it was about.(“It’s about a 19th century whaling ship with an all male crew, for Pete’s sake!” “See! That proves my point!“). While my own proclivities were with the traditionalists, middle class white male and Bloom (Harold) acolyte that I was, I believed that the canon should be more inclusive of lesser heard voices. I didn’t want to trash it, I thought it should be expanded.
Initially, I wasn’t aware of this academic battle. My high school honors English curriculum had been classic canon: a year of Greek, a year of British, a year of American, plus a smattering of other western European white guys. The curriculum was the curriculum and I didn’t question it. The political lines gradually revealed themselves over time. In discussions with certain professors, you could earn a disdainful gaze by mentioning a modern woman or a black writer. With other professors you would get the look by making a reference to a dead white guy. Bringing up Vonnegut was like throwing a knuckleball at either side. You never knew what it would do. He was obviously a white guy, but at the time some considered him vulgar and he had once written science fiction, so both sides had reasons to hate him. Vonnegut considered himself a descendant of Twain, who has also been accused of vulgarity. Time has been shifting critical opinion favorably for both of them.
There was one person who was capable of bridging this gap. Professor Tom Smith, who combined sheer brilliance, the soul of a poet, and an exuberant generosity of spirit, endeared himself everyone. It was through him that I was introduced to Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These were entirely new voices to me, revealing human experiences that until then, in my white American maleness, had simply been invisible, to borrow a theme from Ellison. I didn’t forsake Updike for these new, exotic voices — our common religious, cultural, and socio-economic background is impossible to escape — but I did learn that the breadth of human experience is much larger than any of us can individually ever know. My Telemachus-Stephan Dedalus complex had always made reading a search for my self. Now it was a search for other other selves, very different and very far away from middle-class Queens.
History is written by the victors, and so it is true of the western literary tradition that we have inherited. The winners, the powerful, the privileged, the male, get to tell their tales. The vanquished, the enslaved, the women, not so much. When I was sixteen years old, and reading The Iliad for the first time, I was enthralled by how such an ancient story could captivate me. Across the centuries, from an ancient culture, the characters came alive for me. In spite of the distance of time and culture, their desires and emotions were immediately recognizable. Stories driven by character and desire are the trademark of western literature, no matter how intricate plots may or may not be. All of the events in The Iliad are triggered by the “ruinous rage” of Achilles, who has had his consort, Briseis, taken from him by a more powerful social superior, Agamemnon. Achilles takes his revenge by refusing to fight, essentially taking his ball and going home. Although we are assured that Achilles loves Briseis, his anger is as much about the humiliation of being stripped of a prized possession as it is about his heartbreak. Of course, since I was sixteen at the time, fueled by romantic notions and lust I had conjured up visions of Briseis as some sort of 1100 BC incarnation of Linda Ronstadt (it was the seventies and few were objectified by sixteen year-old boys more than Linda Ronstadt).
It’s not necessarily fair to apply modern sensibilities to ancient texts, but sometimes it’s impossible to avoid. Briseis, no matter how much Achilles loved her, was nothing more than property, an enslaved tribute awarded to him for a well-fought battle. In spite of the fact that the poet seeks inspiration from female muses, this story is told from a decidedly male point of view. How Briseis feels about the situation is entirely irrelevant. Her role in the larger story is that of a prop. In modern parlance, she is a sex-slave.
One shouldn’t judge this too harshly because the status of women in Homer’s epic accurately portrays their status as property during time of the Trojan War (1100BC), the time Homer wrote in down (700 BC) and most of the two thousand plus years since then. Judgment, however, is beside the point. It is what is missing from western literary canon that is the issue. There may have been female poets in ancient times, and in medieval times, but either through suppression or simply by academic selection, they are lost to us. Most of the handful of woman writers who have been enshrined in western literary canon had to publish under male pseudonyms.
As it has been for women, it has been much the same for all of those who have been disenfranchised. Native Americans and African Americans have been subsumed by a culture, whose literary tradition is driven by character and desire, that historically has deemed their own character and desire irrelevant and invisible.
If reading and literature is really all about sharing and understanding the full range of human experience, then it needs to be about sharing and understanding all of it. It needs to be not just about lives spent the abyss, but also about lives lived under physical and metaphorical shackles and chains.
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