Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beneath the Canon -- electronic resources

I am awaiting the decision by our Course Approval Committee whether or not I will be able to teach a new course in the Spring term.  The course will use an Amazon Kindle as the primary technology, and I hope to ask students to read a 19th century American novel each week using the resources available via Amazon.  The point will be to choose novels that are no longer in print; the question will be how those texts relate to the usual canon of 19th century American novels.

I have been playing with my Kindle since I bought it several weeks ago.  There is a wealth of material available, and I have already bought collections of titles by Mark Twain, Frank Norris, and Louisa May Alcott.  Each of the three files offers stories or novels that are no longer available in print.  I have recently finished reading Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick and Norris' Vandover the Brute, each of which would offer students a chance to experience a much needed broadening of typical 19th century reading lists.  I will next approach Alcott's Hospital Sketches.  

My intention for the new course will be to introduce students to writings that seem no longer to be part of the established 19th century canon.  We will explore the titles in relation to those books that remain popular and that are held up as representative of the genre and the times.  The question will be why some books are canonized and why some are not.  But rather than a conversation of the general merits and intentions of the literary tradition, I will hope to get students to engage in creating criteria and judging works based on that criteria.  And I will hope to spark a conversation about values and the way generational reading and teaching shapes what becomes a literary tradition.

All of this, of course, can also be discussed within the canon of an individual writer; for example, William Dean Howells, whose The Rise of Silas Lapham or Hazard of New Fortunes continue to get some attention while A Modern Instance, Annie Kilbourn, or Indian Summer remain virtually unknown to today's students.  Even Mark Twain has titles that are virtually exiled; for example, Recollections of Joan of Arc, Is Shakespeare Dead? or The American Claimant seem to have disappeared.

All of this will be an experiment.  Students may be drawn to this because of the "new" technology.  I hope they will stay for the literary lesson.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Canon Babbling

I intend to use this space to comment on reading and the variety of questions that spark from works both canonical and noncanonical.  I am now teaching a seminar based on these kinds of questions, and I hope to use the conversations in that course to begin a (perhaps long-term) exploration of canonical issues.  I also intend to try to have fun playing the categories and the range of reading that I do. 

In a book titled The American Adam R. W. B. Lewis takes the position that canons and culture form not from artifacts but out of the on-going conversation between writers or among their works or about their books and ideas.  He writes, "The debate, indeed, may be said to be the culture, at least on its loftiest levels; for a culture achieves identity not so much through the ascendancy of one particular set of convictions as through the emergence of its peculiar and distinctive dialogue."  I hope to start a conversation.  Or at least to keep up one end of it.