Dick, Jane, and American Literature: Fighting with Canons

Adalaide Morris


The very first book I remember reading had bold pictures and clean, brisk words. "See Spot run," I read, sliding a stubby finger along the line. "See Puff play." It was the story of Dick and Jane, the boy and girl who lived with their dog and cat, Mother and Father, and baby sister Sally in a little house with a red door, a curving walk, and a bright green lawn with bushy trees. Father was tall and wore a suit, Mother was shorter and wore an apron, and baby Sally crawled and cried making us feel proud to be grown‑up first‑graders reading books. This was my world, and I recognized its every striped ball, spotless pinafore, and smiling postman.


At about the same time I was seeing Spot run, another American girl was also reading Dick and Jane. The Native American writer Leslie Silko grew up on the Laguna Pueblo in the Southwest. To her the father with his briefcase, the mother with her cookie pans, the children cavorting on the lawn must have scenic strange creatures. What worried her, however, was the robins. Dick and Jan (and children in the Chicago suburbs) know when winter comes robins fly south. What, then, was the matter with the Pueblo robins? Why didn't they leave?


Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, starts with Dick and Jane: Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house They are very happy.¡± Her second paragraph runs the sentences together without breaks (¡°Here is the house it is green and white it has a red door¡±), and the third drops the spaces between the words (¡°Hereisthehouseltisgreenatidwilite¡±) (7-8). The stately, reassuring rhythms of Dick and Jane undergo nightmare acceleration, and the words fuse into a monolithic chunk of type, a block as heavy as a tablet of commandments. Chips from this block introduce Morrison's chapters about a poor black family: Cholly Breedlove, Mrs. Breedlove, Sammy, an Pecola, who live in an abandoned store underneath the headquarters of three whores named China, Poland, and the Maginot Line. Cholly drinks and beats his wife, Sammy runs away, and each night Pecola prays for blue eyes. She like her mother, like the girls at school, like all of us first graders, knew that if she resembled Jane she would be all right. Like Silko's robins, however, by any standard we recognized, she was not all right. Out of his own tenderness and agony her father rapes her, goes to jail, and dies; she bears a dead baby and goes mad.  The ironic interplay between the chapterheads (¡°fatherwillyouplaywithjane-smilefthersmile¡±) and the chapter contents indicts a whitewashed world so sure of itself it has no space between it words for little black girls in abandoned stores. 

No one told us, perhaps no one in early fifties school system could have told us, that Dick and Jane were a special case, a small minority of suburban, white, middle-class children of Anglo-Saxon parentage and Protestant heritage.  We thought, and our parents thought, and Native American, Black, Jewish, and Asian-American children were urged to think that when the robins left for us, they should leave for all.

When many of us reached college in the early sixties and studied what was now called ¡°American literature,¡± Jane and baby Sally fell away, but we continued to read about Dick.  Now Dick becomes Franklin¡¯s Poor Richard who knows that God helps them that help themselves or Horatio Alger¡¯s Ragged Dick the Match Boy who rises from rags to riches to become, in Fitzgerald¡¯s mythic rewriting, The Great Gatsby.  Or he becomes Nick, Hemingway¡¯s Nick Adams making his separate peace in the Michigan woods, or Ike, Isaac McCaslin in Faulkner¡¯s ¡°The Bear¡± who earns his manhood in the Mississippi wilderness.  These two great paradigms of American literature-the success story and the story of tugged individualism-are our primers.  Like Dick and Jane, they are training tales, stories that tell us how to live, what to do.  They are stories that we have institutionalized as the ¡°American literary canon.¡±

Like the schools in which it is taught, like the church, like the legal system, what we call ¡°American literature¡± is an institution: an authoritative organization of principles and precepts.  The canon is its charter: an official designation of membership and a certification of rights and privileges.  As all first graders once read Dick and Jane, college students now read Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, and Twain.  We like to think of literature as a representation of experience, but the question Silko and Morrison ask is blunt: whose experience?   How have Ahab, Walt, Huck, Nick, and Ike come to stand for the ¡°American¡± experience?  Who made Injun Joe and Nigger Jim?  And where in the world is Jane?

I¡¯d like to approach these questions by rethinking a word central to the problem: the word canon.  This is mighty word, a word that decrees, regulates, codifies, and constitutes.  With others of its family, however, it starts from a slim and supple source: the Greek word kanna, meaning a hollow tube or reed.  If we use this reed to measure things, it becomes a canon: a general rule, formula, or table.  Mounted on the parapets of a fort, it becomes the cannon, we shot at those who are unlucky enough to live outside or disobey our rules.  If long enough and strong enough, this reed becomes a cane, which can support us or flog others.  Unlike a reed, which may be swayed or woven or even whistled through, the canon, canons, and canes have fixed functions.  They don¡¯t invite rethinking.  It seems to be no accident that canon sounds so much like cannot.

In our profession, the literary canon not only regulates, defends, and supports us: sanctify us.  In the precise sense we appropriate from a statistical parlance, the canon is an authoritative list of cooks accepted as Hebrew scripture.  Our cannon is the ¡°great books,¡± the Modern Library list of classical or. Most pertinently here, the Library of America volumes now emerging in uniform format, each printed on Oxford style onion paper and bound, like a, with a grosgrain ribbon placemaker.[1] These books are the basis for the literary academics live by (course lists, M.A. Exam lists, Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination lists, the list of ¡°books I want to read¡± or ¡°books I¡¯ll never admit that I haven¡¯t read¡± or books I swear I¡¯ll read next summer¡±).  Lined down the paragraphs of these texts become the table of contents for anthologies, the schedule of sessions at conventions, and the subjects of scrutiny in our favorite professional journals.  When we as students and teachers try to understand what we¡¯re doing in this world, the canon seems to offer a center for all our peripheries.  It is another ecclesiastical borrowing, our mission or missal: a catalogue of saints in liturgical sequence, an unusual or customary payment or tribute.

And it should be.  The canon is for us what the epic was for the Greeks: encyclopedia of culture, a compendium of what we know, a background again which forms the figure of what we read and what we write.  ¡°Masterpieces are never single and solitary births.  They are: as Virginia Woolf has reminded ¡°the outcomes of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice (68). Reading any text is necessarily listening to a voice in conversation with other voices.  No writer, no artist of any art, has his or her complete meaning aloud.  To understand the soliloquist, we need also to listen to the chorus.

The problem arises when the canon becomes a cane by which we yank the liloquist off the stage or a piece of artillery we use to hurl her or him into outer darkness.  The problem arises when, to alter the metaphor slightly, the chorus rises and says to the soliloquist something like ¡°you¡¯re not the best has been thought and said,¡± a formula inevitably followed by adjectives like ¡°propagandist,¡± ¡°second-rate,¡± ¡°narrow,¡± ¡°partial,¡± ¡°distorted,¡± or ¡°subjective.¡±  At this moment it is hard not to notice that the chorus consists almost entirely of white gentlemen of the middle or upper classes and that they¡¯re  ____ signs emblazoned with the words ¡°universal,¡± ¡°timeless,¡± ¡°natural,¡± ¡°self-evident.¡±

The fact of canonization puts any work beyond questions of establishing merit, and, instead, invites us to offer only increasingly more ingenious reading and interpretations, the purpose of which is to validate labels like ¡°great¡± and ¡°universal.¡±  The general effect of canonization, as it became evident in the societies, is threefold:

        1.  to propagandize the world view of canonized works, which tends to almost entirely the world view of relatively privileged social classes societies actively engaged in conquering and ruling other peoples

        2.  to reinforce our own authority and position as students and professors of literature who possess valuable knowledge, social usefulness, and above all, superior taste, and

3.  to substitute a tiny part for the whole, demeaning as subliterary almost the entire body of literature, especially popular literature, folk literature, oral literature, literature based on the experience of work, and almost all literature by nonwhite, nonmale peoples.[2]


Much has happened since the sixties: we have grown suspicious of words like ¡°timeless¡± and ¡°self‑evident¡±; we have understood the canon as, among other things, a political document; and we have begun to admit some women, a few Blacks, and here and there a Native American.

Fish can't see the water because they are in it. Students and teachers frequently fail to see the canon because they are of it. Like ideology, the canon is the medium in which we move. It is that which we assume, that which is repeated, public opinion, the mind of the majority, the voice of reason, all that we know without knowing quite how we came to know it. For this reason, it is important to step back a moment and consider the formation of the American, canon. How did we come to know that Hawthorne, Faulkner, and Mailer belong, but Sarah Orne Jewett, Eudora Welty, and Toni Morrison don't?

It is jolting to remember that only some seventy years ago American literature itself was noncanonical. American writing was just the tip of a twig on the great tree that sprang from Homer, only a minor sprout on a limb that grew from Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales. It was not part of what Matthew Arnold called "the best that is known and thought in the world"; it was not in what F. R. Leavis called The Great Tradition. It was popular reading, that which one could work up on one's own, say on rainy Sunday afternoons.

In fact, only two hundred years ago the term "American literature" was itself tentative, more a boast than an actuality. It became common after the 1783 Treaty of Paris (Golding 281), but in the next hundred years few agreed on what it meant. Did it include the Puritans, geographically American but politically, English? Was it descriptive, specifying a historical or territorial range, or was It prescriptive, honoring as "American" only those writings that met some criterion of moral purity, political ideology, or national character?

If we understand the "American literary canon" to be that set of authors and books generally included in introductory American literature courses and discussed in standard works of literary history and criticism, it is possible to mark who's in and who's out by checking the contents of teaching anthologies. The first thing we notice about these anthologies, of course, is that, try as they might, they can't be merely descriptive. They are to the whole body of literature produced in the United States as the Social Register is to the Philadelphia phonebook. The second thing we notice is that, like the Social Register, they record surges of fashion as fixed certainties. The anthologist is generally an eminent critic, someone who has written one or more of the standard texts of literary history and criticism, and he (for it is almost invariably "he") magisterially assumes an undefined community of readers who concur with his judgment. What's interesting, however, is the way that across time the powerful decline and poor cousins prevail. As Longfellow, the only American, fixed in stone in the Poet¡¯s Corner of Westminster Abbey, fades away, while Whitman strides in.

Let me take two pairs of anthologies, one of poetry, one of prose, to illustrate this process.[3]  The first pair is two successive editions of The Oxford Book American Verse.  In 1927, Bliss Carmen's anthology gave more pages Longfellow than to Whitman and Dickinson combined; it granted ample space to poems of Bryant, Whittier, Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, "productions an earlier age 'which no gentleman's library should be without,"' but it includes only those twentieth‑century poets who represented what Carmen felt to be ¡°valiant and joyous spirit" of the age (Preface iv‑v) and admitted no black position beyond the token Paul Dunbar. In 1950, F. 0. Matthiessen dismantled Carmen canon. He cut 147 poets (including Dunbar) from the register and added among them Anne Bradstreet, Jones Very, Melville, Eliot, Williams, Cra H.D., Stevens, and cummings.  He smashed the plaster busts of Longfellow and his circle and elevated Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson, nineteenth‑century writers on whom he had centered The American Renaissance.  And, finally, he understood the twentieth century not as an age of v and joy but as the terrain of the wasteland, of Mr. Eugenides, Hugh S. Mauberley, and the Equilibrists. Where Carmen included in his anthology of one poem by Pound, Matthiessen not only amply represented Pound elected work by other poets that executed Pound, Matthiessen not only amply represented Pound but elected work by other poets that executed Pound¡¯s command to cut the cache.   We are now fish swimming in the pool constructed by Matthiessen.

The second pair of anthologies provides an even sharper juxtaposition. I were assembled by the great critic Norman Foerster, both were introduced with the same composed certainty of judgment, and yet they disagree radically. In preface to his 1916 volume, The Chief American Prose Writers, Foerster serves that "the nine writers represented in this volume have become, by general consensus, the American prose classics." In the 1963 introduction to his Ethnic American Writers, he reiterates, ¡°In the consensus of our time eight writers constitute our ¡®American classics¡¯ ¡± (qtd. in Lauter ¡°Race and Gender¡± Only Poe, Emerson, and Hawthorne are common to both lists. ¡°Our American classics,¡± it appears, are as wobbly as the consensus that constitutes them. The constants are not the texts themselves but the tone and vocabulary that canons them, that and the amazing fact that none of them are by women, Blacks Native Americans.[4]

Canon formation is the ache of ambitious critics. Magisterial readers like Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, F. R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks, T. S. Eliot, Northrop Frye, and Harold Bloom not only set the terms of criticism but dictate the texts to be honored or harassed by our judgments.  I entered college during the reign of T. S. Eliot. Imagining myself to be contemplating the best that has been thought and said–for that is what we do in college–I memorized the definitions of ¡°objective correlative¡± and ¡°dissociation of sensibility¡± and set about applying them to Dryden, Donne, and Jules Laforgue.  Scorning Tennyson¡¯s watery sentimentality, I tried to savor the bitter tang of Jacobean drama.  If its double-dealing poisoners were repellent, we nonetheless knew that they were crucial to the story of great literature.

When we go beyond anthologies to the critical texts that precede and determine them, we can see a fact obscured by the largely unadorned enumerations of anthologies. Canons are not simply lists; they are narratives, stories that assemble and activate the figures on the roster.  To shift the metaphor a little, canons are not simply catalogues of stars; they are constellations, patterns pieced out by the observing eye.  The hunter and his prey, the reunited twins, the big dipper scooping the milky way: these formations tell more about us and our dramas than about the fiery distances they purport to describe.

The stories that form the current canon of American literature were written by men working in the first half of the twentieth century, each constrained by his own particular heritage and history, each centering his narrative on a master metaphor.  D. H. Lawrence¡¯s battle between the Puritans and the Redskins, Oscar Cargill¡¯s ¡°ideas on the march,¡± F. O. Matthiessen¡¯s ¡°American Renaissance,¡± Henry Nash Smith¡¯s ¡°virgin land,¡± R. W. B. Lewis¡¯s ¡°American Adam¡±: these are our canon-founding constellations.  Each compels because each, in its way, is deeply motivated.  To take just one example, D. H. Lawrence¡¯s Studies in Classic American Literature, published in the era of Foerster¡¯s prose and Carmen¡¯s poetic canons, radically readjusts the concept of the American classic, excoriating Old Daddy Franklin and Gentleman Cooper and exalting the fierceness of Melville and Whitman.  The book was written in the grim years of World War I out of Lawrence¡¯s fury with what he considered England¡¯s pother and bosh.  In it Lawrence uses American literature to pound the first nail into the tires of Clifford Chatterley¡¯s wheelchair.

In the fifteen years since I left the American literature surveys of graduate school, post-structuralist theory has joined with the social movements of the sixties in exposing the cultural ambitions of the canon.  If for feminist, Black, and Native American critics, the theme of canonization is power, the power by which white Anglo-Saxon Protestant patriarchs protect their interests, post-structuralist literary theorists mount a more general attack.  If I can borrow for a moment their pleasure in punning, they go after not just the wasps but the bees:  all our humanist reifications of being.  For these critics, the canon is the privileged site of the humanist ideals of transcendence, endurance, and universality, a construction that, like all manifestations of the desire for mastery, must be demystified and dismantled.

A de??? Canon is, of course, as post-structuralist critics recognize, ????? must be disconnected from its firing chamber–but it go on teaching courses called ¡°American Literary Classics,¡± reading journal entitled American Literature or American Literary Quarterly, and perusing histories of American literary production.  In the liberal, pluralistic seventies, the main response to critical pressure on the canon has been to ¡°open¡± or ¡°expand¡± it: to admit, as I suggested earlier, some Blacks, a few women, and here and there a Native American.  Updating the Norton Anthology of Poetry from 1970 to 1975, for example, the editors self-consciously claim ¡°four new black poets [who] amplify the presentation of that tradition¡± and ¡°twice as many women poets as before¡± (Allison, et al., eds. Preface xlv).[5]  What is the effect of such an expansion? Have we, in fact, changed the canon¡¯s firepower or, as our disillusioned student suggested, merely enlarged its bore size?

I¡¯d like to approach this problem by returning to an earlier question: whatever happened to Jane and baby Sally? Supposing that Jane and Sally, like Silko and Morrison, grow up to write superb poems and stories, what place will they claim in our literary curricula? There are two possibilities, one liberal and one radical and both, I will argue, have significant drawbacks.

Women writers have been active in America since the earliest colonial days but at least up until the mid-1970s, the canon of American literature contained women novelists, no women dramatists, no women short story writers, and one or two women poets: Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. The recent addition of women¡¯s texts to the American canon is a gain.  To read ¡°twice as many women poets as before¡± or to teach Kate Chopin¡¯s The Awakening, Charlotte Perkin Gilman¡¯s The Yellow Wallpaper, or Zora Neale Hurston¡¯s Their Eyes Were Watching God as American classics stretches our sense of both ¡°America¡± and ¡°classics.¡± One marker of the change in the curriculum is the recent appearance of a Monarch Notes pamphlet entitled Twentieth-Century American Women Authors: A Feminist Approach. Like most such enterprises, it is filled with slippery shortcuts, but it suggests that women writers and feminist critics have grown ? spectable. Like Walden and Moby Dick we are sufficiently part of the American canon to be officially distorted for desperate students (Diamond 149).

In expanding the canon, we accomplish the goal of what might be called the liberal stage of a feminist rethinking of American literature, a stage equivalent to–but fortunately more successful than–the push for the Equal Rights Amendment.  The premise of the Equal Rights Amendment is, of course, that we live a reasonably democratic system, a system whose assumptions and methods need not be radically reformed.  The notion behind canon expansion is similarly benign: having admitted women authors to our courses and comps lists, we ought now to be able to begin equal application of our assumptions, methods, and theories.  This might work–but only if we can find novels with the following plots:

         1.  A young girl in Minnesota finds her womanhood by killing a bear.

         2.  Believing she has murdered her drunken Ma, a young scamp runs for the river where she joins up with an escaped black woman.  They meander downriver, rafting by night and adventuring by day.  Soon after following two tricksters masquerading as the Queen and the Duchess, our heroine, hiking up her skirts, lights out for the ????.

            3. A ???? peg‑legged captain drives her whaling ship with its crew of rag,-tag women on a doomed chase of the famed white whale, Moby Jane.[6]


Why are these plots so funny, so odd, so deeply unthinkable? Surely it is because the methods and mythology of American literary study have presupposed a world that is all but exclusively male.

As Nina Baym has argued, American literary critics from the beginning searched for a cultural essence, something "truly American" to distinguish our literature from continental or English writing. They found it in a number of stories about men, most typically, perhaps, in the story of the American Adam encountering the promise of a new land. In this mythology, the wilderness is the terrain upon which the individual inscribes his own destiny, but only if he successfully' escapes an entrammeling society. The sexual or gendered character of the myth Is evident in its metaphoric structure: the protagonist is the individualistic, active male who eludes a society of Widow Douglases and embraces the virgin land. In the American tradition, Jane has signified on the one hand, gentility, conformity, and mawkish morality, and, on the other, 'the fresh green breast of an all‑nurturing, all‑passive wilderness (Baym " Melodramas" 131‑136).[7]

How can a woman writer inhabit this mythology? A central part of it is the journey west, but as Leslie Fiedler has pointed out, ¡°westering, in America, means leaving the domain of the female¡± (60)–something a woman, obviously, cannot do. The journey culminates in the drama Annette Kolodny has called The Lay of the Land, the ravishing of a receptive mother-earth–again, of course, a plot unavailable to women. Our concepts of periodization, the plots we develop to sequence our literature, are no more easily applicable to women's writing. The Renaissance F. 0. Matthiessen charts, to give just one example, was not a renaissance for women.

If our methods, mythology, and periodization do not fit women's texts, it is, because there is something fundamentally different about these texts. The efforts of the more radical stage of a feminist rethinking of the American canon have been devoted to speculation about this difference. This effort has returned to circulation works previously lost or ignored, reinterpreted known works, and investigated the possibility that women have developed a related or even unique tradition of their own.[8]

The recovery of so‑called ¡°lost¡± women¡¯s writing has brought to us not only the work of Chopin, Gilman, and Hurston but texts like Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's ¡°Revolt of Mother,¡± Agnes Smedley's Daughter of the Earth, and Edith Summers Kelley's Weeds, spotted in a second‑hand bookstore by Matthew J. B. (unreadable) Lauter has catalogued the literature of working‑class women (¡°Working‑Class Women's Literature¡±), and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s painstaking research has restored to us Our Nig, thought to be the first novel in America by a woman of Afro‑American descent. Rich and fascinating sourcebooks of statements by and about lost writers include Tillie Olsen's Silences, the many new feminist anthologies of women's fiction, drama, and poetry, and, most fortunately, the publishing list of the Feminist Press in New York.[6]

In this search‑and‑restore mission, many known writers have been found again. Anne Bradstreet has been understood as a poet of radical intellectual force; Edith Wharton and Willa Cather have acquired fuller, racier lives; and Emily Dickinson, our Spinster‑Recluse, has finally been seen as the tough and powerful poet who, in Adrienne Rich's words, ¡°chose to have it out at last/(unreadable) [her] own premises¡± (¡° ¡®I Am in Danger–Sir–¡®¡± 33).[7] One of the most exciting projects has been a rereading of the sentimental novelists, Hawthorne¡¯ ¡°damned mob of scribbling women¡± who snivelled their way into bestsellerdom and, in one critic¡¯s view, all but ¡°feminized¡± nineteenth‑century American (Douglas). When we take the premises of these novels seriously, as Nina Baym has done, it is clear that most of them are, in fact, quite unsentimental. Their plots ¡°repeatedly identify immersion in feeling as one of the great temptations and dangers¡± for a disenfranchised and property‑deprived woman negotiating her limited social possibilities. The real issue, as Baym argues, is power and how to live without it. ¡°If critics ever permit the woman's novel to join the main body of ¡®American literature,¡¯¡± Baym concludes, ¡°then all our theories about American fiction, from Richard Chase¡¯s ¡®romance¡¯ to Richard Poirier's world elsewhere¡¯ to Carolyn Heilbrun's ¡®masculine wilderness,¡¯ will have to be radically revised¡± (Women's Fiction 25, 36‑37).

The tasks of the second stage of a feminist rethinking of the canon intersects here in the charting of a separate tradition of women¡¯s writing and the use of the tradition to challenge the assumptions and methods behind what we've call the American canon. The supposedly ¡°pure¡± literary criteria employed to identify ¡°the best American works¡± have resulted in a literature which, in Baym¡¯s sharp summary, privileges the whaling ship over the sewing circle as a symbol human community, satirizes domineering mothers and shrewish wives rather than tyrannical fathers and abusive husbands, and displays exquisite compassion for the crises of the adolescent male while dismissing the parallel turmoil of the female (Women's Fiction 14).

At the end of the second stage, we have, in effect, two canons: one of hunters, one of quilters. If the danger of the first stage was a kind of tokenism, the danger of the second is a kind of ghettoizing: instead of one or two woman in an unreconstructed male course, we will have separate courses examining separate traditions.  The old canon will man the fort labeled ¡°basics,¡± while the new canon rusts on the outskirts.  In a time when many march under the banner ¡°back to basics,¡± this is especially problematic.[8]

I would like, in closing, to examine a possible third stage, one which would probe the causes and effects of sexual differentiation by setting male and female texts into dialogue.  As Myra Jehlen has argued, to speak about the female writer as a figure separate from the male writer is inevitable in a culture that has made much of sexual difference; to speak of them together might prepare a ground for possible cultural reconstruction.  It makes no sense for women to disclaim the continuing seriousness and value of the ¡°great tradition¡± or to try to reclaim it as, after all, somehow an expression of our own viewpoint; nor does it make sense for men to denigrate the richness of a women¡¯s tradition or to appropriate it as an expression of their viewpoint. To set the two traditions into conversation demonstrates the contingency of both and allows us to hear each other, and ourselves, anew.

Jehlen¡¯s excellent essay, ¡°Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,¡± introduces and explores a method she terms ¡°radical comparativism.¡± This method juxtaposes writings that have overlapping contexts, conditions of production, or plot paradigms in order to search for the borders which light up the outer parameters of both worlds.  The focus here would be on ¡°the relations between situations rather than on the situations themselves,¡± and the process would illuminate the philosophical and linguistic grounds of the two traditions, traditions that otherwise might seem absolute and unimpeachable (578, 585-87).

This method turns the intertextual into the intersexual.  A course constructed along these lines might be team-taught by a man and a woman.  The reading list might juxtapose, for example, male and female wilderness journals and captivity narratives, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller on self-reliance, Melville¡¯s Moby Dick and Arnow¡¯s Hunter¡¯s Horn, James¡¯ Portrait of a Lady and Wharton¡¯s House of Mirth, Wright¡¯s Black Boy and Marshall¡¯s Brown Girl, Brownstones, or Bradley¡¯s The Chaneysville Incident and Morrison¡¯s The Song of Solomon–there are many possible combinations.  Discussions of such texts would highlight not only their mutual concerns but their radically different assumptions and approaches, their contrasting linguistic and imagistic patterns, and the complementary blindnesses and insights which form them.

Ed Folsom and I have taught such a course at the University of Iowa.  By pairing Whitman and Dickinson, Pound and H.D., Merwin and Rich, we wanted to investigate three lines of force: the male mainstream tradition linking Whitman, Pound, and Merwin; a female tradition joining Dickinson, H.D., and Rich; and a larger rhythm of response and exchange between the sexes.  While we knew this exchange would involve contradiction, we assumed we would also find areas in which the male and female traditions refreshed and renewed each other, the sort of terrain from which a new canon might emerge.

In its most utopian formulation, our ideal for the course suggests yet another meaning to the word canon, a meaning that presupposes such mutual response and exchange.  There is a dance called the canon dance in which the male and female dancers follow patterns set by others, then switch to new patterns, followed by others, who then, in their turn, create new patterns.  This play of invention and inventiveness is, of course, the way literary traditions evolve, and a model for the interactions between male and female writers, it is an ideal that still engages and entices me.  What we found in the course, however, is that some elegant interchange must be preceded by harsher, less harmonious stumblings.

The simplest part of the semester, of course, was delineating the patterns created by the male dancers.  We fell upon Whitman, Pound, and Merwin as the friends whose insistences, irritations, and inventions were, if complex, nonetheless familiar.  The women students felt comfortable speaking about the male poets, since, like Blacks and Native Americans, women have been schooled by the methodologies that make mainstream writing available. Few of us, however had a ready formulation of the patterns danced by the women poets.  The traditions of women¡¯s writing–its mythic and linguistic strategies, its characteristic themes and tones–are only just being delineated in the remarkable efflorescent of feminist criticism, criticism few male professors and fewer males or female students have perused.

As for interactions between the poets, we found many subtle lines of communication between Whitman, Pound, and Merwin and between Dickinson, H.D., and Rich, but the interchange between male and female dancers was stopped as sterile, stopped, that is, for the men and sterile for the women.  Whitman and Dickinson, of course, remained unaware of each other; Pound never listened to Dickinson and felt free to turn H.D. into a muse–¡°you are a poem,¡± he told her, ¡°though your poem¡¯s naught¡± (12); and Merwin, though at one point Rich, close friend and confidante, fell away when she started to speak, deliberately and defiantly, as a woman.  For the women poets, the pairings of the course illustrated the difficult necessity of writing across the structures of male texts.  H.D., after all, learned first from Pound, and Rich found breadth and courage in Whitman, but both, ultimately, wrote their finest poems in confronting directly to constraints of patriarchal power.

Perhaps because they recognized long suppressed animosities, the overtly political poems of Dickinson, H.D., and Rich were exhilarating to teach. ¡°My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–/In Corners–till a Day/The Owner passed–identified–/And carried Me away–¡°: this poem by Emily Dickinson, a poem neither Carmen, not Matthiessen, nor Perkins, Bradley, Beatty, and Long anthologist tells about a life packed with a potential that the self was not empowered to activate.  Whitman took himself seriously, he assumed himself, but in the gender system our society has constructed women have waited in corners until they were ¡°carried away¡± and identified¡±–given an identity ????? husband, Adrienne Rich¡¯s first feminist poem. ?????? Law,¡± ????? took her two years to compose, returns to Dickinson ¡°reading while waiting for the iron to heat, writing, My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–/in that Amherst pantry while the jellies boil and scum.¡±[9]  Rich¡¯s daughter-in-law is ¡°nervy, glowering,¡± ready to strike when the iron is hot. As daughters, fiancées, wives, and daughters-in-law, women have not been equal partners in the dance.  As they come into speech, their words are sharp as knives and what we have is less a dance than a fight.

Poems like these open wounds, but they also open dialogue. In this course, it was no longer possible to see Dick's point of view as hegemonic, as we do when we read the American classics as an all but exclusive male tradition, nor was it possible to hear only the cries and whispers of Jane, as I frequently do in attending primarily to the female literary tradition. At our best, we entered into the fray, taking shots from both sides; at our worst, we retreated into defensive edginess, the men when they felt accused and sometimes ‑guilty, the women when they felt confused, ashamed, and sometimes angry.

Just as interactions within a family replicate interactions in the larger social structure, interactions among students in a course frequently become symptomatic of an interplay between the texts. If our problem, the problem of the texts, and the problem of the culture was polarization, our symptom was excessive politeness, the kind of politeness I remember experiencing at those sixth grade dances when the boys huddled on one side and the girls on the other, while a few desperate couples struggled like strangers not to tread on each other's feet.

This politeness speaks not only to the force with which the male and female canons contest and elude each other but also to our desire to find a resolution. In the fifteen weeks of that semester, we and our students accomplished many things, but we did not, at least in any significant way, refashion the canon of American poetry. Though we recognized the power of Dickinson, H.D., and Rich, we did not develop a unifying narrative to assimilate them into a list of accepted American classics. Nor did we find a rhythm of reciprocal response and exchange between our writers. There was no canon dance. By the end of the course, in fact, these ideals seemed happy but hollow formulations.

The metaphors of ¡°opening¡± or ¡°expanding¡± the canon impute an elasticity to something that is, by definition, rigid. Given the structures of power in this country, an open canon is like a Pepsi ad or, more pertinently, like the primers that have replaced Dick and Jane: in them, there are a few black faces and, perhaps, a girl holding a hammer, but the basic stereotypes remain. Differences are homogenized; conflict is masked; and cooptation removes any chance for real communication and change.

Politeness is a way of negotiating conflict: in agreeing to mute our differences, we agree not to listen, not to care. Conflict is contact: we enter each other's terrain, we step on each other¡¯s feet, we hear each other¡¯s most intimate and uneasy words. What we found in our course was that to read any text well was not to push toward resolution but to enlist in two sorts of struggle, in the poet¡¯s struggle with either the male or female canons or both and ????? own struggle as readers and writers to see and name, empower ourselves anew.

Despite our discomfort, what we were doing, finally, was fighting. Canon are, after all, instruments of war; they define and protect zones of contention. American literature has always been an arena of competition–between men and women, Native Americans and ¡°Transplant Americans,¡± Blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, workers and bosses. It may be that we do not need a larger canon. Instead we need to do the legwork to find and the reference work to value the multiple and conflicting canons that we have always had.

This is a rigorous ideal. What it means is that when we read Leslie Silko's novel Ceremony, we make ourselves responsible for knowing not only the white mainstream canon of the American novel but also something about the oral traditions of the Pueblo people and something about the rich interconnection among contemporary Native American women writers. It means that when we read Morrison¡¯s The Bluest Eye we recognize not only our own Dick and Jane, but also the traditions of Afro-American storytelling from the folktales, spirituals, blues, and slave narratives to the work of Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, and Alice Walker. It means, finally, that we commit money to Black Studies, Native American Studies, and Women's Studies Programs, that we work to keep the writings from these traditions in cheap paperback editions and thick American anthologies, and that we require ourselves and our students to become literate in a number of the many traditions of American writing.

Defenders of the expanded canon argue that if we are to be a community we must discover or create a common intellectual heritage, a heritage that would bind us into an understanding of our enterprise as Americans.  The problem with this, of course, is that it results in one of two formulations: either what a colleague of mine calls the ¡°pale male¡± canon, the familiar story of Walt, Huck, Nick, Ike, and Old Ez, or its bland liberal replacement, a canon so diversified and disorganized we cannot locate a narrative to unify it.

Traditionally a canon is defined as that which is shared. For Americans, however, it is the battle that is shared, not the canons that fight it.  Our common heritage is struggle. We are not and never have been a mono‑cultural people; we haven't even been a mono‑linguistic people. American literature is a clash of contending canons, a vital argument about how to live, what to do.  There is no center, except as we enter and momentarily inhabit a writer's consciousness.  We don't need to remain entrenched, but we do need to perceive and protect our differences.  Fighting with canons can open a way to see not only Dick but also Jane and baby Sally, Pecola Breedlove, and Leslie Silko's stubbornly persisting robins.



Works Cited


Allison, Alexander W., Herbert Barrows, Caesar R. Blake, Arthur J. C????, Arthur M. Eastman, and Hubert M. English, Jr., eds. The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Rev. Ed. New York: Norton, 1975.


Baym, Nina. ¡°Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors.¡± American Quarterly, 33 (1981): 123-39.


_____. Women¡¯s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America. 1820-1870. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.


Carmen, Bliss. Preface. The Oxford Book of American Verse. New York: Oxford UP, 1927, iii-v.


Diamond, Arlyn. ¡°Practicing Feminist Literary Criticism.¡± Women¡¯s Studies International Quarterly 1 (1978): 149-52.


Dorris, Michael. ¡°Native American Literature in an Ethnohistorical Context.¡± College English 41 (1979): 147-62.


Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1977.


Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977.


Fiedler, Leslie A. The Return of the Vanishing American. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.


Fiedler, Leslie A., and Houston A. Baker, Jr. eds., English Literature: Opening up the Canon. Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1979, n.s. 4 Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1981.


Franklin, H. Bruce. ¡°English as an Institution: The Role of Class.¡± Fiedler and Baker 92-106.


Franklin, Wayne.  ¡°The ¡®Library of America¡¯ and the Welter of American Books.¡± Forthcoming in The Iowa Review.


Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.  Introduction. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In A Two-Story White House, North. By Harriet E. Wilson. New York: Vintage, 1983. xi-1v.


Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.


_____, eds. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. New York: Norton, 1985.


Golding, Alan C. ¡°A History of American Poetry Anthologies.¡± Von Hallberg 279-307.


Green, Rayna, ed. That¡¯s What She Said: Contemporary Poetry and Fiction by Native American Women. Bloomington: Indiana UP< 1984.


H.D. End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1979.


Jehlen, Myra. ¡°Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism.¡± Signs 6 (1981): 575-601.


Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American ???? Letters.Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975.


Krupat, Arnold. Native American Literature and the Canon. ???? 309-335.


Lauter, Paul. ¡°Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon: A Case Study from the Twenties.¡± Feminist Studies 9 (1983): 435-63.


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_____. ¡°Working-Class Woman¡¯s Literature–An Introduction to Study.¡± Radical Teacher, no. 15 (March 1980): 16-26.


Moer, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1976.


Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Washington Square, 1972.


Rich, Adrienne. ¡°¡¯ I Am in Danger–Sir–,¡¯¡± Necessities of Life: Poems, 1962-65. New York: Norton, 1966.


_____. ¡°Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,¡± On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978. New York: Norton, 1979. 157-83.


Russ, Joanna. ¡°What Can A Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can¡¯t Write,¡± Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives. Ed. Susan Koppelman Cornillon. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1972, 3-20.


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[6] For the first of these plots and a fine analysis of the impossibilities of such gender reversal, see Russ.


[7] Judith Fetterley¡¯s argument that the works of American fiction execute a series of designs on the female reader forcefully elaborates these problems.  See her ¡°self-defense survival manual for the woman reader lost in ¡®the masculine wilderness of the American novel¡¯¡± in The Resisting Reader (viii).

[8] It is telling that the early arguments positing a powerfully separate tradition of women¡¯s writing concentrated largely on British writers.  See Spacks, Moer, Showalter¡¯s A Literature of Their Own, and gilbert and Gubar¡¯s The Madwoman in the Attic. Showalter¡¯s important essay ¡°Feminist Criticism in (unreadable) criticism must undertake.

[9] Both poems are anthologized in Gilbert and Gubar, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, 890 and 2026.29.

[1] unreadable

[2] For an extended discussion of these points, formulated by H. Bruce Franklin, see ¡°English as an Institution¡±

[3] I am indebted for the examples here to two excellent essays on the canon-shaping for teaching anthologies: Golding¡¯s ¡°A History of American Poetry Anthologies¡± and Lauter¡¯s ¡°Race Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon.¡±

[4] As Krupat points out, ¡°only in the past thirty years or so has philosogical and, in particular structural analysis of Indian literatures begun to establish their formal principles on anything like sounds, scientific basis¡± (311). Native American texts, however, have been available since nineteenth century historians and ethnographers began to transcribe and translate them.  Dorris stresses the fol?? Clumping an extremely diverse and difficult body of texts into something neatly termed ¡°In literature¡± and then teaching it without a sharp sense of its various contexts and intents.  Nevertheless by the time of Matthiessen¡¯s and Foerster¡¯s anthologies, it was possible to acknowledge these texts important ¡°American¡± productions and to begin to appreciate their ecosystemic wisdom and  performative poetics.

[5] Note is unreadable???

[5] For the first of these plots and a fine analysis of the impossibilities of such gender reversal, see Russ.



[7] See especially here Gilbert and Gubar, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women; Greco and Stetson. The Feminist Press has recently published two canon-revising documents: Williamson New Feminist Scholarship and Lauter¡¯s Reconstructing American Literature.

See also Rich¡¯s revisionary essay, ¡°Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickenson.¡±

[8] William bennett¡¯s roster of thirty texts all high school students should be required to read is a prime example of this tendency.  For the titles of these books and reaction from the National Council of Teachers of English ???? Savage.