Chicken and Egg: Mechanics of Exclusion in the Literary Canon

As I work toward defining my interests and nailing down the characteristics I would like to study and eventually organize a thesis around, I find that my reading history is punctuated by extreme interest in works that surprise me. I do not mean that they surprise me through their plot twists, but rather that they do not fit in with the works that typically are associated with their era of origin. I am interested in works and authors who are not part of the definition of their literary eras, which are time separations controversial in their own right. I am drawn to works by overlooked demographics, particularly members of those demographics who were not actually separate from the literary establishment during their lives, but who were forced to remain outside the prominence of their peers. Two key terms that I think define my thoughts so far are canon formulation and defying assumptions about a period through gender, race, and sexuality.

Defying assumptions in my case applies to the preconceived notions about what defines a period of literature and the women and queer individuals in eras and movements of literature who do not fit them. Though these periods and genres are very different in time and style, the individuals I am interested in are all excluded almost entirely from the accepted canon they are taught from. While their work is not included in the keywords of their periods, women and queer individuals were often present and influential in the circles that produced works, authors, and relics of their time. From the work of women in to establish literary salons in eighteenth century England whose are mostly left out of that era’s history, to the women who pioneered the novel as a genre which was only validated when men adopted it as a forum for quality narratives.

Nella Larsen’s work is read but not widely read, despite her role in the Harlem Renaissance influencer group. She worked on publications including the Opportunity, and The Brownie Book. She was friends with key influencers including Du Bois, and her first novel, Quicksand, was popular and acclaimed at its time. Despite all of this, her work was left out of curriculum and association with both Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance until very recently. Similarly, Jessie Fauset was ignored as a producer at the time, thought she was very present in the social circle where the Harlem Renaissance mission and characteristics were debated and cemented.

Something that unites many authors I am interested in is their fleeting prominence at the time they were producing. As in all things, women and minorities must reach near perfection to be acknowledged along with majority member counterparts. In the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen was accused later in her career of plagiarism. Despite being the first African American woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship, she was almost entirely forgotten after the scandal. She was only mentioned in regards to that stain until fairly recently when critics and readers returned in greater numbers to her work, including Quicksand and Passing.

This process of exclusion and how the definitions of sections of the literary timeline are a source of interest for me. In my discussions with professors, I have pinpointed that as the historical side of what I am looking at. As I look into the works and their creators that interest me, I find that there are usually reasons that have been used to defend their exclusion from the teaching and acclaiming body of texts. The Larsen example is one of many, including Zora Neale Hurston, whose work has surged into much greater prominence, but who was also excluded for controversial views despite her key role in the movement along with male leaders who were never rejected from the group the academy focuses on.

The keywords I have focused on are tightly twined together, and something that also interests me is that connection. As I move forward, I want to explore the three mentioned reasons that the excluded works are treated thus (race, gender, sexuality). I am interested in finding out whether the canon was defined before the works were excluded, or if part of defining literary eras has been purposefully constructing them to achieve that purpose. This is important if one wants to change the future of literary and cultural studies. Whatever cause and effect took place in early canon formation set a legacy that affected the Harlem Renaissance writers I focused on here, and that if left untouched, will continue in our current time and into the future. In the age of technology, it will become much more difficult to determine the pattern and to alter it. I think I’ll be looking at analysis of canon formation and more primary texts moving forward. While simply forcing more inclusion in literary study is an important part, the historian part of my mind leads me to believe that without focusing on what has happened, meaningful understanding and change cannot be made.

Fetterley’s Feminism: An Argument Against Universalism Built on Generalization

Judith Fetterley’s Introduction to The Resisting Reader is a strident statement of discontent with the way Fetterley feels the canon of American literature has been constructed. Fetterley begins by claiming that literature is political and sees it as necessary to inform her audience that this is “painful to admit” (991). This is confusing because she seems to be entirely motivated and fascinated rather than pained by political interests and self-interest. She includes a quote from John Keats supporting her assertion, and the time between the quote and her writing suggests that her assertion about political intents is not shocking or painful at all. Fetterley uses similar language throughout the essay and the first section of it, throwing terms such as “universal truths” and “confusion of consciousness” to make her statements seem more groundbreaking and revolutionary.

Fetterley relies more on the tone of her article than her actual argument to create that impression because her assertions are not revolutionary, and her demands are really just as exclusionary as the status quo she critiques. She creates a binary distinction between male and female, leaving out a plethora of excluded groups. She seems not to care about true inclusivity, but rather the inclusion of her narrative. Her seeming ignorance, based on its absence from her text, of people of color, gender queer, and non-binary individuals suggests a lack of reflection on self in preparation for writing this piece.

What “male” means to Fetterley is not expressly defined in this introduction, but that is almost as revealing as a definition would be. Because she chooses not to tell her audience what she means by the two identifiers her entire argument hinges, her writing exposes the ways she does exactly what she rebels against throughout the introduction. She assumes that her understanding of male and female is obvious, or as she likes to say, “universal” (991). That is not only ironic but suggests the lack of self-examination that becomes clearer and clearer as she continues her argument.

A moment that stuck out as relevant to my impressions was when Fetterley states, “To read the canon of what is currently considered classic American literature is perforce to identify as male” (991). This sentence reveals assumptions she has made about the nature of reading based on her individual experience. Fetterley believes that to read something and gain from the experience, the audience member has to identify with the subject or author’s sexual identity.

She says in her “Rip Van Winkle” example that, “universal desire is made specifically male. Work, authority, and decision-making, are symbolized by Dame Van Winkle, and the longing for flight is defined against her” (991). These, I would argue, are not the typical attributes stereotypically given to women and men. The stark contrasts she chooses to make support a reading of her as a binary and exclusionary thinker. She seems to see the term as a designated sex at birth rather than a spectrum. Much of this is a result of the time at which she was writing, but she also leaves out all racial identities aside from white, and that was not the only critical approach to literature in 1978.

Her focus on “female” inclusion in literary canon assemblage is not a fault, but her refusal to acknowledge any other group or identification that is left out of foundational literature (991). She also relies entirely on texts from long before she wrote this piece such as “Rip Van Winkle”, which forces her to pursue a negative argument in her opening that continues throughout the piece. She chooses not to argue for the merits of works including the female voice forces her to pursue an entirely negative argument. Rather than currying emphatic support, her rhetorical strategy and general diction choice led me and likely other audience members to have an echo reaction to her work, rejecting her narrow goals for the canon.