The word authority is not often associated with literature because it is often expressed in terms of canonicity: what makes a writer worth reading. In an age that inundates our minds with the diverting effects of our multifaceted media, the question naturally arises of whom Americans living in the twenty-first century should read and why. The concept of a uniquely American canon is not new, but neither is it a matter of accepted wisdom. Instead, the discussion of literature in America is one that is as varied and political as much of our society has become. Harold Bloom and Lawrence Levine have contributed to this conversation for much of the last half-century. In his book The Western Canon, Bloom employs his own lifelong love of reading to survey several writers whom he believes represent both the epitome of aesthetic value and their respective period and nation. Levine, on the other hand, seeks to place our discussion in its historical context by tracing the development of the American university and its curriculum in his work, The Opening of the American Mind. Together, they present two distinct yet occasionally converging streams of thought concerning our national canon.
Though the debate over canonicity has taken various forms over time, the basic criterion has always remained the same. Bloom states in his “Elegiac Conclusion” that the “only pragmatic test for the canonical” is what “I have read and think worthy of rereading” (484). Though simple, Bloom’s definition captures perfectly the nature of the canon from the perspective of readers. A truly “great” book cannot be fully grasped in a single encounter; it only grows deeper the more we dig. The true work of canonization, however, is accomplished by, “Writers, artists, composers themselves . . . by bridging between strong precursors and strong successors” (487). Canonization, then, is always an essentially elite activity undertaken by those with canonical qualities and potential themselves. To Bloom, then, the canon is about reading and remembering, precursors and successors, emulation and competition. Our primary concern, then, is not the content of the canon as much as the process of canonization, as Levine states in his chapter, “Canons and Culture,” “What we . . . need to do is worry less about what any specific canon contains and more about the nature of canons themselves: how they are constituted, what they represent, and how and why they change” (101).
So what does the American canon look like or does it even exist? One answer is this: “There has never been an official American literary canon, and there never can be, for the aesthetic in America always exists as a lonely, idiosyncratic, isolated stance” (Bloom 484). On this point, Bloom seems to have the history of the American academy on his side, whose curricula has changed with each generation. “The rise of industrial America finally led to the demise of the classical curriculum and the adoption of the elective system; World War I promoted a sense of Western civilization; World War II and the Cold War heightened the sense of Americanness and a concern with things American” (Levine 99-100). In other words, though it may be true that certain works have typically been viewed as canonical throughout our history, “The canon changes constantly because historical circumstances and stimuli change and people therefore approach it in myriad ways, bringing different perspectives and needs to it, reading it in ways distinctive to the times in which they live, and emerging with different satisfactions and revelations” (Levine 93).
Though it would at first seem that both Bloom and Levine are in agreement, it must be realized that such agreement is limited to the specific question of the fluctuating content of the American canon. The assumptions on which these views have been expressed, however, are in reality quite opposed. Whereas Bloom views canonization as the product of a literary elite (and perhaps therefore non-American, though not un-American), Levine presents it as an essentially public affair more commensurate with his own view on American identity (a theme that he deals with later in his work).
The logical conclusions of each author’s approach to the canon then become clear. While Levine could not fathom a canon that ignored the contemporary works of our multicultural society, Bloom recommends withholding judgment on a writer until “about two generations” after his death, to verify the extent of his influence (487). While Bloom would agree with Levine’s claim that, “The debate over the canon is now, and has always been, a debate over the culture and over the course that culture should take” (Levine 100), he denies that literature ever had the power to change the world. He also agrees that “the debate over multiculturalism is an old one that has occupied us from early in our existence as a people” (Levine 101), but does believe this implies a march toward multiculturalism. This is not to say Bloom does not see the full potential of other national literatures, since he and “the social changers . . . seem to agree on the canonical status of Pynchon, Merrill, and Ashbery as three American presences of our moment” (Bloom 492). He simply does not believe that we “benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare,” especially if they are poor writers (Bloom 487).
On the question of our national canon, then, Bloom and Levine present fundamentally distinct views that agree substantially on American literary and academic history – both understand the historical development of the curriculum in our universities but provide starkly different interpretations of the facts. Bloom views the canon as the creation of writers as they chose their influences; Levine sees it as an extension of popular culture. Bloom denies the social import of literature; Levine sees possibilities because of his identification of “Americanness.” Bloom looks for greatness in a diversity of places, but Levine sees greatness only in diversity. In the end, however, both can agree on one thing: since the inception of our nation as a republic, we have never had an authoritative body of writings for which all Americans were expected to read. Whether that situation is to be lauded or lamented is another question entirely.