What is Literature?

Sources such as university English department web sites, Webster's and various online dictionaries present several different definitions of literature as an object of study. The most common definitions are:

    1.  "imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value"

    2.  "the collective body of works...on a given subject...[of a] country...or period"

    3.  "the class of writing distinguished for beauty, style, or expression...poetry, essays or history in distinction from scientific treatises..."

These definitions differ mainly in their range of exclusivity and their degree of subjectivity, which have become the basis of what has been termed the "canon wars" among literature scholars.

 

What are the "canon wars"?


A "canon" can refer to a church law, a general law or principle, or a collection of works. In the context of the literary canon wars, a canon is a collection of literature that is seen as rising to a particular standard and therefore, being worthy of study. In American literature, the canon has included the traditional writers, most of them male, including Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Irving, Poe, etc.

Scholars who defend teaching the traditional "great writers" tend to believe that having a standard set of texts ensures that students will learn the same literary values. They see literary knowledge as an equalizer that can help keep society together by encouraging a common standard of values. They subscribe to the third definition of literature.

The other side of the "war" is peopled by those who hold the more inclusive definition and don't hold the literature up to a particular standard. They feel that the standard is subjective, favors the literature written by a selective few (men, often those of wealth), and discounts important voices. "Shouldn't a democracy represent all of its people's voices?" they would ask. They subscribe to the second definition.

 

Why should we care?

The literary canon debate has politicized the teaching of American literature. How could this debate affect classes such as this one? What are some of the pros and cons of sticking to the traditional canon if your goal is to study how American literature got started and distinguished itself from English literature? Are there characteristics of the New World that call for one or the other approach?

(Group meetings)

 

Reading Schedule