Becoming Canonical in American Poetry.
Morris, who teaches English at the University of Texas at Arlington, begins by reflecting on the historical and cultural forces that have guided the assigning of value and the creation of a uniquely American literary tradition. While the authority of a single monolithic canon has been widely contested, even debunked, by contemporary critics, he points out, residues of traditional canons and the standards that undergird them persist in the academy. Furthermore, though most scholars are willing to acknowledge the hegemonic political motivations that underlie canon formation, there is little agreement about which political and aesthetic standards should govern the formation of revisionary canons.
By analyzing the reception of their works, Morris focuses on how the work of four "major" poets - Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop - became canonized. The three female poets, Morris convincingly argues, achieved critical approval less on their intrinsic merits - which were considerable - than in terms of their relationship to an American poetic tradition epitomized by Whitman. This tradition, argues Morris, took shape as a literary expression of American nationalism articulated early in the history of the republic. This poetic tradition needed an exemplar - in the words of one early anthologist, "a bard who sang democracy, our great citizenship, God-love, and the comradeship of the throbbing, suffering, hoping, majestic human heart" (qtd. 27). The tradition that formed around Emerson, Thoreau, and especially Whitman valorized what Morris calls a "poetics of presence," a set of aesthetic values including originality, organicism, and monologic rhetoric. By "presence" Morris means the reading public's belief that the work of art represents an extension of the artist's life, a public statement about a unified, heroic self with whom readers may identify and competitors emulate.
If Walt Whitman had not existed, Morris suggests, he would have to have been invented. Epitomizing the poetics of presence, Whitman became the Shakespeare of American poetry, the standard by which all other poets were judged. In his second chapter, aptly titled "Whitman as American Homer," Morris outlines what he calls the "prereception" of Whitman: the impetus in American critical writing, beginning with Anne Bradstreet and continuing through the early nineteenth century, for a sort of "great American poet" to carry the nationalist agenda of American originalism into battle against a venerable English literary tradition. Whitman's public persona facilitated the canonization of his poetry. His self-consciously idiosyncratic voice, his iconoclastic celebration of sexuality, and his departures from traditional poetic technique combined to earn Whitman a reputation of perfect innovation: as R. W. B. Lewis intoned a century later, "There is scarcely a poem of Whitman's that does not have the air of being the first poem ever written, the first formulation in language of the nature of persons and of things and of the relations between them, and the urgency of the language suggests that it was formulated in the very nick of time, to give the objects described their first substantial existence" (qtd. 42).
If Whitman "was" American poetry, how did a poet as different from Whitman as Emily Dickinson manage to become canonical within a few years of her death - especially considering critics' traditional hostility toward women poets? As Palumbo-Liu and Templin confirm, the canon has traditionally excluded works written by ethnic minorities and women. Those works written by "outsiders" that become canonized are often included because they can be read as conforming or deferring to the political assumptions of the dominant culture - and in the case of American poetry, Morris argues, the valorization of a poetics of presence. Dickinson's works were included, Morris suggests, because she could be read contra Whitman, as creator of a kinder, gentler, feminized poetics of presence. Despite her bold originality, multifarious voices, and bracing organicism, Dickinson has been consistently constructed as an Ideal Woman Poet: nonthreatening, nunlike, and, most important, dead before she entered critical discourse. Dickinson's poetry may actually be aesthetically superior to Whitman's; it is dialogic rather than monologic, intertextual, ironized, and governed by an ethos that resists artificial coherence. Yet Dickinson's reputation has been constructed less on her aesthetic accomplishments than on her apparent conformity to male critics' ideas of ideal femininity. Anthologists, editors, biographers and critics have tended to praise what was decorative, diminutive, regional, apolitical in her work, and to condemn her innovations as technical failures. The prevalence of such misprisions - as well as a slew of bizarrely eroticized "tributes" - prompt Morris to deem Dickinson "the woman poet as virginal site, pried loose from Victorian prudery by publication after her death and made to submit to the critical urges of liberal males" (xiii). Morris's rape metaphor betrays the depth of his outrage at the way Dickinson has been belittled as she has become canonical.
Morris reads Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, two twentieth-century female poets who have enjoyed more limited membership in the Canonical Club, as inheritors of the Whitman/Dickinson project. Yet, like Dickinson, both were constructed in terms of their appropriate difference from the Great Master. While Pound, Williams, and other male poets were busy building competing poetics of presence, Moore was framed in terms of her organicism. Towards the end of her career, her own metaphors were used to restrain her; constructed as a birdbath in one of her own imaginary gardens - or like one of her exotic animals, but imprisoned in a zoo. As her public persona became increasingly popular after her 1952 Pulitzer Prize, Moore's academic reputation declined. Though her art persistently focuses on ethical and philosophical issues, Moore was constructed as a miniaturist, merely a technical virtuoso, a poet of nature and animals. Elizabeth Bishop, perhaps the most elliptical of the four poets in Morris's study, has been received with even less approbation, damned with faint praise as a descriptive poet content merely to observe. Bishop's consistent evasion of presence - narratorial or otherwise - in her poems and in her literary persona probably exacerbated this misprision. Only since her 1979 death have critics begun to speculate about Bishop's personal reasons for avoiding the confessional mode: as a lesbian, an expatriate, an alcoholic, a depressive, an agnostic, a postmodernist, she was at all points an outsider to mainstream experience - precisely the kind of "woman poet" on whom hostile critics might practice their punches.
As an antidote to this history of vexed misreadings, Morris offers several later feminist readings which begin to map out the female poets' alternative poetics of present absence. He concludes with several provocative readings of Dickinson, ending with Elizabeth Bishop's 1952 review of a Dickinson biography that was the first attempt to address the apparently female lover addressed in several Dickinson poems. Bishop, herself a lesbian, rejects the notion of a particular female lover not because of politics but because, as Bishop said, "a poet may write from source other than autobiographical" (qtd. 144). Readings like Bishop's, Morris argues, epitomize his ideal of canon revision: they allow the reader to find what Whitman himself called "unsuspected literatures" - even among canonical poets.
If Dickinson, Moore, and Bishop were successful at entering the canon because of their obliquity, the contemporary poet and novelist Erica Jong represents their opposite: the woman writer whose works and life have failed to garner approval from the mostly-male critical establishment. Charlotte Templin, a professor of English at the University of Indianapolis, does not aim to shore up Jong's critical reputation or to predict her endurance in the marketplace of taste. Instead she reveals that because it has served as a lightning rod for discussions of feminism and female sexuality, Jong's work has been savaged for political rather than aesthetic reasons. Templin's argument is complicated, however, by the fact that Jong's work has not been universally condemned by conservative male critics and writers; indeed, two male writers known for their conservative sexual politics - Henry Miller and John Updike - have been instrumental in securing Jong international public acclaim and lucrative publishing contracts.
Jong's most influential novel, Fear of Flying, enjoyed widespread acclaim even before its publication in 1973. Templin notes that its combination of comedy, explicit sex, and feminist rhetoric ignited anxieties smoldering beneath the surface of middle-class, white American culture. Though the novel was a massive commercial success, it was ravaged by most critics, whose ad feminam diatribes against Jong and her novel's apparent feminism probably revealed more about the critics than about the text. (Templin provides many juicy excerpts from reviews that fairly ooze with pompous, paranoid outrage.) The wide-ranging exploits of Jong's heroine, Isadora Wing - who abandons her husband at an academic conference to travel through Europe with her lover while reflecting on her licentious, much-married past - seemed to galvanize middle-class men's fears even as they stimulated middle-class women's fantasies. Feminist reviewers, interestingly enough, focused primarily on Isadora's aspiration to be a writer rather than on her sexual exploits, which they read as fantasies. Male reviewers, however, tended to be less sympathetic; zeroing in on her apparent use of the confessional mode, they damn author and heroine together as one bad woman - a kind of Robespierre of the Sexual Revolution.
Though Fear ofF lying was largely drubbed by the critics, its sexually explicit feminism and best-seller status endowed it with sufficient literary value to ensure Jong's canonization as a public intellectual. Fear of Flying's ability to galvanize a group of female readers and to enrage many members of the critical establishment cannot be underestimated. Yet not all female readers were delighted and not all male critics were enraged. Many feminists were troubled by the ideological implications of Fear of Flying, whose heroine ultimately affirms patriarchal standards of female conduct by returning happily to her husband and her bourgeois marriage at the end of the novel. Moreover, both John Updike and Henry Miller reviewed Fear of Flying positively primarily because they saw Jong as a fellow pioneer in the construction of a sexually explicit literature - a literature that has been roundly critiqued as sexist and antifeminist. If the greatest strength of Templin's book is its marshaling of many critical voices, its greatest weakness lies in its failure to follow out the implications of this contradiction in the reception of Jong's work.
Though Templin provides a nice balance of narrative and theoretical analysis, bringing us both the details of Jong's latest succes de scandale and a rundown of cultural and reception theory from Bourdieu to Radway, the reader has an increasing sense that Jong deserves to be considered a popular rather than a literary writer. None of the works she produced after Fear ofF lying has enjoyed its overnight popularity. Fanny, written as an eighteenth-century epistolary picaresque novel, enjoyed critical acclaim if not immense sales. Most of Jong's other works, however, such as the Fear of Flying sequel How to Save Your Own Life, were critical and popular disappointments. Jong has managed to sustain her reputation as a woman of letters, Templin notes, in part by using the media to market herself. The most interesting parts of the book are those in which Templin analyzes Jong's interaction with various media, especially television. Conventionally attractive (an ambiguously cutesy photograph of her is featured on the cover jacket), articulate, and witty, Jong has argued that, thrust into the limelight after Fear of Flying, she was obligated to defend herself against charges of indecency leveled by hostile critics.
Becoming a media product has also worked against Jong, specularizing and sexualizing her rather than endowing her with an authoritative subjectivity. Jong's frankness as a literary persona is read as unsympathetically as the frankness in her writings: her clothing, diction, and behavior are discussed in endless detail; she is undone by the portion of the male establishment that promises to admit her, as when Playboy interviewed her (ordinarily, apparently, a tribute to a writer) then headlined the piece "Erica Jong Bares Her Mind" (187). What Templin calls the "mediatization" of Jong's career simply brings a new dimension to an old problem - the problem of cultural authority of the female writer who dares, in her works or in her life, to diverge from the mainstream.
Erica Jong's cheerful participation in her own exploitation embodies the contradiction David Palumbo-Liu et al. see in "ethnic" literary works that manage to gain admittance to mainstream canons. Though multiculturalism is widely integrated into the US academy, multiculturalist literary works are assimilated only insofar as they can be read as conforming to mainstream, dominant-culture values and aesthetics. In most classrooms, he asserts, the reading of texts by minority writers is constructed by teachers and critics to remove any traces of counterhegemonic discourse, any critique of mainstream culture. He provides a history of the ethnic diversification of postsecondary education in the United States, noting that increases in ethnic student populations have been followed by demands to expand literary canons to include works by ethnic writers. The reading of ethnic literatures is ostensibly designed to achieve the dual and conflicting goals of managing classroom racial tensions and giving minority students a voice. Yet in practice, classroom readings of such texts may actually serve to essentialize and stereotype marginalized students. Neither the mainstream nor the marginalized student is served by this exercise in eliding difference. If anything, Palumbo-Liu implies, tensions attributable to ethnic differences are exacerbated rather than eased by the "ethnic canon" as it is currently read.
Like Morris and Templin, Palumbo-Liu, who teaches comparative literature at Stanford University, seeks not to change the texts in existing canons but to change the way we read them. He is relentless in affirming the counterhegemonic potential of ethnic literature, though, as several chapters in his book will indicate, some "ethnic" writers, such as Richard Rodriguez, to whom two chapters are devoted in this volume, are conservative assimilationists. What is surprising about Palumbo-Liu's introduction is the extent to which he perceives mainstream canon(s) as monolithic and his own enterprise of rethinking the "ethnic canon" as unique. In fact, bringing forward resistant readings is a by-now traditional goal of canon revisers, who generally seek to resurrect unjustly marginalized texts. Another issue raised by this anthology is its rhetorical disjunction between form and content. If, as Audre Lorde has famously said, "the master's tools will never dismantle the author's house," why are so many of the essays in The Ethnic Canon burdened by needlessly Latinized and nominalized theoretical jargon, a discourse permeated by the white European epistemological assumptions these writers seek to overcome?
I found most useful the chapters that endow Palumbo-Liu's basic argument with a perspective that might be considered uniquely ethnic. In the inspiring "'Border Studies': The Intersection of Gender and Color," Paula Gunn Allen grounds discussion of the rise of "ethnic studies" in a series of reflections on her personal experience as an academic and as a woman of color, rejecting the politics of subversion as merely reactive. Instead she proposes a kind of poetics of absence and of interrelation, celebrating the spiritual and creative potential of "the void," all that is implicitly feminine, unseen, immanent. She concludes by encouraging ethnic writers to stop trying to take down the master's house - which is built on shaky ground anyway - and to attend to their own creative works, build their own "houses." The remaining essays in the anthology, unfortunately, do not follow Gunn Allen's directive - which, to be fair, is directed more at creative artists than at revisers of canons. Predictably, they focus instead on situating ethnically canonized works within existing theoretical frameworks, literary traditions, and literary history. Readers interested in the politics of assimilationism will be interested in Norma Alarcon and Rosaura Sanchez's paired essays on the works and career of Richard Rodriguez. Elliott Butler finds in Bakhtin's theories of dialogicity, polyphony, and carnival an appropriate lens for interpreting Morrison's Song of Soloman and Ellison's Invisible Man. Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong reveals the social forces that have helped Amy Tan rise to prominence as "the" popular representative of writing by Asian-American women. The closing section of the book features essays by E. San Juan Jr. and Barbara Christian questioning the idea that ethnic literary texts "represent" certain groups of people. Colleen Lye argues that David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly foregrounds gender issues at the expense of political critique and demonstrates how this reading shifts when it is presented and promoted differently in different nations.
If revising mainstream canons is difficult, the enterprise of creating and revising ethnic canons is doubly difficult. As Palumbo-Liu and many of the writers in the anthology indicate, canonization echoes colonization, an institution all too familiar to "ethnic" peoples as well as to women, who perhaps form the largest and most persistent colony of people on earth. Yet with the recognition that there are "canons" and not "a canon" comes a sense of relief. Perhaps I follow a wrongly monocultural impulse in wanting to find common ground among these three volumes, all of which move fluidly within various theoretical frameworks, marshaling historical evidence to demonstrate how things have been read and how we ought to read them in the future. Yet the existence of these three books is evidence that change, however glacial in its slowness, is possible.
Jadwin teaches English at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY. Her volume on Charlotte Bronte (co-authored with Diane Hoeveler) will be published by Twayne in 1997.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1996|
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