Ross School - Senior Project 2008-09

Student: Jasper Creegan 

Mentor: Shelby Raebeck

Title: “Canonize Me”


For my senior project I am studying the literary canon and what it means to canonize a novel. I have established my own criteria for what makes a novel great. Mr. Raebeck is my mentor and he has had me read both analytical essays and fictional novels that will help me establish myself as a reader. I have drawn influence from E. M. Forster, Henry James, Aristotle, James Baldwin, Harold Bloom, and Flannery O’Connor. My final product will be a series of essays covering everything from the history of the canon, the canonical debate, my criteria for the greatness of a novel, a defining dissection of the novel, and a section on the American novel. I will also be referencing to the great novels Mr. Raebeck has had me read in order to convey my ideas with concrete examples.

Canonize Me

            The goal of this project was ambiguous to being with. I can remember beginning to write my product rubric and realizing how unsure I was of my own ambitions so I decided instead to be vague and as general as possible. However, while the product progressed, I began visualizing what I would be writing and what form this paper would take. Both novelists and critics alike will agree that a novel begins at the beginning, and at its conception, the final shape may be unpredictable. My paper evolved similarly to the way a novel does. Yes, my mentor and I made some hazy goals and objectives, but the paper mostly took its own paths while the thoughts came together on the pages. And while I had to read a great deal before beginning, much of what I learned did not become clear to me until I had to put it in my own words with my own ideas intertwined.

            The senior project is a personal exploration and discovery, and I tried to keep the paper natural to me and not overly objective or matter of fact. I believe that I made the right choice in allowing the paper to develop and flow. Although an analytical essay is entirely different than a fictional novel, this process of improvising has made clear to me what critics like James, Baldwin, and O’Connor mean when they discuss the danger in beginning a novel with a “theme”. Their concepts have shown me how founding a novel on some politicized social issue takes so much away from the aesthetic value of the novel. What makes great novels interesting is how they simply create and flow and leave the reader to fill in the blanks and think, because thinking will always be more intriguing than plain listening. The novelist of a canonical novel allows his readers to draw their own conclusions so he does not feel the need to tell them, it is a give and take relationship. Much like a painting, the artist creates a representation that can be extremely accurate or not, and then the artist displays the work allowing for interpretation and understanding. After all, what would be the point of art if it allowed only one interpretation?

            Most importantly, this project has changed the way I look at literature. Though reading has always been a passion of mine, I feel that I never really considered applying the word “beauty” to the novel. I have learned to find beauty in the technique, the form and style, and the richness of the content. I have become a more analytical reader but this has only heightened my appreciation for literature instead of flattening it. Furthermore, the critical essays and works I read actually taught me an incredible amount. I feel that the conclusions I have drawn and the things I have learned about literature should be taught to any student with a passion for reading or writing.

            This is another controversial topic: what should be taught? While Harold Bloom believes that those that show an aptitude in literary courses should be taught the canon, and all the rest should be left to politicized curriculums, I do not feel this can be so easily distinguished. I do believe that reading and learning great novels exponentially improves the student and the intellect, but it is hard to fit them into high school and even college curriculums. Integration between English and History has led to the teaching of novels that are primarily concerned with relating to the historical context being studied. I am not sure what to think of this. On one hand, these novels are useful because they help the student understand the time period. However, does the student lose the opportunity to be taught greater works of literature? Maybe the canon does not have a place in academia, but I feel this cannot be either. Maybe the word “canon” shouldn’t even be applied to literature. As mentioned at the start of my paper, canons have upheld the values of cultures paramount to our world’s history. So what does it mean to make a literary canon? I admit the word itself may be too grand for its usage; yet, I do feel the novels in the canon deserve their proper place in literary history.

            When I began this project I thought I felt the opposite of Harold Bloom. I thought I thought that the canon did need to be expanded and opened. I unfairly assumed that Bloom was a stiff conservative traditionalist who simply did not want to see the canon admit new demographics and peoples. However, once I actually read his arguments and followed them up with other critical views, I realized that I did side with him. I do feel that literature is a form of art and not a medium for voicing sociopolitical opinions or calling attention to a social flaw or issue. When I do find one of those works of literary art that is utterly beautiful, I am reminded once again of the value found in great literature.

            My title for this project is not my way of saying that I hope to be esteemed as a “canonical critic” as Bloom calls Samuel Johnson, only that I sought to immerse myself in the canon. In doing so, I was forced to first identify the novel and what it means for one to be great. I use “canonize” in a different context than its usual application. I am really not sure that any person can be canonized. I try to understand how early Christians canonized martyrs for leading such holy lives, but the concept seems somewhat foreign to me. Personally, I find that the Ancient Greek kanons, the original canons, were the most tangible. When we look at their methods of creating an archetype for all aspects of society, our own literary canon may seem more appropriate. The Greeks did make canons for such things as literature and music and their society is considered one of the most historically influential and enduring. However, these were specific to the Greeks and our canon has been applied to the world. I do not think the canon needs to be fixed. Instead, it should simply be left to take shape on its own.            Finally, all I can say is that what will ultimately gauge one’s appreciation for a novel is their likeness for it. However, that likeness is not enough to justify greatness. I have read books that I loved yet are not esteemed nearly as highly as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, which I enjoyed but certainly did not love. Henry James says that the critic has no place critiquing a book he does not like, and I could not agree more. Flannery O’Connor decides not even to get into specifics and instead just makes generalizations on bad or wrong literature. What is interesting about all this information is that while it has taught me immensely about literature, it does not teach me anything about the process of writing literature. I know that this is because as a form of art, literature should not be limited to guidelines. The best creative writing courses can at most allow the writer to learn through practice, not step-by-step instruction. In these four months I have become a better reader and analyzer that will largely influence me as a student and intellectual.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York: Grove P, 2005.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. New York: Beacon P, 1984.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon : The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead Trade (Paperbacks), 1995.

Fiedler, Leslie A., and Charles B. Harris. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Dalkey Archive P, 1997.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harvest Books, 1956.

Hardison, O. B. Aristotle's Poetics : A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature. Trans. Leon Golden. New York: University P of Florida, 1981.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1996.

James, Henry. Henry James: Literary Criticism Vol. 1 : Essays, American and English Writers. Ed. Leon Edel and Mark Wilson. New York: Library of America, The, 1984. 44-65.

McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage, 1993.

McMurtry, Larry. Lonesome Dove : A Novel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Melville, Herman, and Charles Child Walcutt. Moby-Dick. Ed. Charles Child Walcutt. New York: Bantam Classics, 1920.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage, 2004.

O'Brien, Tim. Going after Cacciato. New York: Broadway, 1999.

O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1961. 51-86.

Scott, A. O. "In Search of the Best." The New York Times 21 May 2006, sec. Books: 1-5. New York Times. 21 May 2006. 5 Nov. 2008 <

Sheppard, Gerald T. "Canon." The Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Mircea Eliade. Vol. 3&4. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 62-68.

Twain, Mark, and Alfred Kazin. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Bantam Classics, 1981.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat's Cradle. New York: Dial P Trade Paperbacks, 1998.

Community Member (Details)

Before I had even begun writing my essay, I contacted Mr. Nelson regarding my project. He was immediately willing to be my outside consultant too, and I was equally excited. From my experiences with him as a freshman, I knew he would supply me with a full arsenal of unmitigated criticism. Even my email regarding my objective for my project was criticized and dissected by Mr. Nelson. The questions he raised forced me to really consider what my goals were. Unfortunately, I have deleted this email as I received it in late September. However, I have here the few pages I sent him at first and his corresponding comments in red:

A Brief History of the Word “Canon”

            To canonize is to elevate and exalt to an immutable degree of immortality [to florid and over-written a phrase.  Can you tone it down a little, and be more precise?]. It is to proclaim someone or something so sacred or significant that its greatness cannot and must not be forgotten. The creation of a canon is driven by selection; for something to be admitted it must first be chosen. It is the constant struggle between what is best and what is not.  This struggle does not stem from the canon; to distinguish between good and bad is instinctual to human nature and extends to all aspects of society.  [This last sentence seems off-point to me.  The key here is choice, selection.  Who chooses?  What criteria do they use?  Why choose?  Your ensuing paragraphs develop this notion; so write a concluding sentence for this paragraph that provides a better transition.]

            The Greek word kanon was used to signify a categorical grouping that embodies an aesthetic norm. The Greeks sought to establish an archetype in all fields. Grammar, music, the arts, ethics, physical beauty, and architecture for example, each had their own “canons.” But the word kanon itself is taken from a Semitic word meaning reed, both as a shaft and as a rod to use as measurement. So tracing the word canon to its roots, we see the concept of the standard. A standard that is to be set and that all else is to be measured against. [incomplete sentence; why?] And what achieves this standard is canonized, is included in that field’s canon.  [Pretty strong paragraph.  Consider discussing the Greek notions of archetype and Ideal further?  There is a powerful philosophical substratum here: if you can demonstrate (or at least suggest) that the Greek kanon is emblematic of the Greek preoccupations with the Ideal, the Good, the True Forms, you will have located the roots of your subject in a compelling and seminal place!  As you know, Dr. Sacks is your local Ross expert on classical Greek thought.]

            Though the Greeks were the first creators of a canon, the term was adopted and popularized by religion [early Christians] during the first three centuries CE. The Roman Church gave the word new meanings. Being canonical came to signify a standard of authentic Christianity, and categorical canons were created to separate either people or orders. There were collections of canonical laws and canonized clergymen which were said to attain a merit of Christianity. The Greek word kanon became canon or regula in Latin churches. In the Middle Ages, every peremptory decision of the Church was included in the ius canonicum (canonical laws). Canon was combined with law. The canon law became a constitution of sorts for the Roman Catholic Church.  [This paragraph seems somewhat imprecise to me.  I yearn to know more precisely what the Church wished to accomplish by developing canon law.  Your prevailing point—that “canon” became tantamount to “law” governing religious behavior—is a powerful one!  Demonstrate this, and shift your tone slightly to underscore its importance!  (You seem a bit matter-of-fact here.)]

            However, the word was also applied to ecclesiastical literature as well as order. Though The New Testament obviously came after the Old Testament, it was the Christians that first designated their sacred texts as being a canon in 450 CE. While the Hebrew scripture was called “that which is read” and basically was held with the same regard as that of the Christians, it was not given the term “canon.” Scholars argue however whether the term was used to distinguish a general “norm” or a specific list. I would argue that the specific list is bound by a general norm therefore the two come hand-in-hand.  [A confusing and vague paragraph.  What is the evidence for the New Testament being deemed “canonic”?  “specific list”? of what?  What the deuce does your final sentence mean??!!]

            The concept of glorifying religious scriptures as an unattainable category of their own [is that the concept you’ve been discussing in the previous paragraph?  Make this clearer?  This “concept” is important—but it’s not absolutely clear that you have been elucidating it in previous paragraphs.]  is not found only in Western religions. In Confucianism there are the “Five Classics”, and in India the sutras of Mahayana Buddhism form their own canon. Hinduism separates ritualistic and epic literature into respective “canons.”  [A tantalizing point.  But in order for it to be compelling, I think you need to elaborate.  Otherwise you’ve made an intriguing generalization that ropes Confucian, Buddhist, and Hindu texts into the same general category—while in reality these texts are very different, and their “canonic” roles are distinctly different in their respective cultural contexts.]

            As a species evolves, so does a word. And as we can be traced to our primatial [what?] ancestors, the word “canon” can be traced to its roots. Since its earliest meanings, “canon” has always meant standard. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged” covers not only religion, but all fields to which a canon is applied.  [Major Anticlimax!!!!!!  You’ve ostensibly been tracing the evolution of “canon” in western culture—and you choose this moment to drop in the OED definition??  You haven’t honored your own worthy instincts and strategy:  we need a concluding paragraph here that summarizes the powerful, if changing, meaning and role that “canon” has played in the West.  The Greeks and the Roman Catholic Church are perhaps the two most important sources of Western culture that we have!  If “canon” was so important to them, its use now may bear the residue—or power—of its earlier connotations and significance!!!!!]

Although I didn’t elaborate on each and every one of his comments, I was forced to take many into account for my whole project. Here is an email he sent me before I left for Belgium. He was a little bit late getting me more comments so I wasn’t able to incorporate all his ideas without entirely restructuring my paper, but I was very grateful for his efforts.

Hi Jasper,

I've gone through your entire draft, and have interpolated lots of comments.

I think there is a fundamental problem with your approach.  Simply put, you have accepted the canon, and the concept of literary "greatness", without rigorously examining the criteria used by critics to judge literary quality.  Your topic is fundamentally interesting, I think, NOT because you accept Bloom's claims for canonic value but because of the very messiness of those claims!  As I write in some of my comments:  WHO determines canonic value?  What criteria do they use?  (How could the very vague, general term "illuminating" stand as a plausible criterion of "greatness"??)  Do claims for the "universality" of the canon hold up in a world filled with different peoples who have cultivated distinctively different literary traditions?

Of what value is the canon -- according to Bloom, or O'Connor, or James, or you??!!  What do we gain by attempting to uphold the canon of literary works -- this is an important question, because it is laden with values?  Your paper is, in some real sense, about what I might call the "adjudication (and perhaps even imposition) of values."  Whose values count?  Who says?  Although you seem to dismiss the notion that the canon has been imposed by people in power, isn't there some validity to that notion?  Equally important, what do we lose by imposing or defining a canon??  Again, don't claims for the importance of the canon rest on a specific value system, a system devised by Western white folks (mostly men) -- a system that may well not reflect the values and experiences of others?  What happens when one presumes to impose that system on others?  What, again, is lost??

Your discussion of specific works--Huckleberry Finn in particular--is more solid and more interesting than your theoretical discussion, I think.  Why is this?  Because you begin to identify what it is about this novel that makes it uniquely (not universally!) interesting.  Isn't there a real risk of the canon sweeping into one broad category a wide range of books that are distinctly, uniquely compelling--that is, distinctly interesting in unique ways that might even defy (or at least transcend) any broad claims one might make about traits they share??  I know that this amounts to a refutation of one of your central claims!  Still, I put it out there and invite you to wrestle with it.  I might be willing to accept your claims if you offer more substantive evidence and a more precise argument.  But as it stands, I find that the main first half of your essay is unnecessarily over-focused on the distinction between those novels that have some political agenda and those that don't.  Humbug!  I'd be greatly enthused if you re-focused your attention on the central questions which, after all, YOU raise towards the beginning of the essay.  Aren't non-white, non-male writers under-represented in the canon?  Doesn't this reveal the fact that canonic criteria are established by white males?  And--this is a good point that you do make, one that you could make stronger--isn't there a long history of canon-making in the West (Greeks, Catholic Church)?  Isn't, then, the "canon" a remnant of this history of exclusion and discrimination and taste-making and passing of Judgment??!!  I think that there is the potential here for a shifting of perspective to address the real, messy heart of the matter.  Rather than a defense of the canon--which is what your essay is now--your project could more thoughtfully consider the problematic ramifications of the canon. . . .

That said, I realize that it may be too late to undertake such a re-direction -- in which case I apologize for raising these questions so vigorously!!!  There are moments of clarity and insight here.  Most of them emerge when you free yourself from Bloom's shadow and think for yourself, as with your considerations of Dickens and Twain.  Your love of literature comes across very clearly here.  I'd love it if you could export some of the thoughtful specificity of your discussion of specific novels to your discussion of the canon in its history and its aesthetic and social richness/complexity.

If you want to discuss these or related matters on the phone, I'm reachable at (909) 624-3274.  It might be easier for me to clarify my points--and you yours!--in an actual conversation....!

I'm honored to be included in this process; and I will not be offended if you toss all of my remarks into the recycle bin!  I'm most interested in and animated by your topic, which is an ambitious and important (and complex) one.  Good luck in bringing the project to a compelling conclusion.  And again, don't hesitate to fire questions my way in the course of the next several days.

all best,

Mark Nelson