Meghan Cox Gurdon’s “Shakespeare Wasn’t Woke” is a text that calls out to be read as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Gurdon’s named enemies are the activist women of #Disrupt Texts who “challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum.” Her fear is that children will be “severed” from “classic books,” which have “earned their place in the literary pantheon” as beloved and influential texts, and will therefore be deprived of “their heritage.”
Writing about what he called “secular criticism,” Edward Said noted “the almost unconsciously held ideological assumption that the Eurocentric model for the humanities actually represents a natural and proper subject matter for the humanistic scholar. Its authority comes not only from the orthodox literary monuments handed down through generations but from the way this continuity reproduces the filial continuity of biological procreation.” Said does not add that the literary version of procreation has taken place mostly without mothers, generated from paternity alone. This is Harold Bloom’s fantasy in The Anxiety of Influence (1973). Through Oedipal conflict with other great male writers, great male writers, Zeus-like, give birth to books from their heads. Bloom’s The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages appeared in 1994. The measure of greatness? “Shakespeare is the canon,” Bloom writes. “He sets the standards and the limits of literature.” And yet, by the nineties, Bloom’s greatest hits of the West constituted a defensive bulwark against the many bullets fired at it since the 1960s.
The ancient Greek meaning of canon is a rod or bar used as a measure. Any canon of literary monuments rests on an “almost unconsciously” held assumption about measuring greatness, the idea that some texts are naturally invested with an almost mystical authority. Isn’t this what Gurdon relies on when she pulls out Shakespeare in a Bloomian gesture, but makes no argument for the writer except that “the Bard” has thrilled people “for the past five centuries”? Isn’t she depending on the fact that even those readers of The Wall Street Journal who haven’t touched Shakespeare since high school and have little memory of the experience are bound to drop their jaws at the suggestion that the name equated with a chain of superlatives might be “disrupted.”
The idea of a literary canon to be preserved and venerated is not ancient, but modern. Many scholars date its inception to the middle of the eighteenth century. Trevor Ross argues that “literature” emerged as a cultural idea in England with the shift of emphasis from the poet-maker to the consumer—the reader—which corresponded to the new material realities required by the demand for books and pamphlets from a growing literate population. Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital elaborates on the meaning of the change. “The producer of the value of the work of art is not the artist but the field of production as a universe of belief which produces the work of art as a fetish by producing the belief in the creative power of the artist.” The field of production is a material consortium—publishers, agents, reviewers, book clubs, literary festivals and prizes, which together generate collective ideas of value. Any writer who has won an important literary prize is aware of the enhanced status the award brings to her or his books, the words of which remain exactly the same. Bourdieu locates the power to canonize artworks in educational institutions, the locus of Gurdon’s anxiety.
She warns that The Great Gatsby is being read through “the male gaze.” She is no doubt aware that the mere mention of this “gaze” offers a quick route to indignance in her conservative readers as the phrase, after its leap from academe to pop culture, has turned into little more than a synonym for feminism. She quotes a young teacher, Carrie Mattern, who “disrupts” Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird. Her summary of the disrupters’ four claims includes number 3, “that books with retrograde or bigoted ideas injure young readers.” Does Gurdon contend that books shape young minds but have no power to injure them? How would she propose a teacher approach the anti-Semitic depiction of Fitzgerald’s character Meyer Wolfsheim in Gatsby or Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice? As for Mockingbird, my humble opinion is that its current deification cannot be easily detached from its role in the United States as salve for the middlebrow white conscience. I love Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, have written about it, and recently reread The Merchant of Venice, but I wouldn’t teach either without noting the brutality with which the Jew is portrayed in both works.
Our children’s book critic admits that canons do and should change. She is happy to cast off Goethe’s Werther, a work its author was also eager to forget after it inspired a rash of suicides across Europe by young men imitating the novel’s hero, a reading epidemic that not only injured vulnerable minds, it erased them. She replaces Werther with Zora Neale Hurston’s “once obscure” Their Eyes Were Watching God. She then acknowledges that literature is becoming “more diverse and globalized” and that “societies” are reckoning “with past injustice.” This is okay, but she demurs that the renegades want to “delegitimize classic books to shape a canon more to their taste.” Despite the pretense of fixity, canons are both fluid and temporal, and their legitimacy is determined by sociological realities and power structures vested with authority.
Jane Austen, now an industry in herself, with passionate fans in costume, mightily reinforced by film adaptations, was given a boost when her aged nephew published an obfuscating memoir about her in 1870. She wasn’t truly canonized until the twentieth century. F.R. Leavis, pugnacious ancestor of Harold Bloom, included Austen in his The Great Tradition (1948) but left out Dickens, snubbed Lawrence Sterne as “irresponsible, nasty and trifling,” and called Wuthering Heights “a kind of sport.” The name Olaudah Equiano was never mentioned in my eighteenth-century English literature course in college. His popular 1789 autobiography that includes his horrific experiences on a slave ship is being read again, as is Eliza Heywood, whom I discovered through my daughter who studied Fantomina in a class at Sarah Lawrence. Without a new canon, I might not have found either book.
And then there is the seventeenth-century writer, Margaret Cavendish, who went largely unread for centuries and, when mentioned, was usually ridiculed, most famously by Virginia Woolf. Cavendish was rediscovered by feminist literary scholars in the 1970s and by philosophers in the first two decades of this century. She has emerged, not only as a prodigious literary figure credited with producing the first work of science fiction, The Blazing World, but also as a formidable natural philosopher. One dissertation after another on Cavendish is popping out of philosophy departments around the world. An astute critic of both Descartes and Hobbes, her materialist, dynamic position on the mind/body problem resonates powerfully with current dilemmas in philosophy that turn on the very same seemingly intractable division. I have a forthcoming paper on her significance for debates in contemporary philosophy of biology. My scholarship is dependent on what Bloom stiffly resisted—reshuffling the canon.
The argument that children should see themselves “according to narrow identity categories” in books and read in a vernacular language “relevant to their lives” is contested by Gurdon on the premise that by reading classics, they “gain the opportunity to choose what they wish from humanity’s treasure-chest.” Of course, they have to learn to read first. “Here is the house. It is green and white,” Toni Morrison writes in the first lines of The Bluest Eye. “It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane…” The same paragraph dissolves into an unpunctuated mass, then into another mass of words undivided by spaces—textual acts of furious disruption. I learned to read with that antiseptic, ferociously dull white family Morrison dissolves. By the time black neighbors moved into Dick and Jane’s neighborhood when I was ten, I had watched in horror as white police beat Civil Rights demonstrators bloody on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on my family’s TV and had found Ann Petry’s biography of Harriet Tubman in the school library. There are reasons why black, brown, Jewish, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American children did not see themselves in learning-to-read books. Their exclusion was racist, ideological, and injurious.
Identity is a complex amalgam of human social particularities, the importance of which varies from culture to culture. I am opposed to all rigid identity categories. Like canons, identities are fluid and context dependent. Racism and sexism both insist on fixity and absolute natural borders and should be resisted on those grounds. Through my own reading I have become a person hermeneutically suspicious of countless conceptual categories. A brown child who sees a brown face in a stupid book about brown children may not find himself on the avenue to enlightenment, but a brown child who sees only white faces in books in a racist culture is bound to feel his painful marginality.
Gurdon summons canonized black writers’ love of “classic” literature to shore up her points as if merely citing these highly educated, anointed beings eliminates the worries that animate the disrupters. I read all the statements by the women I could find and listened to Lorena Germán on a long podcast, in which she mentioned research that establishes the strong connection between illiteracy and incarceration in the U.S. Teaching, she said, can be “a matter of life and death.” Making sure children learn to read may involve stories written in a vernacular that bears some resemblance to their own lives and which lures them to the library. Gurdon then quotes an elegant passage from W.E.B. De Bois. His crossing “the color line” with Balzac and Dumas is testament to reading as an imaginative movement across borders and its consequent expansion of consciousness.
She does not call on James Baldwin whose hymn to Shakespeare begins, “Every writer in the English language, I should imagine, has at some point hated Shakespeare, has turned away from that monstrous achievement with a kind of sick envy. In my most anti-English days I condemned him as a chauvinist (‘this England indeed!’) and because I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all—should be forced to assault the English language in order to speak—I condemned him as one of the authors and architects of my oppression.” Later in the same essay, he writes, “My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past.”
Gurdon wholly ignores what Baldwin stresses: the phenomenology of reading, its subjective character that is also always shaped by a personal and collective past. Every reader brings herself to a book, her prejudices, her private stories of pain and joy, her education or lack of it, her position in the societal hierarchy forged by history. What and how she reads is dependent on all of it. Every act of reading means giving up yourself to another’s voice, which becomes your inner voice as you read, and then perhaps part of your memory, but hard-won experience may be required to enter some texts, as Baldwin reminds us.
The pious invocation of “humanity’s treasure chest” suggests reading is not intersubjective, not made between a reader and the traces of another living consciousness on the page, that all readers are alike, and if our children are graced with the gift of the very same jewels, pearls, and gold ducats from said heritage chest collected by that anonymous being, Humanity, all will be well. At best, this is unforgivably naïve. At worst, it disguises an ideological agenda that erases this country’s history: heritage means Eurocentric. In American Indian Stories (1821), Zitkala Sa of the Lakota tribe describes “the extreme indignities” she suffered at White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute for tribal children. She is robbed of her soft clothes and shoes and loses her braids when her hair is “shingled like a coward’s.” She became a well-known writer, a violinist, and the hybrid product of two cultures, but the word heritage for her then and for many indigenous people now summons profound loss, not the Western canon.
Did I find the statements I read by the Disrupters theoretically subtle? No. Do I think their readings of books tend toward the reductive? Yes. Do I squirm when I read about punishment via moral outrage on Twitter? Yes. The Twitter fight began with Germán’s comment that so many books on the syllabus were written before 1950, which distressed her because just think what people believed back then. Does this suggest a lack of historical awareness? Yes. Do I think these young women are the enemy? No. I am a philosophical pluralist. Truth is never univocal. It arrives only in many voices from many perspectives, which is also true of the best works of literature.
There is an important discussion to be had about what losing shared texts may mean in a given culture and how fragmentation of knowledge has eroded communication. There is an important discussion to be had about how some texts enter the collective mind and refuse to leave it, how Plato, for example, for better and for worse, shaped culture with his outsized influence on Christianity, so that every person living in the Western hemisphere (and far beyond it), Christian or not, has been stamped with his influence. But Gurdon touches none of this. Years ago, I sat next to Edward Said at a dinner, and we mourned together the fact that Milton had been dropped from the great books syllabus for freshman at Columbia. Said was a professor of mine when I was a graduate student in English at that same school. We shared a love for Milton, but neither of us was blind to the immense difficulty of the writer’s language, the shifting character of canonical texts, or how the very idea of a canon is bound up with politics and exclusion.
Gurdon does not make a coherent argument for why what we have come to think of as classics are valuable or how that value is created over time. Seven days after an overwhelmingly white and mostly male horde of Trumpists, many of them driven by the racism and misogyny they share with their great leader, attacked the Capitol, Gurdon’s just-because defense of an amorphous canon aimed at women who argue for democratic inclusivity in the teaching of literature is not just ill-timed, it comes dangerously close to the equally empty argument that Confederate statues must be preserved as “our heritage,” without examining what that heritage is, where it came from, or what it means.