Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Because, of course, Jack London sucks harder than many comics, Part II (My commenters wrote my first response to Bill's post for me. They nailed it so accurately posting what I'd originally written seems unnecessary. I'm neither kidding nor, it seems, necessary. So in the [likely] event of a [hilariously hi-jinxed] tragedy, Acephalous can [and should] live on.) Let me start with a statement that will annoy everyone: if a close-reading reveals that a work flirts with the formal elements of its genre or genres—whatever they may be—that work should be canonized. Not that works that fail to engage the formal limitations of their genre are uncanonizable, mind you, but works that succeed both as an example and a critique of a given genre deserve canonization. But canonization into what? In an age of inexpensive and practically limitless storage, the question of canonization need not be hidebound to the idea of preservation. Within its first month of operation, Google digitized the 99 percent of the Western Canon, and even though some of those works are too recent to be viewed, they'll all eventually be released as copyright expiration rolls forward. When I began my Mark Twain chapter in late 2005, for example, only the 1894 edition of Pudd'nhead Wilson was available through Google Book Search; by the time I began revising the chapter in the summer of 2008, I could track revisions of the novel over the span of two decades. Because Twain is culturally significant and canonical, the saturation of Google Books with variant editions of his most important works was inevitable. This was not. When I began working on The Youth of Washington (1904), I had to order it through interlibrary loan. It took three months to arrive. Henry Cabot Lodge's George Washington (1889), Paul Ford's The True George Washington (1896), Woodrow Wilson's George Washington (1896), Worthington Chauncey Ford's George Washington (1900) and Norman Hapgood's George Washington: A Biography (1901) trickled in. Had I held off on writing my chapter until I'd looked over all 140 of the novels of English Colonial or Revolutionary America published between 1895 and 1908, I'd still be waiting for interlibrary loan. Now all those Washington biographies are available, as are most of the historical novels I wanted to read for deep background. Are those novels good? No. Do they deserve canonization? No. Is it significant that as tensions between Spain and America strained and Americans became uncomfortable with the imperial pretensions of their leader, an appetite for works relating to Revolutionary figures or set in the Revolutionary period become incredibly popular? Might that not have something important to say about what Americans thought it meant to be American at the time? Is that not a viable object of study? Do I not ask a shitload of rhetorical questions when I get polemical? For a few of generations, English professors claimed that cultural knowledge was the provenance of the literary (what with perceptiveness being the core feature of literary sensibility). So when a scholar wanted to know how things stood between America and Europe at...

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