In the first chapter of The Western Canon, “An Elegy for the Canon,” Harold Bloom quotes W.H Auden, who said that “reviewing bad books is bad for the character.” Bloom uses the experience of W.H. Auden as a literary critic to justify the existence of “The” Western Canon.
Bloom writes that with the thousands of books being published every year, we need a guide of “suggested reading,” filled with the most prestigious minds of the ages, to avoid losing time reading material that won’t nourish our soul or our mind. This is how he begins his defense of “The” Western Canon.
He suggests not only certain authors and books but also certain editions and certain translations. Because of his long career studying, analyzing, reading books, we could say in his favor that he has the expertise and the knowledge to appropriate himself the colossal task reserved for the most respectable individuals in the history of the English language.
However, anybody in any other country of the Western Hemisphere who studies literature with his same passion (or maybe that simply enjoys the pleasure of reading) could ask: who gave him the right to decide who is and who is not in The Canon? Why accept “The” Western Canon of Bloom instead of “My” Canon? What if it was simply a modest List of Suggested Reading by Harold Bloom?
Bloom says that the task is necessary because of the permanent attacks to the departments of literature by a “new” school that pretends to judge literature with other tools than the tools of quality.
He defends his trench furiously because he said that literature is losing some of the most brilliants minds because of this permissiveness, this weakness of professionals who can not differentiate what is the best of the best and what is the worst of the worst.
To go to an extreme, how can anybody even dare to say that a drama written in North America in the 90’s has the same quality than any of the best tragedies of Shakespeare? Why has nobody –before Bloom– had the courage to put Shakespeare at the center of the Western Canon the way Whitman is at the center of the American Canon? Bloom, in a certain way, writes The Canon, as an obligation towards an art that he loves.
Certainly, there is a problem in a field of study where, as Taylor writes in the chapter 3 of the Mc Comiskey’s book –English Studies-, “now some departments are debating whether a course in Shakespeare should be required of all English Majors…many of whom are slipping through innocent of either Dryden or Milton” (216). To Bloom, this equates to an heresy–like telling somebody who studies Mathematics that it is not necessary to study addition, or, in the same field of Humanities, to deny Leonardo or Michelangelo their category of Masters.
As Taylor says, the Canon changes and some authors that were considered major authors at the beginning of the 20th Century aren’t read at all during the 21st Century nor considered in Literature Anthologies. Some of the major changes in the “new” Canons are the inclusion of women’s works.
The problem for Bloom, and certainly the problem for the most radical of the critics who defend the existence of “The” Western Canon, is that after the attack of cultural studies and “all the enemies” of literature as Bloom calls them, there seems to be no standard of quality at all. Now any book, independent of its quality, could be admitted into The Canon. Maybe because there is not an standard of quality anymore.
And, as the chairs of literature departments all over the country should know, the highest standards, the highest quality, is what allows them to get the most brilliant minds to register in their programs.
Shouldn’t the main goal of this profession be to reach the highest standards in the teaching of English studies, and to give every teacher of English the tools and the judgment to say what is good literature and what is bad literature? Is it possible to defend a literary text because of its quality (and to know what quality is?), and not because it has a “label” of “feminist lit”, “gay lit”, or “post colonialist lit”, etc?
Is it possible to love literature and at the same time to deny Shakespeare (or Dante, Whitman, Dickinson, Moore, Pound or Borges) their position in the Western Canon?