Literary Canon

Oft debated among literary critics is the seemingly all-important “literary canon.” What pieces of writing deserve to be considered canonical? What stories, what books deserve to be elevated above others? What makes Charles Dickens’ works or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works deserve to be canonized but not John Grisham’s or Nicholas Sparks’? One way to answer these questions is to say that the literature one was taught in school becomes more substantial than the rest to you and, in turn, that is what you consider canonical. This argument seems somewhat circuitous and leads to a proverbial chicken vs. egg debate. Still, there is some merit in the idea that what your predecessors thought was valuable is what you consider valuable.

The debate regarding canonical literature was presumably also prevalent during the American Romantic period. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau dedicated some of their writing to discussing what they considered canonical literature and what qualities made writing worth reading. Emerson does so in his essays “The American Scholar” and “The Poet”; Thoreau does so in his section of Walden; or, Life in the Woods entitled “Reading.” Like canonical literature of today, their reasoning may, in some respects and to some extent, be linked to their educational backgrounds.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s education began before he was three years old. His father was very concerned with the constant education and intellectual stimulation of all of his children, especially Ralph Waldo. In their spare time, they were reading books such as Whelply’s Historical Compend, Jebb’s Sermons, or books by Rollin or Robertson. Emerson’s father “in the midst of his various activities, never neglected their lessons” (Cabot 29). In his absence, he required that his wife continue such activities as English grammar and recitation of passages from Shakespeare,Milton,Addison, Pope, etc. In addition to his father’s somewhat informal education, Emerson also attended a dame school, school, run by Mrs. Susanna Whitwell throughout 1805 and 1806 (von Frank 4). This education also began before he was three, “not an unusual thing at that time when the school-room tok the place of the nursery (Cabot 40).

The next stage of Emerson’s education occurred at both theBostonLatinSchool, which he began to attend in the spring of 1812 when he was nine, and Rufus Webb’sSouthWritingSchool. The core curriculum of theLatinSchoolwas Latin and Greek. In a letter to his Aunt Mary, he includes the fact that his class is reading some of Virgil’s writing (McAleer 46) and he painstakingly translated some of into English from its original Latin, the results of which efforts he shares with Sarah Bradford.Bradfordlater married into Emerson’s family and continued to influence him as far as intellectual pursuits are concerned. In between morning and afternoon classes at theLatinSchool, Emerson attended Rufus Webb’s writing school where he and a few other boys were taught writing and ciphering. It was during this time at Webb’s writing school that, according to lifelong friend William Furness, “he wrote verses on the naval victories of the war of 1812” (Cabot 43).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, at the age of 14, took the entrance examinations at Harvard and did extremely well (von Frank 6). His curriculum as a freshman included Greek in the Collectanea Graceca Majora; Latin in Livy and Horace; and English in John Walker’s Rhetorical Grammar and Robert Lowth’s English Grammar. He also read De Veritate Religionis Christianae by Hugo Grotius, in addition to various works in mathematics, algebra, and ancient history (von Frank 7).

Though English literature was to be read in his spare time, Emerson developed a reputation for his familiarity with Shakespeare “though he also read much in Byron, Scott, and the British Quartelies” (von Frank 7). During his sophomore year, Emerson studied more Greek and Latin, Euclidean Geometry, logic, John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and natural history (von Frank 7-8). In his junior year at Harvard, Emerson continued his studies in Latin, Greek, and Locke. In addition, he read more religion and philosophy texts. His senior year he continued study of philosophy and geometry as well as studying chemistry, political economy, and religion (von Frank 9).

Given his course of study from the time he was not yet three until he graduated from Harvard at the age of 17, his thoughts on education, reading, and writing should be far from surprising to those who read his essays “The American Scholar” and “The Poet.” In “The American Scholar,” he writes,

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction, that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,–with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said. (Emerson 87-88).

Though such authors as Chaucer, Marvell, and Dryden were not an extensive part of the Harvard curriculum, Emerson read them in addition to the standard curriculum of his youth and was thus heavily influenced by them. He also notes in “The Poet” that

But the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry (Emerson 204).

In addition to these names, he references innumerable other great artists, writers, historians, and mathematicians throughout his body of work, and specifically in “The Poet,” something that without the education that had he would not have been able to do. Though he does not, for the most part, explicitly state what he considers canonical works of literature, the implication is there through the high standards that he sets in the afore mentioned essays as well as the innumerable references to great thinkers scattered throughout his overall body of writing. On the whole, Emerson seems to synchronize the things he has learned from literature while at the same time valuing and imploring individuals to think for themselves.

Henry David Thoreau’s education followed a relatively standard path similar to Emerson. He attended Miss Phoebe Wheeler’s private “infant” school and learned his alphabet. Following this “infant” school, Thoreau attended the public grammar school. It was located in a brick schoolhouse and both girls and boys of all ages/grades were in attendance. Memorization was the main form of learning; students, including Thoreau learned passages from the Bible and English classics, such as William Shakespeare and John Bunyan. Thoreau’s mother sent her sons to Miss Wheeler’s girls’ school during the breaks from the public school so they could gain some extra education.

Thoreau next attended theConcordAcademy, which was established in 1822 byCol.William Whiting, Samuel Hoar, Dr. Abiel Heywood and Nathan Brooks, prominent citizens ofConcordwho were displeased with the public schools. Henry David Thoreau and his brother John, Jr. enrolled inConcordAcademyin 1828, at which point, Phineas Allen was the instructor. Thoreau later wrote that he “was fitted, or rather made unfit, for college, at Concord Academy and elsewhere, mainly by myself, with the countenance of Phineas Allen, Preceptor” (Harding 25). As far as the curriculum was concerned, Allen’s emphasis in the curriculum was on the classics and he taught Virgil, Sallust, Cicero, Caesar, Euripides, Xenophon, Voltaire, Moliere, and Racine in the original languages as well as geography, history, grammar, spelling, astronomy, botany, algebra, trigonometry, geometry, naural philosophy, and natural history. Allen took a particular interest in compostion and required frequent themes (Harding 26).

In addition to this rigorous curriculum, Allen created the Concord Academic Debating Society, in which young Thoreau participated, though he did not do extremely well. “For the most part, Thoreau made little impression on his schoolmates— and they little on him” (Harding 30). He was not a poor scholar but was seemingly more interested in the outdoors than in school and spent all his spare time inConcord’s woods and meadows and on her rivers and ponds. He was known among the boys of his age as the one “who did not fear mud or water, nor paused to lift his followers over the ditch” (Harding 30-31).

He finished his time atConcordAcademyin 1833 and in the summer following built his first boat, named “The Rover,” which he used to exploreConcord’s rivers and ponds.

AfterConcordAcademy, his family decided that he should go toHarvardCollege, a decision about which he was less than enthusiastic. Carpentry was considered as an alternative but Thoreau’s mother, Cynthia “was anxious that at least one of her sons follow in her father’s footsteps and matriculate at Harvard” (Harding 32). In the summer of 1833, he took the entrance exams, barely passing. Again the curriculum was heavily weighted with classics; Harvard in Thoreau’s day presented a program of studies that had been little modified since pre-Revolutionary days. The emphasis was primarily on classics and the training was perhaps better for theology than any other profession. Thoreau studied Greek (composition, grammar, “Greek antiquities,” Xenophon, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer)… Latin grammar for eight terms (composition, “Latin antiquities,” Livy, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, and Juvenal)… mathematics for seven terms (geometry, algebra, plane trigonometry, analytic geometry, topography, differential and integral calculus, mechanics, optics, electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetism)… history, three terms; English,  eight terms (grammar, rhetoric, logic, forensics, criticdism, elocution, declamations, and themes)… (Harding 34).

He also took courses in mental philosophy, natural philosophy, and theology. Though modern languages were not required, Thoreau voluntarily took five terms of Italian, four terms of French, four terms of German, and two terms of Spanish (Harding 34-35). Though he did poorly on the entrance exams, he was considered above-average in his studies at Harvard. In addition to the actual course work and other requirements, Thoreau spent a lot of time in the library. There he read such authors as Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Cowper, Johnson, Gray, Homer, the Greek poets, and the travel books of Hall, McKenney, Barrow, Brackenridge, and Back. Of course, “a good many of th books that he withdrew undoubtedly were required or supplementary reading for his courses, but even more seem to have been chosen simply because they interested him” (Harding 38).

It is then no surprise to read some of the things Henry David Thoreau says in the section of Walden entitled quite simply “Reading.” In the very beginning of that chapter he says,

The student may read Homer or Aeschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have (Thoreau 65).

Later in the paragraph, he also notes that “the adventurous student will always study classics… For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?” (Thoreau 65). In other words, Thoreau is, in a sense affirming the texts that he was taught as a youth, in grammar school,ConcordAcademy, and Harvard. This theme of a sort of reverence toward works written in Greek or Latin continues throughout all of “Reading.” In addition, Thoreau rails against those who consider themselves good readers but never address such works. Indeed, he seems also to imply that no one is a good reader. “The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them,” he says.

Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to (Thoreau 68).

In other words, he has a pessimistic view of the intellect of most people, a view which may undoubtedly be linked to his years of education. Because so much of his youth was devoted to reading books which are considered still today to be classics, that is the literature of which he thought most highly. Thoreau also values individuality and individual thought while still clinging to that literature that he grew up on.

A literary canon is never set in stone. According to Charles Altieri in his article “An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon, “We must find criteria for canons by provisionally accepting at least some received cultural values and by exploring hypotheses about human nature, themselves dependent on experiences mediated by these traditions” (Altieri 37). Certainly, one aspect of human nature, at least for many people, is to place value on the things of childhood. Most generations think that their favorite television shows were far superior to the television shows on today. So it is with literature. As literature changes and evolves so must a literary canon. It seems somehow sacrilegious to say that Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli or C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia have had as profound, perhaps more profound, an effect on my life as Shakespeare or Chaucer. Nevertheless, that is human nature. Yet, every book (canonical or not) that an individual reads becomes an integral part of their character and personality in some way, consciously or unconsciously. Katha Pollitt in an essay entitled “Does a  Literary Canon Matter?” writes this:

Let us imagine a country in which reading is a popular voluntary activity. There, parents read books for their own edification and pleasure and are seen by their children at this silent and mysterious pastime. These parents also read to their children, give them books for presents, talk to them about books and underwrite, with their taxes, a public library system that is open all day, every day. In school— where an attractive library is invariably to be found— the children study certain books together but also have a reading life of their own. Years later it may be hard to remember if they read Jane Eyre at home and Judy Blume in class, or the other way around. In college young people continue to be assigned certain books, but far more important are the books they discover for themselves— browsing in the library, in bookstores, on the shelves of friends, one book leading to another, back and forth in history and across languages and cultures. After graduation they continue to read and in the fullness of time produce a new generation of readers. Oh happy land! I wish we all lived there (Pollitt 1050).

Both Emerson and Thoreau’s educations were not complete with the requirements set about by the various academic institutions they attended. Rather, all the literature that they read as children and young adults was influential upon both their lives and their writings. Emerson was not assigned Shakespeare, according to the curriculum listed. Yet he had a reputation for knowing it well. Thoreau was not assigned modern languages but studying them also affected his overall outlook on life and added dimension to his writing. Though Shakespeare and Spanish were not required course-work for Emerson and Thoreau, they are today. In addition, these writers themselves have now been canonized, at least in American literature, evidence yet again for an ever evolving literary canon.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. “An Idea and Ideal of a Literary Canon.” Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 37-60.

JStor. Milne Library, Geneseo. 05 Apr. 2009 <http:/>.

Cabot, James Elliot. A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. 1.New York: Houghton, Mifflin

and Company, 1893.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” Ralph Waldo Emerson Selected Essays,

Lectures and Poems.New York: Bantam Classics, 1990. 82-100. 1990.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “”The Poet”” Ralph Waldo Emerson Selected Essays, Lectures and

Poems.New York: Bantam Classics, 1990. 203-24.

Frank, Albert J. Von. Emerson chronology.New York: G.K. Hall, Maxwell MacmillanCanada,

Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994.

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1966.

McAleer, John J. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter.Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

Pollitt, Katha. “Does a Literary Canon Matter.” The Norton Reader An Anthology of Nonfiction,

Twelfth Edition. Ed. Linda H. Peterson and John C. Brerton.New York: W. W. Norton,

2008. 1047-1053.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; or, Life in the woods.New York:Dover Publications, 1995.


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