Concept of canon in literary studies : critical debates 1970-2000.
Villa, Silvia Maria Teresa
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The present thesis focuses on the critical dialogues on the literary canon developed between 1970 and 2000 in the United States as a crucial juncture for the consolidation of the notion of canon as a scholarly subject matter within the field of literary studies. By taking stock of the abundance of scholarly contributions on the literary canon produced at this time, this thesis pursues two aims: first, it initiates a process of systematisation of the scholarly material on the canon produced during the last thirty years of the twentieth century; second, it focuses on a selection of particularly influential works that have furthered the understanding of specific aspects of the notion of canon. Two introductory chapters outline respectively the historical and the theoretical background of this research. Chapter One explores the historical framework within which the canon started to receive increasing critical attention inside and outside U.S. academia. In particular, it observes how the historical and cultural phenomenon known as the Culture Wars came to bear upon the way in which the notion of canon was perceived and treated by critics and scholars. Early and later examples of canonical criticism are juxtaposed so as to argue that the absorption of debates about the definition of national cultural heritage within U.S. academia influenced the terms in which the canon was being discussed, privileging oppositional rhetorical strategies over the more moderate tones of early theoretical approaches. Chapter Two draws on Jan Gorak’s work in The Making of The Modern Canon: Genesis and Crisis of a Literary Idea (1991) to explore the history of the concept of canon and of its associations with the diverging attitudes adopted by critics in relation to the canon in the period in exam. The second part of this thesis constitutes of three case studies that illustrate the significance for our understanding of the concepts of canon, canonicity and canon formation, of three texts published in the 1990s by Harold Bloom, John Guillory and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Each chapter observes how these studies contributed to clarify the relationship between the idea of canon and that of tradition, between canon and ideology and, finally, between the canon and the anthology, respectively. Chapter Three locates Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of Ages (1994) in relation to his earlier theory of the anxiety of influence and argues that Bloom’s account of canon formation relies on his definition of tradition as the agonistic struggle between poets and their predecessors. Chapter Four is a close reading of John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993) and explores the political ideology underlying its selective use of the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Gramsci and T.S.Eliot. Finally, Chapter Five engages with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s attempt to establish a canon of African American Literature through his role as editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996).