ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT
(“Who Creates the Canon?” Part III.)
EVERYTHING WE EXPERIENCE is processed through one medium or another. Distortions are the norm. National media will cover a local incident day and night– images on every television channel; screaming headlines in every newspaper; the matter discussed by late-night TV comedians, every one– until hysteria peaks and the incident is thought symptomatic of the nation as a whole.
Celebrities are created in similar fashion, their images and reputations blown up by repetition and exaggeration far out of proportion to their talent. Ours is a P.T. Barnum civilization, built through a high magnitude of ballyhoo.
Who builds the reputation of writers?
Big Five publicity departments and Manhattan magazine review sections are only part of it.
The serious reputation is built by literary critics who write for “serious” newspapers or journals. They bring to the task their biases and their parochial viewpoints. They’re expected to meet institutional expectations– not stray too far from the acceptable tastes of the respectable intellectual herd.
The lasting reputation is created by universities, which teach, discuss, and otherwise publicize their approved icons long after their deaths.
The teachable or politically-correct talents comprise the Canon. Henry James is a canonical writer because everyone has said he is for 70-plus years. His biggest patrons during that time have been the most exclusive universities– elite of the elite: Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge. Fitting that they’d choose an upper-class author with whom they can strongly identify. The work is complex enough to be teachable at the highest levels– professors endlessly searching for “figures in the carpet”– that elusive meaning or symbol which can never quite be found.
America is a huge nation full of vast landscapes and diverse classes and peoples, areas which Henry James never visited, much less wrote about. Even today’s token academic “diversity” is screened through the same filter; the properly correct but also properly elite Harvard/Yale/Oxford/Brown student or professor viewing the world and America through a narrow lens– a reversed telescope. For any authentic Canon, this isn’t good enough.
Our task at the Tournament is to strip away the PR of papers and seminars to ask: How relevant has this writer been to the American civilization? And– Is the work any good?
We take nothing for granted.
(Featured painting: “The Fortune Teller” by Jehan Georges Vibert. Henry James photo by Alice Boughton.)