Too often we forget that arguments over what not to read are also battles over what to read. And that every time someone tries to ban Toni Morrison or Ta-Nehisi Coates, they also try to bring our children back to Hawthorne and Hemingway, Dante and Dickens.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that amid a deluge of book bans, we’re also seeing a new effort to rally our forces in defense of the classics. Consequently, a National Review article claims that the ledgers need a “massive rescue”. A recent Federalist article calls for a renewed effort to “reclaim our Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian heritage and reenter the Great Conversation.” And, as if responding to a Florida politician who worried last year that the Athens Gadfly would be canceled, a Columbia University professor gave us “Rescuing Socrates.”
Reading all of this, you’d be forgiven if you thought the western canon was out of steam. Let me assure you not.
I’m a professor of humanities and I teach great investigative classes that were (and sometimes still are) filled exclusively with dead, white, pious men from Europe. And even as I try to diversify my own backgrounds, to make room for other voices, I remain flabbergasted at how much these authors still fill and structure the national conversation.
The best evidence comes from large and prestigious publications, which to this day give an incredible amount of space – or pixels, I guess – to Western authors we’ve been writing about for centuries. Thus, the latest issue of Harper’s asks us to rethink Casanova. (Another article in the same magazine in the spring invites us to see WH Auden “in a new light.”) Two weeks ago, the New York Times breathlessly reported the latest news from the field of Chaucer’s studies. And the New Yorker’s October issue claims that 400-year-old John Donne is “more contemporary than ever.” And all of this is only from the last month.
And we don’t just see the media’s preference for canon in the content they cover. We see it in the way Canon structures its cover.
It struck me most forcefully when I read an otherwise provocative article about the literature produced by artificial intelligence. It concludes with a series of pieces written by the AI at the author’s request in the style of a variety of well-known writers. But almost all come straight from an introductory English course taught in 1970: Homer, William Shakespeare, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and George Orwell. Oh, and symbolically, Langston Hughes.
We can also detect this trend in what cultural writers assume their audiences know. So a thoughtful feature in The New York Times Magazine this month on contemporary poet Sharon Olds begins by comparing her to TS Eliot, Dickinson (again), and Wallace Stevens. That’s it. Again, the frame of reference is predominantly European, predominantly male, and all-white. And the implication is crystal clear: these are the poets you have to know if you want to know poetry. (It’s easy to find analogous examples in art, music, and film.)
By continuing to privilege old classics, journalists make it easier to dismiss other voices as less important, more disposable — all playing into the book banning movement. And even without the book ban, the vigils we’ve always read still take up too much space. If we keep centering the old barrel, what should go into a new barrel can die of asphyxiation.
So let’s stop trying to save Socrates. And Shakespeare, Chaucer, Homer and Proust. Believe me: they are doing very well.
Joshua Pederson is an associate professor of humanities at Boston University and author of “Sin Sick: Moral Injury in War and Literature.” @joshua_pederson