The importance of the literary canon

By Kristen Spangler, English Teacher


As I started gathering materials for what would become the first unit of the year in Honors English—a unit chiefly devoted to Beowulf—I came across an article published in Humanities magazine a few years ago, an article that reminded me that what I wanted to accomplish in this class was valid. Robert Yeager, a retired English professor at UNC Asheville, noted of Beowulf, “[I]ts poetry reaches, somehow like lightning, to the core of what we understand about ourselves stripped to basics, even amid the twentieth century world of central heating and computers.” Like Shakespeare’s plays after it, Beowulf is a largely thematic text that requires only a little historical knowledge to comprehend. True, it helps to understand the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, the role of kinship and the fact that England had been sacked so many times by the mid-800s that the idea of a Dane becoming its greatest hero didn’t faze the English. But Yeager’s words rang true with me: Beowulf spends his adult life practicing loyalty (for such is not as freely pledged as we may wish), battling evil and assuaging naysayers. And that, as we know, is what it means to be human.

Yeager also reminded me that Beowulf represents something that is frequently absent in contemporary fiction, a fiction that often requires one to be au fait with pop culture in order to ‘get it.’ Contemporary fiction is self-reverential despite its youth. It regards itself in the mirror and snaps a selfie without understanding the antique preciousness of a photo. That’s not to say that modern authors haven’t produced anything noteworthy; indeed, among my favourite writers in the world is Paul Auster, and I’ll read absolutely anything by Zadie Smith or Arundhati Roy. However, the literary canon—the classics, as it were—have at their hearts not only the essence of what it means to be human, but also what it means to be human in time periods where certain groups, certain beliefs, certain principles were devalued or dismissed. The classics are arms in a war against prejudice, artifice and resignation. They beg us to consider them in relation to their creation or setting and then make sense of the protagonist’s choices. At the same time, they are relatable, transferable, to our contemporary world, as those choices are as relevant today in a different context as they were hundreds of years prior. A reader doesn’t have that same abstraction with Ready, Player One or Falling Man.

So while I could’ve designed the Honors English course around the works of Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, all of whose work I admire and cherish, they need a few more decades—nay, centuries—to mature, to make their worthiness known. Although we might one day teleport to the grocery store and scan our palm prints to pay for goods, we will still be looking for heroes, wielding figurative swords against dragons and steeling ourselves against the evil around us. Perhaps then, Girl on the Train can sit comfortably on a syllabus next to Pride and Prejudice.