This week we asked
our Facebook and
What Is a Classic?
Longevity of the text, universal relevance of content, potential to catalyze human enrichment, and collective social advancement, were all proffered by these august authors and critics as reasonable items on any canon-worthy checklist.
But as profound as these insights may be, the question of classics, of what qualifies as capital-“L” Literature, is one inevitably bogged down in the quagmire of subjectivity. What to one person is a font of inexhaustible wisdom, to another may appear to be nothing more than obvious moralizing drivel. So perhaps the question of what is not nearly as useful as who: Who decides what’s classic?
Don’t let Ankhi Mukherjee’s title mislead you: though the book’s cover asks What Is a Classic?, its contents are just as concerned with who is speaking as it is with what is spoken.
Mukherjee’s concise prose doesn’t pull any punches. In her first chapter she asserts that the “classic” can be deployed as a hierarchical apparatus, shoring up power for some while marginalizing the voices of others:
The canon has historically been a nexus of power and knowledge that reinforces hierarchies and the vested interests of select institutions, excluding the interests and accomplishments of minorities, popular and demotic culture, or non-European civilizations. (p. 9)
Lest we assume that this argument is responding to bygone colonial attitudes, Mukherjee swiftly cuts to a recent (and mildly apoplectic) public battle over a Penguin anthology of American poetry. In 2011, one poet and one critic squared off over whether or not the Penguin collection leniently curated minority poets regardless of their literary merit. Implicit accusations of racism and other character attacks were volleyed back and forth in the pages of the The New York Review of Books. Peter Monaghan, writing for The Huffington Post, described the dispute as “Bloodletting Over an Anthology.”
What this anthology-debacle makes plain—and what Mukherjee highlights in her book—is that inducting new texts into the literary canon (like, say Morrissey's Autobiography) is a profoundly political act which confers or, perhaps more importantly, withholds cultural and scholarly legitimation.
What’s more, today’s rapidly globalizing world sets the stage for an ever-increasingly multicultural and transnational artistic community. Today’s writers (and tomorrow’s classics) perhaps strike a greater dissonance now, more than ever, with the pejoratively-touted “dead white guy”-canon of yore. Mukherjee sees this as an apt entry point into a “postcolonial rewriting”—unique in both scope and historical depth—that demands revision of static definitions in favor of something more befitting of the 21st Century.
Read an excerpt from Mukherjee's Introduction.