THAT SUBVERSIVE CANON… OR DOING MARGINAL RESEARCH ON 19TH CENTURY US FICTION

Recently, I spoke with a doctoral student working for her PhD dissertation on Herman Melville’s more neglected texts. To my surprise, she complained that the field of American Studies in Spain is saturated with research on 20th century and contemporary texts with a strong racial and ethnic component. This is why, in her view, 19th century American Literature is being unfairly ignored to the point that writing on someone in principle as canonical as Melville appears to a bold choice. Or even, I assume, using that favourite word of the anti-canonical, a subversive choice.

A colleague in the tiny circle of Popular Texts in Spain used to joke that he was looking forward to the day when a student would ask him to supervise a doctoral dissertation on James Joyce and he would be in a position to reply ‘estás tonto/a, ¿o qué?’ His boutade grew out of his tiredness at being constantly told that our research on non-canonical texts is trivial, even banal, but it also shows how tempting it is to dismiss what others do, once you pass from the minority to the majority. It also shows how the unorthodox displaces the orthodox creating a new marginality which, in its turn, becomes subversive –just think of how that budding Joycean would feel. Not that this has really happened with the canon yet… but, who knows? Maybe the first signs are here…

Of course, the choice of a 19th century white man (say, Melville) or an contemporary Afro-American woman (say, Toni Morrison) as the focus of research has nothing to do with the final quality of a PhD dissertation: the study on Melville might break new ground even beyond 19th century US Literature, that on Morrison could be just a boring repetition of academic clichés. Yet, it is true that we tend to attach the labels ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ to particular topics and it seems, at least at first sight, that working on Melville might be more conservative –might be, as what really matters is seeing Melville with fresh eyes, using the latest methodological and theoretical tools. One simply cannot write an old-fashioned dissertation, whether or Melville or on Morrison, out of touch with issues that dominate the current academic debates, for that would be just an apology of ignorance. And we’re all fighting ignorance, right?

For me, in the end, literary and cultural research boils down to filling in the gaps in the currently available bibliography. If there is already plenty on Melville, why write more?, particularly considering how many other US or UK 19th century writers are still neglected. But if you feel there’s a gap, go ahead and fill it up –who am I to stop you? Just don’t stop my efforts to fill in other gaps… All in all, it is a perplexing irony of academic life that, although there is room for everyone, those working on the canon and those of us dealing with non-canonical popular texts feel equally marginalised. Do we do this to each other? Or is there a post-canonical (or neo-canonical?) orthodoxy disguised as subversion doing this?

Could it just be that no one is discriminating anyone any more and that we’re simply not reading each other? I’ll have to think harder…

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