GER 382N:

Can(n)on Fodder: Case Studies in Textual Afterlives

Instructor: Katherine Arens
Dept. of Germanic Studies
E.P. Schoch 3.128; 1-4123


Course Description:

This course focuses on the politics of the "Canon" of great literature, as defined through the material processes and ideologies that have defined "literature" at various moments of history. Each era has defined its "classic" or "canonical" authors differently; these authors themselves were often at pains to portray themselves as classic or hegemonic authors; literary histories, critics, prize boards, institutions, publishing houses, translators and editors contributed to "becoming canonical" in other ways.

This course will allow students from any national literature to work out their own "case studies" through the course of the semester, while reflecting on what having "great books" means to a culture, its identity, and its politics. Each student will pick an author to use during the term, and them will work through a set of theoretical and practical issues surrounding that author. Each week, a theory question will be posed, along with readings in aspects of cultural and literary history and criticism; then, in the second session for each week, students will discuss the results of their own preliminary investigations in that field/for their chosen author.

Approximate order of topics:

  1. Identifying a Canonical Author: finding one and finding out why canonical?
  2. Aesthetics as legitimization for canonicity (case studies: what critics do)
  3. "The Order of Books": Chartier and how texts are used, circulated, and valued
  4. Printing and Publishing: how the material form of the book influences prestige and content (Grafton, The Footnote; Robert Darnton on publishing and censorship)
  5. Libraries, Archives, Collections, Performances, and Catalogues: Ownership, status, and social prestige (case study: H. L. Gates' Slave diary)
  6. Genres, Text-Types, and "The Coffee-Table Book": Problems in Interdisciplinarity (case study: Boutique presses, artist/writers)
  7. Institutional Hegemonies: (Case study: How the "Harvard Gentleman" required the "Harvard Classics"
  8. Books in Trade: Literary histories, Anthologies, Editions, Translations (one case study: The Norton)
  9. Media, Publicity, Fads, Scandal: Selling the Author in the Public Sphere
  10. The Prize and Reviewing Rackets (case study: The Nobel Prize)
  11. Ghosts in the Machines: Online, Onscreens, and in Pixels

This course will be of interest to anyone working on (cross-)cultural contact, on the sociology of literature, on (counter-)hegemonic cultural practices, and on cultural identity politics. IT IS NOT SPECIFIC TO ANY ONE NATIONAL LITERATURE OR LANGUAGE.


Working in guided stages, students will develop a semester project on either the more theoretical or the more practical side of this problem. The final paper will capitalize on this work, by taking the form of a critical publishing, aesthetic, and reception study of one author/work, showing how the author is reconfigured for different audiences, or a study of how that author "performed" an identity and/or was staged in literary histories themselves, as history writing and as reflecting aesthetic and social ideologies.