This summer I have another chance to teach a literature class rather than my usual course in freshman composition. This time around I’ll be teaching (in four short weeks) the second half of the American literature survey, which covers everything since 1900. Initially, I planned on assigning a number of novellas rather than an anthology, but my mind changed when I decided to focus the class on how the canon has been opened up over the past one hundred years to allow writers from a variety of backgrounds to participate in this thing we call “American Literature.” I’ll be calling the class “The Fiction (and Poetry) of E Pluribus Unum” because I intend to focus on the way the canon has and has not embraced the beautiful and elusive American paradox of a unified community comprised of many—often discordant—voices. Plus, we’re going to be reading fiction and poetry. So there’s some wordplay there.
The text I plan to use is the second volume of the shorter eighth edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. The Norton anthology, in many ways, defines the boundaries of the canon today, making it an ideal text to use with my class. I haven’t selected reading assignments yet, but I expect that I’ll include some of my undergraduate favorites—Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”—as well as others that I’m unfamiliar with, but sound interesting—Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Lullaby,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy,” Junot Díaz’s “Drown.” I’m also interested in other texts, like John Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People,” which seems (tellingly) to have taken the place of “The Chrysanthemums” in the academic canon. I imagine these texts and the others will help us have some interesting discussions about the meaning of the E Pluribus Unum ideal. I especially hope to get them thinking about how and why we construct and reconstruct (a) canon(s). I also want to them to think about the voices that are still outside the canon.
For this reason, I’m planning on assigning three Mormon short stories and a few poems. Mormons, that is, will be our case study of a community of American writers who have not yet been given a place in today’s multi-cultural canon—even though their numbers are comparable to other communities—the Jewish and LGBTQ communities, for example—that are reasonably well-represented in the Norton anthology. My hope is that the Mormon works I bring in will spur a discussion not only about the ongoing “fiction” of E Pluribus Unum—the never-ending (and ultimately impossible?) task of bringing more voices to the table and truly being one from many—but also the limitations and ethics of the canon model itself. Should we even have a canon, after all, if its overriding structure demands that we value one voice over another?
Canon debates are always fun, and I wouldn’t be opposed to having one here on AMV, but before we do so, I want to solicit your help. As I said, I’m planning on using three Mormon short stories and several poems. Which do you recommend? My only stipulation is that they much be accessible free to students via online archives like those of Dialogue and Sunstone. I don’t want to make them purchase any more books than they have to. The Norton anthology is expensive enough.
In asking this question, of course, I am also asking us to create a kind of Mormon canon of short stories and poems—which means I’m asking you to include some works at the expense of others. Feel free to justify and defend your choices.