The Canon and the “Diminished Thing”
James H. Maguire
Boise State University
The Columbia Literary History of the United States says that Regionalism in our time is “a diminished thing.” Borrowing a line from Mark Twain, Regionalists will no doubt reply that the news of their diminishment has been greatly exaggerated. As Edwin H. Cady suggests, they may even call for a new inquest.
Like the recent History of Southern Literature…[says Cady], A Literary History of the American West demands attention to an element too little considered in recent discussion either of our literary historiography or of “the canon.” We shall, these histories say loudly, encounter Professor Bercovitch’s “dissensus” with a vengeance if the newnesses threaten to squeeze Regional writing out of the curriculum or out of the realms of respectable criticism and scholarship.
Indeed, if anything has been diminished, it is a literary history based on a theory that fails to take Regionalism seriously. Unfortunately, among the competing theories about the revaluation of the canon, none is free of that failure.
The most radical of the theories argues that place plays so small a part in constituting a literature, we ought to ignore national boundaries and establish canons solely on the basis of language. “We have American things,” says William C. Spengemann, “and we have literary things; but we have nothing typically American that can be called uniquely or characteristically
Emory Elliott et al., etc., Columbia Literary History of the United States (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 761-84.
Brief Mention of A Literary History of the American West, Editor-in-chief, J. Golden Taylor; Senior Editor, Thomas J. Lyon (Fort Worth: Texas Christian Univ. Press, 1987), in American Literature, 59 (1987), 705.