Today's post is brought to you by the essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the numbers 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20.
Why? Because I'm in an interdisciplinary department, I have to prove to the university and, ultimately, to hiring committees that I'm qualified to teach basic survey classes in a particular field of literature. Thus, in three weeks I'm taking an oral exam on 50 Great Works of the American Literary Canon. Today I had no classes, and got through works 14-20 (Stowe-Jacobs, chronologically) on the list. Studying, at this stage, involves sitting in front of the computer, typing out a lot of notes, marginal comments, and interesting quotations, hence the eyeballs hurting.
What was much more interesting than studying was compiling the list in the first place, as I had a certain amount of discretion as to what made it on there. Probably about 35 of the texts or authors were mandatory, based on previous lists - people like Emerson, Hawthorne, Morrison, James, and works like Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huck Finn. But even within that framework, I had to choose - which James novel? Which Poe stories, or Dickinson poems? It was my own little exercise in canon formation, which I fully admit manipulating for the sake of interest (I love Roth's Call It Sleep, which wasn't on many previous lists) and expediency (I've read some of Melville's shorter fiction much more thoroughly than Moby Dick). My exam committee then reined me back in a little, especially because some uber-canonical early texts, like the narratives of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Rowlandson, were missing.
Three weeks out from the exam, do I feel like I could teach a survey course on American literature? I guess so, but it would be super boring and adhere very closely to the introductions of Penguin editions. The question of how X slave narrative is or is not like Franklin's autobiography is not a particularly scintillating one for me. Will I manage to escape the evil Penguin by exam time? Stay tuned.