Enough with the Dead White Guys, Already

Ask any English major, teacher, or even English student about the current literary canon, and you’ll probably get a tongue-in-cheek response about dead white guys. Although the canon is expanding, most English literature curriculum offerings are still centered on Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, Twain, you name it. If a class or canon is not centered on dead white male authors, it is labeled as such (World Literature, African-American Literature, etc). and sometimes taught as an elective. This sends a negative message to minority and female students, or those who may be white but of non-European heritage.

Then again, I have no problem with some of the old dead white guys. I was reading Dickens when I was ten; he actually inspired some of my (rather bad) first forays into creative writing. I developed crushes on Shakespearean heroes. You get the drift. But we need so much more variety in our literary diets. So the question at hand is: How can we balance the canon so that all authors get representation? How much "dead white guy" literature do we need? Whose works deserve to stay in the canon, and who needs to go? If you could design an entire curriculum or canon yourself, what would be in it? Why?

I’d love to write this myself, but I’m even more interested in what others think…so let’s get going. The floor is open!

  • This is a largely debated topic in many tertiary institutions and part of the issue is that the original categorisation of "Classic Literature" was developed by a dead, white guy. I agree that these are still texts that have great literary merit and power, but perhaps the issue is rather that the people who categorise the canon need to be those who are disenfranchised by the original canon. What would minority, female, students categorise themselves as powerful literature that fits in the category of English Literature. – SaraiMW 5 years ago
  • I would like to propose a title change. You are mostly talking about native English speakers. There are so many other dead, white guys that have written amazing things that are not that well known (or known at all), because they did not write in English. Do not put all of them in one pot. – tanaod 5 years ago
  • Noted. Perhaps something like, Expanding Representation in the Western Canon? – Stephanie M. 5 years ago

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