Indispensable Petrarch

Old-fashioned English professors like to speak of "the Canon" in reverential tones, as if there were a list of great books as ancient as the Spartan king list and as hallowed as the kyrie. In fact, what they usually have in mind is a rummage sale assortment of a few really essential works jumbled together with many very good books and even more second-rate productions of the 19th century. Anglo-American literature, in general, does not rival the literatures of Greece and Rome, France and Italy, and—taken by itself—American culture cannot bear comparison with, say, its Irish and Polish rivals. The idea of Charles Dickens or Scott Fitzgerald—good writers though they be—as immortal classics is absurd enough to cast doubt on the entire conservative defense of the curriculum.

If we were to have a canon of European literature, it would consist, in its longer form, of the books embodying Arnold's criterion of "the best that has been thought and said," and of a shorter list of really essential books without which we could not be who we are—writers that established a genre or helped to define the sensibility of their own and succeeding ages. The criterion would require a simple test of the imagination: if all the works of Plato or Vergil were destroyed, could we reconstruct some sense of what they wrote from the literature of succeeding generations? Or, put negatively, if we had...

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