Beyond the Canon

In 2000, Harvard professor Ruth Wisse published The Modern Jewish Canon, a book that surveys two centuries of Jewish literature, calling attention to classic writers like Sholem Aleichem, Franz Kafka, and Cynthia Ozick, while also highlighting lesser-known masters like the Canadian author A.M. Klein.

Re-introducing us to writers like Klein is one of the Canon‘s great contributions, reminding us that just because a text is canonical, doesn’t mean we’ve all read it — something Zephaniah and Habakkuk have likely been lamenting for years.

The timing of Wisse’s book was, nonetheless, noteworthy, as canon’s are viewed with some skepticism today. The critique, of course, is that canons tend to represent dominant/majority voices (e.g. dead white men). And, indeed, Wisse explicitly transgresses this multicultural faux pas. She writes in her introduction: “As a start, I have limited myself to works of Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants…”

Yet Wisse doesn’t call the book The Modern Ashkenazi Jewish Canon.

None of these points are new, nor do I believe they are horribly egregious. That is, as long as we push ourselves every once in a while to look beyond our canons. I was pushed in this direction a couple of months ago, when I encountered the work of Tillie Olsen.

Olsen died in January, and I noted it on this blog, but in my latest column for the Jerusalem Post, I take a closer look at Olsen’s work and the nature of literary canons, generally.

And in case you’re wondering, Wisse only mentions Tillie Olsen once in The Modern Jewish Canon — and she misspells her last name.

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