Christy's Reviews > The Voice in the Margin: Native American Literature and the Canon

The Voice in the Margin by Arnold Krupat
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Sep 27, 2007

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bookshelves: literary-theory-and-criticism, native-american-lit-and-history, readinglist1
Read in June, 2008

This book of literary and cultural criticism is clearly of its time (20 years ago). Krupat's ideas about canonicity and the place of Native American literature in American literature more broadly are useful but, to a reader of today, are somewhat obvious. He argues against the standard canon and against New Criticism, but he does not simply argue against canons in general or for the alternative to New Criticism of the time, deconstruction. Instead, he argues for a rethinking of the role of the canon in general as well as among and between specific social and literary communities.

Krupat says, "for all my suspiciousness of the received canon of American literature, I believe in the concept of the canon" (237). He develops an argument for a canon (as opposed to the canon) based upon the ethics of selection and the power we have to develop the culture in which we live:

"The canon, as I have tried to show, must arise through the responsible exercise of principles of exclusivity and inclusivity. . . . the canon is a fragile construction, always open to question and to change, even as it seeks a certain permanence and imperviousness to question. The canon cannot be made in a day nor reconstructed overnight, but to say this is hardly to turn one's responsibility for what is read and taught over to the slow-grinding millstones of Time. What we come to see as the canon of American literature can help us define who we are as Americans and, as Americans, to place ourselves in the cosmopolitan world of peoples and nations" (237). "To read Native American literature," he continues, "to take pleasure in it and try to understand it, can be an end in itself, like going to a museum or a concert. It can also engage us in a struggle for the values that determine our lives" (238).

This question of what is taught and what is valued within the literary establishment and within national and international culture is not to be taken lightly, he makes clear. To paraphrase Uncle Ben, with the power to make decisions regarding what is part of American literature and what is part of the canon comes great responsibility.

In terms of the categories of literature and the place Native American literature might find within those categories and canons, Krupat argues for the development of a cosmopolitan literature, which would be built upon the foundation of indigenous literature ("that form of literature which results from the interaction of local, internal, traditional, tribal, or 'Indian' literary modes with the dominant literary modes of the various nation-states in which it may appear" [214]), national literature ("the sum of local (traditional, 'Indian'), indigenous (mixed, perhaps 'ethnic), and dominant literary productions within the territory of the given national formations" [215]), and international literature ("the sum of these national literatures" [215]). "A cosmopolitan literature," Krupat continues, "would be constituted not only by the simple sum but by the complex interaction of national literatures" (216). Its project would be "not to overthrow the Tower of Babel but, as it were, to install a simultaneous translation system in it; not to homogenize human or literary differences but to make them at least mutually intelligible" (216). Krupat acknowledges that this is a tall order:

"...the way to the cosmopolitan in social terms is through the local, from thence to the national . . . and after, to some concretely imaginable cooperation on an international scale leading to the cosmopolitan community, heterodoxy legitimated globally. To be sure, this is to offer a conceptual paradigm--an image, a vision--not a political program; and to imagine the cosmopolitan polyvocal polity in this way is also utopian--but perhaps only in the sense that it does not as yet exist. To imagine it may also be to make a contribution to its existence" (201).

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