The Canon Industry

Several years ago I went to a lecture in Cambridge given by Norman Davies, the historian of Central and Eastern Europe.  The most memorable part of that evening was when my wife and I – both starving students at the time – ate so many canapés at the reception afterwards that a grim-faced member of college staff pointedly removed the tray from our vicinity.  Aside from that, though, I was struck by some observations Davies made on how particular academic viewpoints are perpetuated.  They began, he said, with individual scholars doing good, original work.  In a few years’ time, that work filtered down through the field.  A decade later it became naturalised into major overviews of the subject.  Two decades later it was incorporated into textbooks.  Three decades later it was probably obsolete, but we were still teaching it to students because the juggernaut of canonicity had reached critical velocity.


The joke never gets old (or does it?).  Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle (public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia).

I was reminded of this relationship between the canonical and the tools of teaching and research a few weeks ago.  A couple of colleagues and I were having a chat with a very nice representative from one of the major producers of textbooks for English Literature undergraduate teaching and he was showing us an all-singing, all-dancing student edition, complete with online apparatus that would allow you to flick back and forth between the edited page and facsimiles of the original printed texts.  It was a fine piece of scholarship and a fantastic teaching aid, but it reminded me of Davies’s comments; the canonical isn’t just what we attach cultural value to, it’s also a complex edifice of student editions, anthologies, textbooks, critical readers, and so on and so forth.  In some ways it’s the twenty-first-century equivalent of the publishing impetuses which William St. Clair has identified as central to the development of the literary canon in the nineteenth century.

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  If anything, it’s encouraging.  Thirty years ago or more, a few scholars started challenging the older canon and demanding the study of more women authors; now we have Cambridge Companions to Aphra Behn and Norton Critical Editions of Margery Kempe.  While real gender parity in literary studies is still a long way away, there’s no doubt that progress has been made, not least because, as Davies said, once the stone begins to roll, it develops a momentum all of its own.  As someone who spends quite a lot of his time championing the value and importance of non-canonical texts, that gives me hope, hope that with enough articles and lectures and blog posts and hallway syllabus discussions I might one day see a Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Melville or a Norton Critical Edition of Alexander Montgomerie.  One can always dream!

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

The First Scottish Enlightenment: Contract Signed!

It’s a real pleasure to write that as of last week I’ve signed a contract with Oxford University Press for The First Scottish Enlightenment: Rebels, Priests, and History, with a manuscript due-date of spring 2018.  Going into the second book project I felt as if I understood the process much better than when I was working on The Antiquary, but that hasn’t stopped the thrill of signing the contract from being just as intense!

I’ve written about The First Scottish Enlightenment elsewhere, but to recap: I’ll be arguing for a Scottish Early Enlightenment which principally consisted of historical and antiquarian scholarship and which was centered on the Episcopalian and Catholic communities of the north-east.  It is – I hope – a slightly controversial thesis, but also one that desperately needs to be made if we’re to understand early modern Scottish culture on its own terms.  I’ll be looking at a variety of printed and archival sources – notebooks, letters, pamphlets, scholarly folios, not to mention a certain number of paintings, coins, charters, genealogical trees, and similar art historical delights – and will be focusing (if you can call it that) on thirty-seven academics, printers, priests, soldiers, opera singers, landed gentlemen, poets, bureaucrats, and physicians active between about 1680 and 1750.  Most have never been the subject of academic study before now, but a few names are at least familiar in specialist circles: James Fraser (1634-1709), Alexander Gordon (c.1692-1754), Thomas Innes (1662-1744), Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh (1636/38-1691), and Thomas Ruddiman (1674-1757), to name a few.


A detail from the flourishing family tree of the Earls of Wigtown, one of the visual sources I’ll be discussing in the new book.

Now all I have to do is actually finish writing the book, somewhere in between teaching, admin, doctoral supervision, and life outside of academia.  When I was writing The Antiquary I found it tremendously encouraging to read the blogs of other scholars working on their books, not having moments of inspiration high in the ivory tower, but plugging away methodically and thoughtfully in between the other obligations of an academic career.  Over the next year and a bit I’m hoping to provide some encouragement (or at least amusement) in turn by writing a running commentary on the book and how it’s progressing.  For a start I can say that I haven’t worked on it at all since Christmas – too many other deadlines have been pressing – but that will hopefully change fairly soon.

Stay tuned . . . .

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams