Sample Book Review–What is a Classic?

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Mukherjee, Ankhi. What is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewrite and Invention of the Canon. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. 296 pages. $65 cloth and $65 e-book.

Caroline Schwenz
Graduate Student
Emory University

The question of the canon and the classic has plagued postcolonial studies for as long as scholars like Gauri Viswanathan have interrogated the presence of colonial education in India and its insistence on modeling good English behavior through the best literary texts the island had to offer. Viswanathan’s seminal “Currying Favor” of 1988 marks for scholars at least 25 years of interrogating how English literary canon(s) include, exclude and influence its readers in harmful and constructive ways. A quick skim of Macaulay’s “Minute on Education” is a succinct reminder that the “classics” of English literature were deemed to far outweigh the literatures of the Indian subcontinent for Victorian colonialists.

Further, Graham Huggans’s 2001 publication, The Postcolonial Exotic, has asked scholars to consider seriously the effects of publishing houses and international reading markets on the reception or even the accessibility of certain kinds of global texts. Prizes like the Man Booker have garnered much criticism for their selection process and their ability to take a no-name author from manuscript rejection to literary superstar. Mukherjee’s book, then, slots itself neatly into these dialogues with the intention of foregrounding how writers construct their literary lineages through allusions, rewriting classics, and reimagining genres.

Mukherjee’s highly synthetic analysis of “classic” literature and canon-formation incorporates literature ranging from William Shakespeare; to Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, and T.S. Eliot; and finally to 20th century global writers such as J.M. Coetzee, Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Equally, Mukherjee demonstrates a knowledge of what might be called a scholarly postcolonial, or more broadly a critical theory, canon in her use and analysis of the works of Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Jacques Derrida. She examines and places her arguments within the critical conversations of her peers drawing heavily from the work of Wai Chee Dimock, David Damrosch, Derek Attridge and the somewhat controversial thinking of Pascal Casanova.

Her book is divided into two sections, the first of which explores “the question of the classic.” This section turns to a comparison of T.S. Eliot and J.M. Coetzee’s competing and complimentary discussions of “classic” literature, which coalesce around the figure of the colonial engaging with his “inherited culture” and his lived experience (20). She then focuses on Conrad, Said, and Naipaul’s writing to understand the writer’s role as literary outsider or latecomer to a canon. Finally in the first section, Mukherjee discusses the role of allusion and rewriting of classic works by Derek Walcott. The second section is described by Mukherjee as an “overview of the distinctive phases and categories of postcolonial writing” (21). Here she engages very specifically with the moves to rewrite classics and define national literary cultures in a postcolonial context. She is also interested in the “psychological hold of the idea of the canon on the subject-in-process in postcolonial fiction” and how that might contribute to misreading or non-reading response to the canon as a strategy employed by writers (22). The final two chapters in the second section deal, in tandem, with the creation of a vernacular canon in South Asia through the rewrite of “classics” and the emergence of “literatures in English” and a new global canon. In my opinion, these last two chapters are her strongest.

What Mukherjee does very well is draw on close critical analysis of literary texts while incorporating scholarly material. Somewhat uniquely, her book seems to foreground literary readings, which aid her critical and theoretical discussion, rather than have literary readings at odds or out of sync with critical and theoretical material. Her final chapter on vernacular adaptations of Shakespeare in the Indian Subcontinent is not only interesting due to its subject matter but also because the chapter really articulates the aims of this book in regard to classics and canonization. What seems to be her point is that the “classic” nature of a text is derived from its ability to enter into conversation with texts and individuals that follow it. Shakespeare, to use the example of her final chapter, is only relevant because it lends itself to reimagining, response, and critique. Further, those that respond to Shakespeare no longer solely reside in Europe, but are in fact members of a global reading public. It is this new spatial component of the defining of “classics” and “canons” that provides the foundation for this book.

Also uniquely, Mukherjee is clearest at the end of her chapters. Although she frames her ideas at the beginning of each chapter, often the condensed sense of her argument (and the most useful) falls in the last couple pages or paragraphs of each section. This unconventional stylistic choice in some ways mirrors the evolution and dynamism of canon formation which she foregrounds in her book. For example, she concludes in her post-script, “the debates around ‘What is a classic?’ are arguing” (215).  Borrowing this term and definition from Derek Attridge, Mukherjee understands arguing as “‘utterances made by individuals in concrete situations,’ and not of the order of the philosophical argument ‘which implicitly lays claims to a timeless, spaceless, subjectless condition as it pursues its logic’” (as cited in Mukherjee 215). Thus writers engage with their “classics” as defined by them and create literary lineages in an effort to make space for their writing. This is done, as her chapters show, through the repetitions of “the temporal event of the classic,” “the self-situating of the latecomer to the canon,” “the rewriting of literary influences,” “the decoding and recoding of classics,” “the creation of a vernacular canon,” and “postcolonial mimesis and countersignature” (215).

The clarity with which she defines each chapter into phrasal sound bites here comes after 200 or so pages of reading. While the ideas articulated in these sounds bites permeate the text, it is only after prolonged meditation that they are succinctly articulated to the reader. Some readers might find this structure frustrating but the process of understanding Mukherjee’s points, the experience of defining and discovering classics and canonization with her, aids and internalizes the processes she articulates.

As this Attridge/Mukherjee quote above also suggests, one shortcoming of this book is Mukherjee’s reliance on the concepts and terminology of her peers to define and frame her line of thinking; sometimes so much so that it is difficult to discern where her voice is. While I applaud Mukherjee’s insistence that the postcolonial field return again to these questions of the canon and the classic, her book’s freshness of thought is muddled by the synthetic abundance in her writing.

Overall this text provides firm ground to discuss the continuing urgency of exploring issues of canonization and the making of “classics” in literature. While its insights are valuable, in particular her readings of the spatial nature of canon formation, they can be muddled by the synthetic structure and writing of the book. Those looking to gauge where postcolonial studies scholars are on issues of canonization and the classic will find Mukherjee’s book to be a good resource.

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