ML as a 'canon'?

Sharon Biederman sbiederm at
Thu Apr 12 16:16:51 EDT 2001


     While agreeing that "canon" may not be the best word to describe the
ML series, I believe that given all the publishing contraints you
mentioned, the Modern Library did a creditable job of including an
excellent assortment of fiction and nonfiction works in their series. 
Yes, there were some "losers," particularly in the B&L era, but overall
the quality is remarkable.  For someone who enjoys classics, both
ancient and modern, ML provides a treasure trove.  Taking into
account that they had to publish books that would sell, the publishing 
choices were generally sound.

    I have to disagree with your inclusion of Fabre's Life of the
Caterpillar among the "peculiar" titles.  It is an superb example of
its genre and a good read.  My personal nomination for the most heavily
overrepresented lesser author is Gabrielle D'Annunzio.  I read Flame of
Life last year and was baffled by the author's popularity.  Tastes change,
I guess.  

   As for the "dead white guys" comment, gender/ethnicity issues
contributed to the controversy surrounding the recent ML list of 100 best
fiction titles.  But I'm not sure it's a meaningful way to judge 
19th and early 20th century literature.  The Three Musketeers has been
considered one of the best adventure novels for more than 150 years.
During most of that time readers did not know the author was of African
descent. Is the book better or worse now that we do?  Neither. It's the
same great swashbuckler. Similarly, Anna Karenina, written by a man, is
among the greatest of "woman's" stories.  Last year, I heard a lecture by
William Styron in which he described criticism he received for writing
Confessions of Nat Turner because he is not black and Sophie's Choice
because he is not Jewish or a concentration camp survivor.  I think both
books are masterpieces.

     Having recently reread a large portion of An Anthology of
American Negro Literature, I was amazed at how astute the selections were.
Most of the same names and excerpts appear in today's college courses in 
African-American literature.  Yet the ML choices were made in 1929
when many of the authors were very young men and women!  Some of the ML
"regulars" whose names are associated with a number of titles --Calverton,
Van Vechten,etc." did an amazing job.

Thu, 12 Apr 2001, j bkrygier wrote:

> Hi ModLib,
> While my wife has grown to like (even love) the
> wall of MLs in our livingroom, she does grump
> about the fact that they are mostly 'dead white
> guys.'  This did, I tell her, reflect the status
> of the 'canon' at the time (20s, 30s, 40s, 50s).

> But more to the point: I am not sure you could
> consider the ML at any particular time to be "the
> canon" or even a particularly great 'canon.'  Early
> on in my ML quest I assumed there was some
> coherent logic behind selecting titles for the ML.
> Then I read Gordon Neavill's dissertation on the
> ML and realized that right from the beginning ML
> was not quite so coherent.  Titles were added that
> were available, and others that the publishers
> wanted were not available.  Titles ML really
> wanted to keep (Mann, Hemingway, Cather) were
> yanked from the series for various reasons outside
> the control of the ML.  You had to go to competing
> series from other publishers (and it seems as if
> every major publisher had a competing series) to
> get some vital authors.  ML sometimes got mediocre
> titles from important authors (Wharton) because
> they could not get rights to the titles they
> wanted.
> Finally, while I am ranting a bit, there are some
> really peculiar titles in the ML.  Authors who are
> all but forgotten, who I have a hard time
> believing were ever really considered worthy of
> being part of the canon.  No offense, but Irving
> Fineman?  Ouida?  Fabre's book on worms?  Sheean?
> Jackson?  Marjorie Fleming's book?  Reading the ML
> provides you with at best a quirky 'liberal arts'
> education, based on the dictates of the market,
> fighting among rival publishers, copyright
> restrictions, and the personal quirks of the folks
> at Random House.
> But I still love ML!  Indeed, I find the 'peculiar'
> titles to be some of the most interesting in the
> series - if only because they seem at odds with the
> canonical aura of the ML.
> John K.
> --
> j   b   k r y g i e r
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