Imagining the Presidential Canon: A Thought-Experiment in American Politics

What if American presidential contenders were challenged to propose one hundred books that belong on the United States' list of canonical literature?
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When Vladimir Putin proposed himself to be keeper of the Russian literary canon, observers in some American publications reacted with residual Cold War suspicion. He who proposed the list will also decide the list, consolidating state control over culture, they feared. It must be part of Putin's plan to rule the world after reclaiming Russia's presidency, they surmised. "Chilling" (Ray Gustini in the Atlantic Wire) and "scary as hell" (Alexander Nazaryan in the New York Daily News) they concluded. Martin Sixsmith, who (in the New York Times Book Review) acknowledges that "Putin's self-proclaimed role as arbiter of cultural taste has produced worrying moments," imagines that a similar proposal from an American president would be an election-year dud.

I don't know whether they're all overreacting for Russia's sake, but for America's sake I'd like to extend the thought-experiment a step (or more) further. What if American presidential contenders were challenged to propose one hundred books that belong on the United States' list of canonical literature? Inevitably, there would be substantial disagreements over which books should be enshrined: The familiar debate would persist over whether Huckleberry Finn should be censored or selected, generating not only worthwhile exchanges about characters' ethics but also about the ethics of characterization. In our uncertain economy, libertarians might anoint Atlas Shrugged as an anthem of their cause, liberals may consent to its inclusion as an anathema to theirs, protectionists could brand its Soviet-born author un-American, and purists would label its clunky writing unfit to be honored as literature. And a great conversation about what is and what it is to be essentially American might ensue.

Enacting this proposal in the United States would have its own scary moments. Mitt Romney already caused a stir in 2007 when he declared L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth to be a favorite book, then recently reinforced his reputation for saying anything necessary to please anyone with his spurious claim that he was enjoying teen vamp lit. In contrast, President Obama's list sounds like a college syllabus, headed by Melville's Moby-Dick and Morrison's Song of Solomon -- sure to intimidate the anti-academicians. Among them, the only trace that Rick Santorum seems to have left about his reading habits is his affection for his own book, It Takes a Family, and implied disaffection for Secretary Clinton's It Takes a Village. Neither Santorum nor many others have likely even heard of Newt Gingrich's preferred reads, treatises on economics and the law by cranky and deceased European property-rights scholars, fitting for a cantankerous and decaying candidate.

But a canon is not a mere collection of personal favorites. A canon, as defined by the American critic Harold Bloom, is "the authentic foundation for cultural thinking" -- basically, sainthood for books. Although the Putins and Blooms of the world might like to inscribe them on stone tablets, canons exist only virtually, in the context of a dynamic cultural narrative, revealing new variations as with musical progression in counterpoint. They are the basis for broad cultural agreement yet also the source of dialogue and debate that allow for cultural evolution without, necessarily, revolution. So, for the late Palestinian-American literary theorist Edward Said, the cultural canon -- "each society's reservoir of the best that has been known and thought" -- contains a historical record not only of the dominant power's output but also the means by which less powerful peoples have asserted their identities. No individual or political party decides alone what belongs in a canon -- not Putin, and not the Chinese Communist Party during Mao's Cultural Revolution, which while disavowing Confucianism, benefitted considerably from its culturally ingrained deference to authority.

Controversies notwithstanding, I would anticipate American candidates' canonical lists to have much more in common than not, which is where Putin's proposal -- whatever its value to Russia -- might revive a shared cultural dialogue in the United States. As Putin emphasizes the role of education in uniting a multicultural society, American presidential politics has tended rather to attempt to divide the populace and even to demean the importance of education. The canonical lesson of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which as a case in point would belong near the top of Putin's list whether he chose it or not, is that political successes and military failures are not caused by momentous decisions and actions of powerful leaders. Rather, the least powerful individual is often the figurehead who is carried by rather than in control of the will of the people, the effect of history rather than the cause. Leaders who fail to recognize their own powerlessness are egocentrically prone to errors in judgment, putting people into harm's way to win the election-year battle while waging a war against cultural harmony. That's who is scary.

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