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Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and the Claims of a Canon

Kathleen Kelly Marks

Canonical Questions

In Elizabeth Fox-Genovese we find a stalwart, if unlikely, defender of the western canon. After all, her Within the Plantation Household (1988), the book that cemented her scholarly reputation, treats the marginal rather than the canonical. The study is a close reading of mid-nineteenth century domestic life that draws on ephemera such as letters to see from a Marxist-feminist perspective one of the most conflicted and dense times of American history. It engages primary texts while situating them in historical contexts by displaying a mastery of the critical tradition. It stands as a well-written model of an engaged reading of history. Thus it stands in contrast to a more “traditional” approach. It was not a study of the “great men” of the time, and was therefore subversive of more canonical historical narratives. Or look at it this way: the historian who helped to found one of the first doctoral program in Women’s Studies in the United States is perhaps not the first to come to mind when thinking of defenders of the canon.

But when we look again, we see that a few years later, Fox-Genovese published her Feminism Without Illusions (1991), the book that established her credentials as a significant commentator on political, cultural, and educational topics. Throughout, she critically analyzes the assumptions of modernity’s emphasis on the individual, and tallies the costs and benefits of our discourse of individual rights on the one hand and our commitment to community on the other. And more often than not, she concludes that there are real dangers in jettisoning a common culture which codifies that community’s insights. That summary of insights finds one expression in the canon, and we reject it, she argues, at out own risk.

And yet, these two Fox-Genoveses, the feminist historian who expands the canon and subverts traditional historical narratives, and the public intellectual who defends the canon and a shared culture, are not in conflict. They do not represent two separate trajectories, but two linked insights into the history of the western tradition and the role America plays in that tradition.

A Broader and Deeper Canon

Her writings indicate a deep, if critical and tension-filled, appreciation of the western intellectual tradition as found in its canon. Interestingly, this appreciation grew out of her study of her chosen discipline of history; her specialty was the writings of white slave-owning women—the type of discourse they engaged in, their motivations, their relation to the material world of southern slave society. Though the standards of scholarship remain conventional, this topic and these texts are hardly canonical. And yet the investigation of them raises the same themes that we see over and over in history—power, evil, limits, political justice, social relations, and personal freedom. And further, the investigation of women slaves and slave-owners opens up new areas of inquiry that more traditional approaches exclude. Just to acknowledge one area—how does a white woman in a plantation household balance the conflicting (contradictory!) notions of 19th-century feminine tenderness with the repellent requirements of slave ownership? How could an embodied Christian faith that references the radically egalitarian Gospel of Mark possibly live comfortably with a system based on forced servitude?

The historical record can only be enriched by including such questions, and indeed a record that does not take such inquiries into account inevitably falls short. Thus the recording and critical investigation of alternate, neglected, and the subaltern voices is of course in itself of value because it fills in gaps in the historical record and expands and revises our understanding of others and ourselves. But such study is of further value for America, or American-like political systems, because it goes a long way towards a more full representation of displaced voices. With the broadening of political citizenship beyond elite white men, the inclusion and study of alternate voices becomes all the more important. That is, the recording of such diverse voices has the beneficial effect of bringing the newly liberated into political life; the previously excluded now have a stake in the future success of the polity. The public square becomes healthier through such broadening; nothing is lost and much is gained.

And here the canonical question becomes most clear, for Fox-Genovese’s insight is that the thoughtful expansion of the canon to bring in excluded voices paradoxically affirms the value of the canon. There is a radical difference, she argues, between the desire to open the canon and the desire to demolish it, between revision and rejection. As she argues in her Feminism Without Illusions, “Unless we agree that there is a place for some canon in our culture and education, the demand to revise it to take account of gender, race, and class makes no sense” (190). When either radicals or self-appointed defenders of the canon confuse these two movements, it is not only intellectually sloppy, but damaging to the polity, to the culture, to the person.

What is re-affirmed (consciously or unconsciously) by those seeking to open the canon, is that there is a real value in studying common texts, that the student/citizen, to be fully humane and engaged in the life of the community, must be aware of this body of work. In other words, when one argues that Woolf, Douglass, or Hurston be added to the canon, one is affirming the value of a shared body of knowledge, a core, of which the larger culture ought to be aware. The specifics are debatable, as they always have been: the canon has never been an immutable reading list but always a work in progress. Faulkner or Woolf? “Vindication of the Rights of Women” or “Federalist #51”? These are prudential issues that are open to debate: what is beyond question is that there be a shared body.[1]

In other words, a broader canon might just be a deeper and more politically engaged canon. For if previous understandings of the canon saw it as a body of works meant to prepare an elite minority for its civic responsibilities, then with the radical democratization of society, which is America’s genius, it becomes all the more important to have an education that serves all its citizens.

Too Many Canons?

But the inclusion of alternate voices holds a danger that Fox-Genovese rightly feared: the proliferation of voices could break down the common culture that is its inheritance. Yes, we might agree that we ought to have a canon that more adequately represents the richness of our diverse polity, one that gathers the insights of alternate voices. But is there a tipping point at which the canon becomes a cacophony, a jumble of speeches?

Fox-Genovese’s reflection on the American experience made this issue stand out in sharp relief. The great insight of modernity is the irreducible value of the individual.[2] No longer was it only the privileged who were to be represented in politics, no longer might only rich white men require an education and exposure to the canon in order to rule. Rather, all are worthy of having their value recognized through political representation. But when is the story of a people, a nation, no longer a unified whole but a loose mixture of autobiographies that affirm only the solitary individual? The flip side of the insight of modernity that each individual is valuable is that there might be a point at which individualism becomes a war of all against all.

Herein lies the danger of balancing the individual voice with submission to a shared body of knowledge, a shared political space, or a shared a canon. In one of her published talks, Fox-Genovese uses reader-response criticism as an example of an approach that might fall into this trap. This theoretical approach—in its stress on the personal (the individual) over the political (the shared)—emphasizes the multiplicity of responses to a text, of finding what is “relevant” to the reader. But if we read the same text with different responses, then is there a stable text we can agree on? The critical tradition of the west has always been comfortable with a multiplicity of interpretations—Fox Genovese references the multivalent Augustine several times in this regard. So you think The Tempest is about the workings of the imagination, I think it is about colonial exploitation: we can argue over it. But if we stop arguing, stop the dialogue that Fox-Genovese saw as the heart of historical and literary interpretation, then we leave it at a simple-minded relativism, in which your interpretation is as good as mine.

So, the multiplicity of voices can result in a rejection of the possibility of a stable ground of truth, and therefore of any criterion of judging a canon. On the political level, this would constitute a rejection of the American assurance of “E Pluribus Unum,” which is nothing less than the hope that a plurality of states (after the founding) or of races (after the Civil War) or of sexes (after the adoption of the 19th amendment) could indeed come together in common cause and, at some significant level, a common identity. The enshrining of a diversity of voices might at some point lead to the erasure of collective memory. This is what concerns Fox-Genovese most in her writing: we cannot “afford to surrender to the anarchy of an infinite number of personal autobiographies.”[3] So we have the irony that the woman who did so much to found the discipline of Women’s Studies simultaneously perceives that the expansion of the canon might dilute the cultural values in which excluded groups precisely wanted to participate.

What’s a Canon For?

All of which leads to the obvious question of what a canon is for. For if it is not an inflexible reading list (as both its detractors and less effective defenders would have it) then how do we judge what gets allowed in and what gets left out? And what effects should the canon have on those who undergo it?

On the one hand, Fox-Genovese will judge the canon “useless,” in the best sense of the word. The canon, or more broadly the liberal arts education it undergirds, is not “useful,” much to the dismay of students and parents who shell out money for a college education in the hopes of a secure and comfortable future. In this, Fox-Genovese agrees with a series of commentators who dismiss the instrumentalist view of education. From John Henry Cardinal Newman, who argues that the truly liberal education is innocent of ends, to Stanley Fish, whose recent book seeks to banish politics of both the left and the right from the classroom, thinkers have highlighted the liberating element of the liberal arts.[4]

And yet on the other hand, if the liberal arts canon cannot be said to have uses, it can be said to have effects. Fox-Genovese was first a history teacher, and so her objection to the casting aside of the canon springs from her historical understanding of the world, and was couched in terms of the urgency, almost the duty, to have a historical understanding of the world. The study of history makes sense only if there are constants through the variety of times, and the canon are those texts that, while representing diverse voices and historical contexts, draw the student/citizen into conversation about the constants of human life. Such a conversation about the humanities sees “education as the unfolding of mind and character.” Indeed, “The goal of a Liberal Arts education must, in my judgment, be to furnish the young person’s mind and draw to him or her into relations with others who are both very much like and radically different from one another and from the student.” But there has been a breakdown in this conversation, notes Fox-Genovese, “a radical caesura in the inter-generational conversation” (43), a “pervasive amnesia” that must be overcome.[5]

It is not simply that the canon defends us from the violence and narcissism of forgetfulness. It is not just that it is good to have a common culture to draw on—this argument would work for any culture. Rather, the western canon, revised, expanded, under constant review and self-criticism, is worth having because it has certain specific effects. It is worthy of preservation, of deference and defense, perhaps uniquely so, because it contains texts of adequate density and adequate insight into the human condition and the person’s political responsibilities. The western canon forces those who engage it to reflect on issues of power, and the ultimate goals of human life; it confronts us, makes demands of us, and judges us even as we form it.[6]

The canonical issue—the role of certain texts in the “unfolding of mind and character”--speaks to Fox-Genovese’s role as a teacher. For while she argued against “presentism” and against an education aimed at utility, she also knew that certain educations often lead to certain results. Fox-Genovese, having been immersed in the canon at a young age, was naïve to “all of the concrete lessons about dealing with power” (Feminism 171), and as she notes, “I suspended my disbelief and identified with the causes, the values the characteristics of my heroes. I claimed the canon as my own” (171). Fox-Genovese carries this initial claiming of the canon as part of her own autobiography, which as teacher she knows makes no sense without the “collective history” that is the canon (198). The theoretical issue of the canon meets the practical issue of the effects that texts can have on the soul of the student who waits, expectantly, in the classroom. She would agree, it seems, with Fish that the liberal arts cannot “save the world,” to draw on the title of his most recent tome. But they do have transformative effects on the students who allow those arts to engage them in conversation.

Faith, Reason, Text

There is another consequence to the notion that there are enduring questions, permanent things, perduring essences that survive through the specific historical incarnations. Fox-Genovese surprised at least a few when she converted to Catholicism in 1995. After all, she was a typical academic, generally secular, or Christian in a kind of cultural fashion. Yet it was her insight that the metaphysical grounding of a “common culture” must be some type of essentialism. If the dead could ever be right, then there must be some lasting metaphysics to support their insight; there must be a stable, permanent reality, grounded in natures/Nature/or the divine.

In her “A Conversion Story” she notes, “I did not myself experience conversion as a radical rupture with my past.” She grasped faith as meaningfully related to a morality, a world-view, as a way of life that she already intuited and lived.[7] Fox-Genovese also saw the life of the mind in a new way. She was struck by the pride she saw in the academy. This was something quite beyond the justifiable self-esteem in one’s hard-won authority, a pride in the labor of one’s mind and hands. Rather, this pride often resembled the old human dream of being wholly autonomous, literally a “law unto oneself.” Fox-Genovese saw this, and made a submission to an order that made quite different demands.

It is said that there are two types of conversion stories: Pauline and Augustinian. The markers of the former are rupture, insight, immediacy, displacement and opposition. The markers of the latter are more subtle, if no less earth-shaking: continuity, recognition, a confirmation of what one already intuits, talking to a good friend. A throw from a horse, or a book in a garden. Fox-Genovese’s conversion story reads like the latter: no sudden bursts, but a stumbling into a Mass, talking to good friends, measuring one’s worth in the light of Calvary, perhaps even a book in a garden. It was the natural culmination of the workings of mind and heart towards its home, a journey that began early in her life when her own father introduced her to the goods of the canon: Poe and Dostoevsky and Aquinas and Hegel. Augustine appears often in Fox-Genovese’s writing, most obviously because his confessional autobiography raises the issues of interpretation of a life-story, and how the individual can freely assent to truths. Yet his conversion story itself obviously found some resonance as she reflected on the facts of her life.


Ultimately, Fox-Genovese’s reverence of the canon is based on the perception she gained through the discipline in which she was immersed. It found its natural outlet, however, in what we know about her personality, which expressed itself in conversation, with all its attendant virtues: openness to revision, ability to listen, sharpness of insight. In one of her late writings, she notes that this understanding of conversation is at the heart of education: “The liberal arts may be understood as the continuing conversation about the human condition and the power of the human mind” (“Liberal” 42). This conversation was at the core of her life and is at the core of the canon.

[1] T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is an obvious touchstone here for the topic of how the new becomes folded into a society’s larger cultural dynamic: e.g., to understand a poet, “you must set him […] among the dead.”

[2] See Wilfred McClay’s superb Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (UNC Press 1994) for a study of American individualism.

[3]Feminism Without Illusions. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 198.

[4] John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University; Stanley Fish, Save the World On Your Own Time, Oxford U Press 2008.

[5] Fox-Genovese, “Liberal Education in the University: Prospects and Pitfalls,” Journal of Education, Volume 183, Number 3, 2002, 39, 45, 43.

[6] Charles Taylor’s recent A Secular Age (Belknap Press 2007) traces out the 500-year development of secularism and finds its roots in Christianity’s emphasis on the value of self. The relation between the two is more complex than mere opposition, and would imply the uniqueness of the western experience.

[7] “A Conversion Story,” First Things, April, 2000.