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When does something become literary? When does something literary become canonical?

I’ve often come up against the above questions in my scholarly career. Most often I’m confronted by the latter. Academics love to shake up common knowledge, as well as the passive acceptance of canons of all kinds, which is their job, so good, but I feel deep love toward many pieces we regard as central to the American literary canon, and I make no secret of that. Give me Melville, Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemingway, Steinbeck, et cetera, et cetera. So I feel a little cagey when it’s suggested, even tacitly, that they are spent, used up, covered, old and, as such, frail or useless, because none of that is true.

I don’t think that the answers to the questions I’m asking are to be found a stalemate either. Time moves on, new work is produced, otherwise overlooked old work is reconsidered, the canon is not so much an errand in swapping out the exhausted for the fresh because we cannot rightly define how and when a work becomes exhausted so long as new people continue to be born, to grow up, to read, and to be inspired. Similarly, the question of what is fresh must be considered soberly, because it’s too easy to be excited by novelty, only to later realize that, newness aside, behind the façade of novelty is something actually pretty vacuous. (Ahem. Mm. Cough. The Dark Knight Rises. Cough. Mm.)

Somehow, carefully, and recklessly, canons expand, which is really all they can do.

I think few cogent scholars of English literature would deny the importance of a literary figure as contemporary as David Foster Wallace. I like to think Miranda July is someone we can think of as one day becoming a canonical figure in American literature, representative of what some folks have tenderly termed New Sincerity, perhaps the or an artistic movement after Postmodernism. Jonathon Franzen must fall into the neuvo-canonized, as well. I also like to think some of what Junot Diaz has written is worth entering.

But these are all fairly new authors. Above I mentioned “overlooked old work,” and it’s that subject that inspired me to write this post to begin with, so let’s head in that direction.

This is how I got to this question: I was making up a fantasy Intro to American literature syllabus. Some people make up fantasy football leagues; I daydream about a classroom full of eager students and a limitless number of hour-long lectures to pick our way through formative American narratives and stories. At some point in that fantasy, as I moved through American literature period by period, my mind arrived at the 1930s, and while I thought about the Great Depression and Steinbeck and Sherwood Anderson and Richard Wright and Katherine Anne Porter, as well as the births of Barthelme and Coover and Updike and Roth and Oates and Carver, I also thought of Action Comic #1.

Action Comics #1 was published in June 1938 and features the first appearance of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s now iconic American hero Superman.

At this moment, in summer of 2012, as comic book inspired mega-blockbusters assault every sense wherever you turn, the cultural impact and interest in superheroes and their genre is impossible to ignore. Really, it is.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: the bigness of superhero movies right now, isn’t that the vacuous novelty I just mentioned. I think, 95% of the time, certainly. Absolutely. Wolverine, Iron Man, Christopher Nolan’s military-industrial Batman eulogy, that god-awful bit of pot-philosophizing Watchmen (dry-heave…wait, does this count as “American”? Alan Moore is an Englishman) – they don’t really deserve a place alongside the giants of American lit right now. Maybe not ever. In some cases, I hope not ever. But Superman. Hm…Superman…

Now, I know the problems inherent in the Superman figure. The Ayn Randian interpretations, the Nietzschean Übermensch angle, the deification of white masculinity, of American exceptionalism, of the nonindigenous man from afar conquering a new world and doing it better than anyone else ever…there’s all that. In fact, all that and more makes the Superman story all the better for discussion in the context of American literature and its canon(s). Let’s mine the problems. He’s been a figure for war propaganda, so let’s look at that. Let’s also look at his embodiment of American folk figures like Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Yankee Doodle, Pecos Bill. Talk about American pastoral: young Clark Kent growing up on a farm in Anytown USA before pulling up his bootstraps and heading off for the big city to become a seemingly mild mannered newspaper reporter when he isn’t flying and wearing a big red cape evocative of a flag.

So in my fantasy Intro to American lit course, we read and we discuss Superman. We read Action Comics #1 and learn that before he was the image of perfect nobility, Superman was a chauvinist and a dickhead who performed generally good deeds. And we wonder, together, what this all means and if, indeed, it would be more accurate (if realism is our concern) to maintain his dickheadedness or what the fairly recent turn toward muscular martyrdom may mean.

Look. Superman’s a year away from being big again. Next summer, slow-motion aficionado Zack Snyder will release his interpretation of the story to megaplexs ev-er-y-where. (Yes, the very director of endless drivel, including the xenophob-adventure tale 300 and the already bemoaned Watchmen.) And adding doubt to doubt, Christopher Nolan is producing. I’m not sure how I feel about this. But as a Terrence Malick fan, I like the film’s trailer if only for Snyder’s schoolboy desire to impersonate a far superior auteur:

Hopefully, the film somehow miraculously turns out as good as the trailer.

Either way, you can read Action Comics #1 here. It’s fun. And it would be more fun in the classroom, read alongside the greats we already appreciate. This may serve as a slight indication of Superman’s potential value in the undergraduate literature introduction: a search of “moby dick” on Google Scholar turned up 33 900 in 0.06 seconds; when I searched “superman” on that same engine it retrieved 67 800 in 0.05 seconds. Mind you, I did not review each article for quality or applicability, and we are talking about the Internet here, so take that example with a grain of kryptonite.

Up, up, and away.

–          Joe