Ryan Boyd focuses his response to the new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates on “the bookworm’s Between the World and Me” in order to “speculate briefly on what that says about Coates’s writing mind.”
Boyd agrees with John Warner that Coates is more student than James Baldwin’s preacher. And in his roles as student, writer, public intellectual, Coates presents as well a nuanced (and I think, important) perspective on what literature matters:
Coates is a canonist. Not in the normative way that, say, Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold are, because they see canon-formation and maintenance as primarily an Anglo project; but rather in terms of a basic belief that some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first. To be sure, he envisions a democratic canon which is constantly interrogated and supplemented, but he’s still a Great Books man. Canonicity is a principle, not a specific roster of content.
Many teachers, writers, and readers have fought a long and seemingly endless battle against the normative canon, which has existed as a prescriptive list of dead white men’s books—myself among that cause.
Yet, I have always struggled with loving many of the works that fall into that traditional canon, like Coates, and also felt self-conscious about having standards myself for “good” versus “bad” literature.
This schizophrenia manifests itself for me in my response to young adult (YA) literature: I strongly advocate for YA literature because it encourages children to read, often a great deal, but I often add that for me most YA literature falls short of what I expect from literature (and I think too many YA works ask too little of teens who are more capable than writers and publishers seem to believe).
I have made that same case about comic books and graphic novels.
This Coates-inspired rethinking about the canon, then, has coincided with my finishing Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.
McCarthy as a white male writer and then his mostly white, male mythology represent the essential tension faced by those of us calling for the expanded canon, including the voices of women and black/brown authors.
The Racist Imperative: White as Mythological and Universal
Scott Esposito acknowledges in McCarthy “the allegorical nature of The Border Trilogy“:
McCarthy seems to be at pains to paint these books in black and white because he knows he is writing allegories, and thus they require broad strokes in order to function properly.
The Border Trilogy is certainly not nearly as realist as McCarthy’s first four novels, or even as realist as Blood Meridian. It has been previously commented that John Grady and Billy are far too able as cowboys to be believable. Whether breaking a horse, muzzling a wolf, or shooting game, they never struggle to do anything; they just do it, much like an epic hero might.
I find the trilogy compelling because of McCarthy’s Faulknerian tendency to drop into poetry (frequently, the prose is beautiful above and beyond the obligation a writer has to move along a story) and because the works are mythology charged with confronting readers with universal questions about justice and coming to grips with the human condition.
And therein lies the problem, but not one we must lay at McCarthy’s feet alone since the white and misogynistic template for mythology is literally Greek and Roman mythology.
The white male hero was not created by McCarthy (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), but John Grady Cole and Billy Parham maintain a tradition among the normative canon of casting whiteness and maleness as the universal Truth, one that has moved away from description and toward prescription.
As well, McCarthy slips uncritically into the template of the female-as-prize for the male-as-savior—notably Magdalena (Cities of the Plain), a mere child cast as epileptic prostitute and, as always, beautiful. (See the same strengths and weaknesses in True Detective, season 1.)
However, if McCarthy’s works are simply endorsed by the normative cannon edict or dismissed by a similar but inverse multi-cultural mandate, I believe that we fail Coates’s canon-as-principle, as Boyd suggests.
The Border Trilogy is allegory, mythology rich in considerations of the nature of justice as well as the elusive nature of any human seeking to bring about justice.
More nuanced, I think, is the Mexico/U.S. duality posed by McCarthy—much as Margaret Atwood does with Canada/U.S. and Roxane Gay does with Haiti/U.S.
Nested within the larger themes of justice, Mexico becomes an allegory of the communal while the U.S. represents a people trapped in the market. Billy Parham’s sense of justice is enhanced by the kindness he experiences while criss-crossing into Mexico. The border crossing is itself a mythological passage in which coins signal the transition from Mexico—where my house/food is your house/food—to the U.S.—where everything is a matter of money.
This Mexico/U.S. contrast does raise themes about race and culture, to McCarthy’s credit, but that remains within the white gaze of the author and the dominant white male central characters.
Yes, there is a veiled racial/racist tradition in McCarthy’s allegory/mythology that frames white and male as universal, but those qualities are part of a larger fabric offered in the work—a fabric that may and should be judged in the complex canon-as-principle that seeks to discover “some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first,” per Boyd from Coates.
In my early and rare scholarly publications while I was teaching high school English (see below), I wrote several times about how to merge the traditional canon with multicultural works. Then, I was struggling against the normative canon, but I had no lens for addressing the either/or trap of calling for multicultural literature at the expense of so-called classic works.
Today, as I sit with McCarthy’s Border Trilogy before me—and I think about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy as both fundamentally like McCarthy’s and in very significant ways unlike McCarthy’s (for example, Lisbeth Salander)—I have begun to reconsider the notion of the canon personified by Coates as not a compromise but a richer mechanism for confronting all texts in order to reimagine what works to celebrate, to teach, and to embrace in our never ending journey as students.
In his Between the World and Me, Coates champions the power of literature and confirms Walter Dean Myers’s recognition about the normative canon: “there was something missing.”
Coates (Malcolm X and Baldwin) and Myers (Baldwin) share the importance of seeing yourself in the fictions that make you who you are; in short, the universal—particularly the universal as a thin veil for white/male privilege—is not enough, even when the universal is compelling, as Myers reveals:
I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cormac McCarthy Walk Into a Bar, T. Elijah Hawkes
Thomas, P.L. (1996). When Wordsworth is too tame: Merging minority literature with the classics in the secondary language arts curriculum. In L. Cooke & H. C. Lodge (Eds.), Voices in English Classrooms: Honoring Diversity and Change, 28 (pp. 177-185). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Thomas, P.L. (1991, Spring). Exposing the universal through the diverse: The role of minority literature in the language arts curriculum. Western Ohio Journal, 12 (1), 58-61.
Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers