Any student of literature, however passionate he or she may be, is likely to readily acknowledge that some of the works in the literary canon are curiously out of place amongst more illustrious works by “major" authors. As is the case with any art form, the value of literature is judged not only by a set of supposedly objective criteria relate to the author’s technical skills and abilities, but a profoundly more complex set of criteria that are entirely subjective and which vary considerably from one reader to another. Sometimes, works that have found their way into the canon have done so not by virtue of their technical excellence, but because they represent a daring departure from convention, either in terms of their subject or their stylistic treatment, or both. Such is the case in the works of Emily Dickinson Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Quite simply, their subject or their approach is of greater value than their actual treatment of it, a fact which has earned them a place in the Western canon of modern literature.
Emily Dickinson could have hardly dreamed or hoped that her poetry would become as well-known as it is; had she anticipated this fact, she might not have spent her life in such an acute state of psychological despair. At the same time, however, it was her depressive mental state that provided the impetus for her to write, and which was the subject of so much of her poetry. No poet had searched within quite as deeply or expressed herself so plainly and intimately on the page as Dickinson did. Dickinson’s intimate, confessional, despairing poetry was daring, and though her poems only gained widespread acceptance and admiration after her death, what we recognize as valuable about them today is not so much their craft, but rather their candor. Dickinson’s preoccupation with her interior landscape helps the reader studyhis or her own emotions; more than her poetic skill, Dickinson effectively engages the reader and provokes an emotional response: “I’m nobody!" Dickinson asserts, “Are you-Nobody– Too?" (ll. 1-2). This direct question, followed by the inviting, “Then there’s a pair of us" (l. 3), and the injunction, “Don’t tell!" (l. 4) establishes a direct relationship between Dickinson and the reader, a sophisticated form of psychological identification, if not technically excellent poetry.
Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter” is also, technically speaking, not excellent. It is, in fact, a work that rambles quite a bit. While masterful in his ability to describe a person, a place, or a situation with astute details, it is this same quality that bogs down the work at times, creating lines that are uncomfortably long and wandering. Consider, for example, the sentence: “Hester gazed after him…, looking with a half-fantastic curiosity to see whether the tender grass of early spring would be not be blighted beneath him, and show the wavering track of his footsteps, sere and brown, across a cheerful verdure" (153). Many of the words in this sentence are superfluous, but so, too, are the very images; they do not add significantly to the action or tone of the novel, and serve only as unnecessary distractions that draw the reader’s attention away from Hawthorne’s true skill and subject. What makes “The Scarlet Letter” such an enduring work is not Hawthorne’s technical ability, but rather, the subject about which he writes. The Scarlet Letter was as daring in its scope and treatment of its subject as the event which he describes. Hawthorne examines a taboo topic openly, challenging the reader’s notions about what makes an “appropriate" subject for literature.
Finally, Melville’s Billy Budd falls into the same category of works that have earned a place in the denomination of “major" works, but which is technically lacking in the sophistication that would merit such a position in the canon. This novel, like many of Melville’s works, takes place on a ship that is at sea. Billy Budd is populated with characters who are stock figures in Melville’s body of work, characters whose names all too obviously point to the characteristics which define them; the same is true of places and objects, such as the ship itself. Although naming is an important aspect of any fictional work, Melville seems to think that his reader is not clever enough to read more subtle clues; instead, he is painfully obvious and forces images and associations upon the reader. The ships’ names, H.M.S. Bellipotent and the Rights of Man, are just two examples of this phenomenon. The characteristic that has earned Melville a place in the literary canon, though, is not his stylistic skill, but rather, like Dickinson and Hawthorne, the selection of his subject. Although it is a subject treated again and again in Melville’s work, Melville’s strength is depicting life in a contained space that is not familiar to most readers and their own life experiences. Melville takes the reader inside the life of a ship, exploring themes of containment and expansion simultaneously, and constantly examining the nature of human relationships and conflict. Not every author can work in such a tight space, but this is Melville’s particular forte.
The denomination of an author or a text as “major" is a judgment that is rendered not only based on technical and stylistic skills, but on a consideration of the writer and his or her work within a far larger context and more expansive set of criteria. A literary work is never considered solely based on its own merit, but is measured against other works that have preceded it. In the case of the poems of Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, the place that these works have secured as important Western texts was not given based solely on the objective criteria of demonstrated literary merit. Rather, all three of these work and their authors are notable and endure in our imaginations and classrooms because of their bold treatment of personal themes that were not explored by authors before them.