Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction

By Jerome H. Delamater; Ruth Prigozy | Go to book overview

1
Canonization, Modern Literature,
and the Detective Story

John G. Cawelti

In recent years, the far-reaching and often acrimonious debate about what has become known as the “canon” of English and American literature has dominated literary scholarship and criticism. Much of the debate has involved (a) exploring literature created by women and minorities, especially African-American, Spanish-speaking, and Native American groups and (b) giving these groups greater emphasis in the accepted literary canon. Supporters of “canon revision” have tried to generate more positive critical analyses and evaluations of literature by women and minority groups, have attacked the exclusion of these groups from the canon, and have argued that the canon itself has been strongly influenced by sexist, racist, and class ideologies. The end result of this activity has been the increasing inclusion of literary creations by women and minority groups both in literary histories and in the text anthologies that are the basis of most introductory literary courses. In this way what we know as literature is being reshaped through education and scholarship.

However, there is another important way in which our thinking about literature has been changing in the last two decades. This is the gradual assimilation into our idea of literature of popular genres that used to be sharply separated from the literary mainstream, most notably the detective story. Now, not only are certain practitioners of the detective story such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler widely included in those classroom anthologies that effectively define the literary tradition, but the genre itself has achieved a new cultural centrality, both in America and in the world. Some of the more significant recent developments in writing by women and minorities have emerged from the detective story tradition, and the detective story has also become an important component of the new global culture that is developing around the rapid international spread of telecommunications. Finally, the basic significance of the

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