Graduate Course Description

350:542 - How New Canons Form: 17th Century Women Writers as a Case Study

Course No:  350:542
Index # - 14883
Distribution Requirement:  A2, A3, C
Thursday - 2:00 p.m. 
MU 207

How New Canons Form: 17th Century Women Writers as a Case Study

Ann Baynes Coiro

Our wide focus will be on long marginalized groups’ halting and uneven move into canonicity (and canonicity's costs). Seventeenth-century women writers will constitute our case study, but students from other fields are encouraged to use this test case and apply its questions to their period.

Seventeenth-century women writers who are now considered canonical actually "emerged" suddenly in the 1980's (such as Lanyer, Wroth, Mary Sidney). Others have emerged since (Lucy Hutchinson and Margaret Cavendish are good examples). And there are several writers whom current scholars are now vying to get into the canon, such as Hester Pulter. In other words, we will explore in close to real time how accepted literary canons change and those forces that have resisted change. In the process, we will weigh the significance of editorial decisions and publication: who has the power, what prejudices are imposed, who are the gatekeepers? Because the questions we ask are shared by scholars of other long-marginalized groups, we will read not only early modern critics, such as Margaret Ezell and Alice Eardley, but also African American critics who are asking similar questions, including Cheryl Wall, Zora Neale Hurston, Bode Ibironke and Sarah Nuttall.

The seventeenth century is an intentional frame, focusing on women writers after Elizabeth I’s reign and before the fuller expansion of women’s authorship in the eighteenth century. Women writing during these years navigated tense religious and political differences and two revolutions (the English civil war and the so-called Glorious Revolution). They wrote within traditional generic strictures and endured harsh criticism for pride, even immorality if they published. Yet the work we will read is stunningly innovative. Authors we will consider include: Mary Sidney (1561-1621), Amelia Lanyer (1569-1645), Mary Wroth (1587?-1651-3), Elizabeth Cary (1585-1639), Anne Bradstreet (1612/3-1672), Lucy Hutchinson (1620-1681), Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), Hester Pulter (1607?-1678), Kathryn Philips (1632-1664), and Aphra Behn (1640-1689).

Because critical work on early modern woman writers basically spans just four decades, we will be able to track the evolving conversation, including the on-again, off-again role of literary theory and the vexed question of whether to treat women writers as a separate group. Key, too, will be a focus on bibliography in its widest sense: who makes editorial decisions about entry into the canon and how do editors and publishers shape the received text?

There will be several shorter assignments throughout this course, including:

  • Experimenting with editing a text;
  • A memo exploring editorial theory comparing early modern and Af-Am approaches;
  • A critical bibliography of an author we won’t be discussing in seminar (some possible choices include Jane Cavendish (1620-1669) and Elizabeth Cavendish Egerton (1626-1663), Anne Killigrew (1660-1685), Bathsua Makin (1600-1675), Anne Conway (1631-1679), Margaret Fell (1614-1702), Lady Eleanor Davies Douglas (1590-1652), and Anne Clifford (1590-1676);
  • A final conference-paper length essay (about 10 polished pages).