What Is a Classic?

15th November 2013

News, Student news, Alumni news

Ankhi Mukherjee, tutorial fellow at Wadham, has published her second monograph, titled What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon.

  • What Is a Classic?
  • Ankhi Mukherjee

    Ankhi Mukherjee

What Is a Classic? revisits the famous question posed by critics from Sainte-Beuve and T. S. Eliot to J. M. Coetzee to ask how classics emanate from postcolonial histories and societies.

Ankhi explores definitive trends in twentieth and twenty-first century English and Anglophone literature, demonstrating the relevance of the question of the classic for the global politics of identifying and perpetuating so-called core texts. Emergent literary ‘classics’ are scrutinized in the context of the wider cultural phenomena of book prizes, the translation and distribution of world literatures, and multimedia adaptations of world classics. Throughout, Mukherjee attunes traditional literary critical concerns to the value contestations mobilizing postcolonial and world literature. The breadth of debates and topics she addresses, as well as the book's ambitious historical schema, which includes South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and North America, set this study apart from related titles on the bookshelf today.

Ankhi says What Is a Classic? is her Oxford book,  the idea for which came to her when she was a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the English Faculty. "Teaching three of the core papers on the Oxford undergraduate syllabus - 1740-1832, 1832-1900, 1900-present - as an Indian and American trained scholar made me think of the relationship of the Western literary canon to cultural outsiders and latecomers. Treating the canon as an instrument of transmission, and not a shut archive, the book explores value contestations that underlie this rhetorical question as English literature goes from being exclusively Western to being worldwide."

"My students help me get the balance right between love and irreverence when it comes to the classics of literature," Ankhi adds.

According to Ato Quayson, University of Toronto: "What is a Classic? is extremely erudite and well written, with a broad grasp of debates on canon formation not only in postcolonial studies but with respect to the Western tradition more generally. This is a book that will prove a landmark in the field, providing a thorough postcolonial qualification to various other offerings on World Literature in the field. In fact, it is impossible to see the book as becoming anything but an abiding classic itself, one that may lead those who come to be acquainted with it to stop perfect strangers and exclaim: 'Here. Read this!'"

David Palumbo-Liu from Stanford University adds: "This brilliant, entertaining, accessible book will immediately be reviewed and commented on and will become a key text."