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Cultural Capital

The Problem of Literary Canon Formation

With an Introduction by Merve Emre
An enlarged edition to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of John Guillory’s formative text on the literary canon.

Since its publication in 1993, John Guillory’s Cultural Capital has been a signal text for understanding the codification and uses of the literary canon. Cultural Capital reconsiders the social basis for aesthetic judgment and exposes the unequal distribution of symbolic and literary knowledge on which “culture” had long been based. Drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology, Guillory argues that canon formation must be understood less as a question of the representation of social groups than as a question of the distribution of “cultural capital” in the schools, which regulate access to literacy, to the practices of reading and writing.

Now, as the “crisis of the canon” has evolved into the “crisis of humanities,” Guillory’s groundbreaking, incisive work has never been more relevant and urgent. As scholar and critic Merve Emre writes in her introduction to this new edition: “Exclusion, selection, reflection, representation—these are the terms on which the canon wars of the last century were fought, and the terms that continue to inform debates about, for instance, decolonizing the curriculum and the rhetoric of antiracist pedagogy.”

448 pages | 6 x 9

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


“A brilliantly iconoclastic exploration of the current state of literary criticism.”

The Review of English Studies

Cultural Capital is a distinctive contribution to the ubiquitous discussion of the ‘crisis’ in the humanities. Neither jeremiad nor apology, Guillory’s book is a densely reasoned sociological analysis of literary canon formation.”


“The suppleness of the book's argument overall places Guillory just where it feels right to be. He does not argue for the demolition of the canon or for the abandonment of aesthetic judgment; he advocates, rather, a struggle to disjoin the study of literature from markers of class prestige and to open up universal access to it.”

Modern Fiction Studies

Cultural Capital is a rich book. It rewards the reader with original and often surprising interpretations of buried structural relations of exclusion that are objectified in the canon debate… Guillory is concerned about who reads and who writes; he is also concerned about for whom writers write and under what conditions.”

South Atlantic Review

Cultural Capital takes possession of the whole familiar canon debate and transforms it into something rich and strange, new and exciting.”

English Literature in Transition

“Not merely an intelligent voice in the canon debate, Guillory is among a short list of authors… who have provided the signal service of helping us in the academy to understand in a profound way the function in society as a whole of the institution we serve. . . . Guillory places the canon wars in the context of the social changes that, he argues, have produced the current crisis of the humanities.”

College Literature

“The signature of Cultural Capital… consists in the close attention Guillory pays to the institutional and pedagogic underpinnings of literary critical and theoretical programmes.”

Cultural Studies

Table of Contents

Introduction to the New Edition by Merve Emre

Part One: Critique
1 Canonical and Noncanonical: The Current Debate

Part Two: Case Studies
2 Mute Inglorious Miltons: Gray, Wordsworth, and the Vernacular Canon
3 Ideology and Canonical Form: The New Critical Canon
4 Literature after Theory: The Lesson of Paul de Man

Part Three: Aesthetics
5 The Discourse of Value: From Adam Smith to Barbara Herrnstein Smith


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