What Is the Canon in Literature?

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In fiction and literature, the canon is the collection of works considered representative of a period or genre. The collected works of William Shakespeare, for instance, would be part of the canon of western literature, since his writing and writing style has had a significant impact on nearly all aspects of that genre.

How the Canon Changes

The accepted body of work that comprises the canon of Western literature has evolved and changed over the years, however. For centuries, it was populated primarily by white men and was not representative of Western culture as a whole. 

Over time, some works become less pertinent in the canon as they're replaced by more modern counterparts. For instance, the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer are still considered significant. But lesser-known writers of the past, such as William Blake and Matthew Arnold, have faded in relevance, replaced by modern counterparts like Ernest Hemingway ("The Sun Also Rises"), Langston Hughes ("Harlem" ), and Toni Morrison ("Beloved").

Origin of the Word 'Canon'

In religious terms, a canon is a standard of judgment or a text containing those views, such as the Bible or the Koran. Sometimes within religious traditions, as views evolve or change, some formerly canonical texts become "apocryphal," meaning outside the realm of what's considered representative. Some apocryphal works are never granted formal acceptance but are influential nevertheless.

An example of an apocryphal text in Christianity would be the Gospel of Mary Magdelene. This is a highly controversial text not widely recognized in the Church — but it is believed to be the words of one of Jesus' closest companions. 

Cultural Significance and Canon Literature

People of color have become more prominent parts of the canon as a past emphasis on Eurocentrism has waned. For example, contemporary writers such as Louise Erdrich ("The Round House), Amy Tan ("The Joy Luck Club"), and James Baldwin ("Notes of a Native Son") are representative of entire subgenres of African-American, Asian-American, and Indigenous styles of writing. 

Posthumous Additions

Some writers and artists' work is not as well appreciated in their time, and their writing becomes part of the canon many years after their deaths. This is especially true of female writers such as Charlotte Bronte ("Jane Eyre"), Jane Austen ("Pride and Prejudice"), Emily Dickinson ("Because I Could Not Stop for Death"), and Virginia Woolf ("A Room of One's Own").

The Evolving Canon Literary Definition

Many teachers and schools rely on the canon to teach students about literature, so it's crucial that it includes works that are representative of society, providing a snapshot of a given point in time. This, of course, has led to many disputes among literary scholars over the years. Arguments about which works are worthy of further examination and study are likely to continue as cultural norms and mores shift and evolve. 

By studying canonical works of the past, we gain a new appreciation for them from a modern perspective. For instance, Walt Whitman's epic poem "Song of Myself" is now viewed as a seminal work of gay literature. During Whitman's lifetime, it was not necessarily read within that context.

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Lombardi, Esther. "What Is the Canon in Literature?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/literary-devices-canon-740503. Lombardi, Esther. (2023, April 5). What Is the Canon in Literature? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/literary-devices-canon-740503 Lombardi, Esther. "What Is the Canon in Literature?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/literary-devices-canon-740503 (accessed May 29, 2023).