Literary Canon: Definition & Authors

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  • 0:01 Literary Canon Defined
  • 1:40 Some Authors of the…
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Though not related to field artillery, pieces in the 'literary canon' have made quite a bang over the years. Come learn more about this collection of exemplary literature and its controversy while meeting some contributing authors.

Literary Canon Defined

Have your teachers ever assigned the works of Shakespeare, or maybe some by the Brontë sisters? If so, they probably wanted you to gain experience with what they would call literary canon, which is a collection of works by which others are measured in terms of literary skill and value.

Originally, the Greeks used a kanôn ('straight rod') as a tool in surveying and construction projects to keep things straight and level. Over time, its use as a measuring device was adapted to apply to keeping literary works straight, as well. Through the years, 'canon' has been employed in various ways to classify literature: from assigning works to a particular tradition (i.e. Biblical canon) to attributing them to a specific author (i.e. Shakespearean canon).

The primary usage discussed in this lesson, though, refers to the canon as a yardstick for measuring the value and validity of the world's literature. Many members of the American academic community in the 1980's revolted against this idea of what was then often called the Western canon, which was claimed to be a collection of the world's highest and most influential literature. They felt that there were many other examples of great literature to be found in the world and that the current collection was not as inclusive as it should be. For instance, some of these protestors' central arguments focused on the underrepresentation of women and minorities among the ranks of authors whose works were considered important enough to be part of the literary canon.

Since the 80's, the literary canon has expanded considerably, now including many female authors and people from all walks of life.

Some Authors of the Literary Canon

Let's look at some of the authors whose work is part of the literary canon.

Homer -For millennia, the works of Homer - the famous Greek epics, Iliad and Odyssey - have been considered some of the highest forms of literature in the world. The problem is, though, we're not sure that this renowned bard was a real or even a single person! In fact, we're actually pretty certain he wasn't. Nevertheless, 'Homer' and the many writers he has influenced have been listed among the world's greatest literary minds since antiquity.

The works of the Roman poet Vergil (above), along with many other ancient authors, are included with those of Homer in the literary canon.
Bust of Vergil

William Shakespeare -The plays and poetry of William Shakespeare have long been considered some of the best examples of English literature ever penned. Such high acclaim has of course also earned his works a place in the literary canon. For centuries, English writers have compared themselves and have been compared to the Bard. This sort of looking to an author's work as a measure of literary success and value is precisely what being part of the literary 'canon' is all about.

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