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What Is the American Canon?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The American canon refers to works of American literature and poetry that are largely considered by critics and scholars to effectively represent the American experience or perspective within art. These works can include many different genres and forms of writing, including both poetry and prose, and can include many different writers. There are also a number of movements within American writing that can be considered, including Realism, writings from before and after both World Wars, as well as Modern and Post-Modern writing. The American canon is not necessarily set as a single list, but may include various works depending on who has composed the list.

A “canon” refers to the body of works typically thought of as being indicative of a particular time or place. The American canon, therefore, refers to works, usually written works, that represent the American experience and have been written by American writers. While the American canon covers a relatively great length of time, it usually does not include works prior to the establishment of colonies in what is now the United States, though Native American works may also be represented within this body of work. Other portions of the American continents are often referred to by other terms, such as Latin American or Canadian canons.

There are many different writers whose works are considered a part of the American canon, and lists of this canon usually mention only particular works. While Washington Irving is often considered an important and influential American writer, most canonical lists usually only mention a single work, in this case The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This keeps such lists more manageable, though some writers with a number of superb and influential works may be represented on such lists numerous times. Most listings of the American canon include numerous works by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Tennessee Williams.

The American canon is usually written as a list of writers and the works that best demonstrate the abilities of those writers and the American experience. There are many different lists that can be found, often assembled by critics or scholars in literature and poetry. This means it can often be a good idea for anyone interested in the American canon to look at numerous lists and compare which works are present on these lists. The progressive nature of American literature and poetry has led to a wide range of works from writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison, J.D. Salinger, Zora Neale Hurston, Allen Ginsburg, and Toni Morrison.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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