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What Is Western Literature?

By C.J. Wells
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Western literature" is a broad term that refers to a vast body of literature from ancient times to present day in the Indo-European family of languages — including English, Spanish, French, Italian and Russian — whose common literary heritage originates in ancient Greece and Rome. Besides Greek and Latin, languages in the Western literature tradition include the Romance and Germanic languages, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic as well as a small group of other languages whose cultures became closely associated with the West. The literary heritage of ancient Greece and Rome was preserved and transformed by the spread of Christianity. Transmitted first across the European continent, this Greco-Roman literary tradition spread to the Western hemisphere and to other regions that were settled by Europeans. Western literature displays a unity in its themes and construction that sets it apart from the literature of the rest of the world.

"Literature" is a broad term in itself, but at its most basic, it means the collected writings of a particular group, especially works in the major genres: epic, drama, lyric, novel and so forth. Western literature encompasses such a huge body of work that it is often studied in smaller groupings, such as in terms of genre, time periods, literary movements or specific cultures. Examples of areas of study might include the epic, medieval literature, 18th century literature, romanticism and American literature.

The Western literary canon is a group of 3,000-plus literary works that have been determined by learned experts and academics to be the "great works" of Western literature. That is, these works have withstood the test of time and generally are considered essential reading within the body of literature. Canonical classification is controversial not so much for what it includes but for what it excludes, such as great works in ethnic literature.

Certain works, however, are seldom disputed as being cornerstones of the literary canon. Beowulf, Homer’s Odyssey, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, are almost universally regarded as great works in Western literature. Other canonical works in the Western literary tradition would invariably include works by Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante Alighieri, Aristotle and Miguel de Cervantes, among others.

The concept of Western literature is sometimes confused with the Western, a genre of fiction — usually in short story or novel form — set in the frontier American West. Westerns most often feature cowboys, scouts, lawmen and American Indians in the adventurous 19th century “Wild West.” Although Westerns have enjoyed popularity and mass consumption, with few exceptions, they have not joined the ranks of canonical Western literature.

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