When considering the term “literary canon,” one is ultimately considering the whole of the seminal works in the arts that have come to define a genre. Those pieces of art, be they literature, visual arts, or music, that have come to shape Western Culture are deemed canon; the literary canon, then, is specifically those works of the written word that have come to shape our culture as we know it. The works that are included in literary canon are the best of the best, the works that have received the highest praise for their artistic merit and are considered perfect examples of the high culture of a society. A literary canon helps to answer the age-old question, “What is art?” with regards to the written word.
Defining a Literary Canon
The definition of what makes it into the literary canon is difficult to describe, though. The process by which such a decision is made, and the criteria that a work needs to meet in order to be given such consideration, are endless. As time passes, these criteria are also open for review themselves, representing the changeability of literary canon as time passes. Being able to incorporate new pieces of the written word as they emerge reflects a society’s ability to define its culture in a very fluid sense. Generally, literary canon can include works of fiction and nonfiction: the former is usually represented by epic poems, novels, drama, poetry, and other sources while the latter is often represented by works of religion, science, economics, and history.
Example of a Literary Canon
A literary canon is subject to interpretation but the following are typical examples of literary canons:
- The Bible
- Homer's Odyssey
- The writings of Socrates and Plato
- Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
- Willa Cather's American Novels
- Tolkiens Lord of the Rings series
One of the best-known literary canons is the clear style American fiction of, established by Mark Twain. Twain's stylistic innovations opened the canon to an influx of voices and literary styles that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. One of the most significant of these stylistic innovations was Mark Twain’s use of the vernacular as spoken through the mouth of a child as the primary narrative dialect in the text. By mirroring the organic form of spoken sentences in Huckleberry Finn, Twain paid homage to the rich tradition of orality that was the true advent of American fiction. His keen ear for dialectic idiosyncrasies invested Huck Finn with a level of authenticity rarely seen in the prose of Twain’s era.
Huckleberry Finn is one of the most loved characters in American literature, but as true of any literary canon, often times cultural mirrors make one all too conscious of the sacred ground that a canon treads. For example, rather than setting out to discuss the meritorious argument that African-American voices informed and shaped Twain’s work, one can note the inflammatory vernacular of the character in many of Twains most beloved stories. First of all, dialects, like personalities, are more than the sum of their characteristic traits. Most problematic, rural Southern white dialects in particular share many features of African-American dialect due to extensive contact and mutual borrowing between these dialects over their centuries of coexistence. Further, some of the linguistic features marked as typical of African-American dialect are in fact general features distinguishing colloquial oral language from formal writing. For example, the following features of Jimmy’s speech and of African-American dialect are also characteristic of Huck’s speech: frequent repetition of words and phrases, connecting phrases using coordination rather than subordination, shifting tense within the same sequence, repeating subjects, using the participial verb form and, most vaguely, using vivid, poetic language.