Cannon refers to a rule and a list of books containing names of important books serves as a rule or guide for reading. A literary canon automatically suggests a reading list which belongs to a country or a certain period in time. It contains mainly literary works by authors who are accepted as an authority in their field and their writings constitute a serious body of literature in any given language. The collection of works included in a literary canon is largely approved by cultural and academic institutions and is regarded as Literature of that language. If a book is included in a literary canon it means it has attained a certain status of authority and is of high aesthetic quality which gives the viewer or reader the idea that that book is highly regarded in the literary world.
A canon develops over a period of time with the literary works of authors generally being part of the syllabus in university courses. Many a times the curriculum changes based on various historical, social and cultural influences and accordingly changes can be seen in the literary canon also.
The American Literary Canon comprises of literary classics which reflect American society and written by prominent American authors. It may not be possible for all the scholars to agree upon the inclusion of works in a literary canon and as such no official literary cannon can be established. But all the same a number of literary classics have a universal appeal and reflect American culture and history.
Much of American literary classics is part of the literary canon and includes works by well known authors such as Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain and Toni Morrison.
According to Herbert Lindenberger, a noted critic, the evolution and formation of a literary canon is influenced largely by a number of historical, political and cultural changes. The American and English literary canons have undergone changes over centuries. In the early twentieth century, the American and English literary canons were challenged in the United States by Jewish scholars like Oscar Handlin and Lionel Trilling who were Ivy League intellectuals. Similarly in the 1960s there were significant cultural changes which brought issues concerning women, gays, minorities and Marxist liberals in the focus of literary writings.
A literary work gains popularity not only on the basis of its quality but more importantly on the relevance of the literary work in the social, historical and cultural context of the period. The matter of a literary work may remain the same but the reader’s perspective to a subject is largely influenced by the age and context of his current circumstances and as such a literary work undergoes changes in its popularity and relevance. Accordingly literary works may get included or excluded in the literary canon.
Works of fiction including poetry, epic poems, drama, music, novels and other forms of literature reflecting the culture of a place can find a place in the literary canon. Generally scholars, literary critics, teachers and influential and qualified persons whose opinions are revered have a major say on the works that can be included in a literary canon. Interestingly a number of non-fiction works relating to politics, history, economics, philosophy, science, mythology and religion, also find place in a literary canon.