You may be wondering what is meant by the term "literary canon." Consider, then, the following definitions for "canon" that appear in the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. an ecclesiastical law or code of laws established by a church council;

2. a secular law, rule, or code of law;

3. a basis for judgment, standard, criterion;

4. the books of the Bible officially recognized by the Church;

5. Often capital C. the part of the Mass beginning after the Sanctus and ending just before the Lord's prayer;

6. the calendar of saints accepted by the Roman Catholic Church;

7. an authoritative list, as of the works of an author;

8. Music. a composition or passage in which the same melody is repeated by one or more voices, overlapping in time in the same or a related key;

9. Printing. a size of type, 48-point;

10. one of a chapter of priests serving in a cathedral or collegiate church;

11. a member of a religious community living under common rules and bound by vows.

As the term is ordinarily used, "literary canon" is defined by definition #7 above: "an authoritative list, as of the works of an author." Yet the sense of definition #3 ("standard, criterion") is also strongly implied as the means by which individual works find their way into the literary canon. How do the other definitions of "canon" resonate with the concept of an authoritative list of authors who are taught in literature courses? In what sense have authors been canonized saints or priests in Western culture, or to what extent may we think of the literary canon in the sense of #8, "a composition . . . in which the same melody is repeated by one or more voices, overlapping in time in the same or a related key"?

The Literary Canon


Gender Matters The Literary Canon: an Overview

Last modified 1989