What Is the American Literary Canon?

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The American literary canon, or the books deemed important enough to teach in schools and survive over generations, is a fraught subject. The United States is home to so many cultures that it is impossible to encapsulate the best work without leaving out important figures. The canon also includes a disproportionate number of deceased white men, though more works of women and people of color are now included in college courses than ever before.

1 The 19th Century

The first half of the 19th century in the United States -- as in Europe -- was dominated by the Romantic movement. Romanticism was characterized by emphasis on the imagination, individualism and nationalism. Nathaniel Hawthorne excoriated the anti-individualism of New England's Puritanical past in "The Scarlet Letter." Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" recognized the power of individualism but also plumbed its depths, and Edgar Allan Poe's focus on the macabre echoed the darker impulses found in German Romanticism. The transcendentalist movement was a 19th-century movement within romanticism. Two of its literary champions were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson's poetry and Thoreau's "Walden" gave transcendentalism an explicitly "back to nature" anti-modern sensibility, but their optimism expressed the modern view that history was a linear path toward progress.

2 The Latter Half of the 19th Century

During the second half of the 19th century, American writing turned away from romanticism and toward realism. Realist writers were disenchanted with the idea of progress, cynical about the seeming immutability of American class distinctions, and outraged by the persistence of American slavery. The realists endeavored to depict both the suffering and absurdity of human life. With its biting humor and unflinching attitude toward the realities of slavery, Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is a quintessential work of American realism. Realist writer Henry James delved into cultural clashes between Britain and the United States, satirized American Puritanism and frankly depicted human sexuality.

3 The 20th Century

Writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the excesses of the 1920s. "The Great Gatsby" examined the wealth of the new aristocratic class only to find it empty and immoral. Other major works, like Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," depicted despondency about war. Meanwhile, men and women in Harlem wrote of black pride and called for racial equality in a movement called the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston's novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and Langston Hughes' jazz-influenced poetry were two major contributions. In the 1930s, many writers focused on the ravages of the Great Depression. Willa Cather's "O Pioneers!" and John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" are two seminal books about 1930s Dust Bowl suffering. Southern novelists including William Faulkner also came to prominence with books such as "As I Lay Dying" that depicted Southern poverty.

4 Contemporary Literature

Controversy continues about which newer works will take a permanent place in the canon. The prominence and widespread acclaim afforded novelists including Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, John Updike and Thomas Pynchon suggest that white men may continue to dominate the American canon. However, highly-acclaimed award-winning authors such as Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich have opened spaces for long-excluded Native American voices. Black feminist writers Toni Morrison and Alice Walker brought anti-racist feminist critique to a mainstream readership with "Sula" and "The Color Purple." The inclusion of translated Hispanic writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, meanwhile, reflects America's growing Hispanic population and raises questions about who "counts" as an American writer.

Christina Lee began writing in 2004. Her co-authored essay is included in the edited volume, "Discipline and Punishment in Global Affairs." Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master of Arts in global affairs from American University and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Penn State University.