The American Writers Museum is the newest institution recognizing talent and trends in American literature. But there are other ways the U.S. has commemorated and debated its authors and books. Let’s dip into the history of America’s recognition of its unique literature, beginning with a look at the informal – and hard-to-pin – canon of literary works.

First, some etymology:
Kanna (n., Greek) – a straight reed or measuring rod
Canon (n., Latin) – a standard, criterion; a body of rules or laws

So what does canon mean to us? A national literary canon is an authoritative collection of authors or works that represent the values and experiences of their society. Literature that reaches this status appeals to audiences through substantive content, aesthetic style, and insight into national experiences.

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously called for unique intellectual pursuits in America in the 1830’s – 40’s, but the nation’s literature wasn’t treated as its own independent subject until later. When volumes of American Literature appeared regularly as textbooks and anthologies in the late 19th century, they featured authors like Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other educated men whose writing held a clear European genealogy.

By the 20th century, the United States had recovered from the Civil War and solidified its role on the world stage as a political, economic, and cultural power. The rise of a cohesive nationalist sentiment called more strongly than ever for literature that represented the nation to the rest of the world. As a result, the 1930s and 40s saw a rise in literary and biographical scholarship (The Flowering of New England, American Renaissance, and countless individual author studies) elevating the status of the writer as well as the text.

The 1960’s – 90’s saw the blooming of the canon, due in part to the crumbling image of
America as a homogenous culture. The burgeoning demand for representation of women and African Americans in all spheres hinged on the academic disciplines that helped determine the canon criteria and make-up. In more recent years, activists, scholars of world literature, and anthropologists have helped shape and broaden the canon further. Today it would be common for a single American Literature curriculum to include works by Frederick Douglass, Edith Wharton, Leslie Marmon Silko, Mark Twain, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The American canon today is livelier and more difficult to define than it was a century ago. And if the expansive trends of the last century continue, we could see a wider range of content and mediums in the coming years. What contemporary authors will add to the canon of tomorrow? Who will help render American literature a more democratic collection of aesthetic and societal value?

Jill Dwiggins