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Creating a syllabus for American Literature

The simple act of creating a syllabus for a "mainstream" American literature course forces an instructor to create a canon, a list of works which best represent the topic at hand. The determination of such canons is based on many factors--perhaps the instructor has a fondness for a particular writer or novel, or she wants to highlight an obscure author. Usually, however, when building their mini-canons, instructors turn to the traditional canon, that canon consisting of those authors and works considered to be the "best" and best representative of American literature. But what does "best" mean, and who decided what should be included? These are always valid questions; given that the traditional canon consists almost exclusively of works written by men, in the light of the Feminist movement these old questions take on a whole new tone, and new questions arise: Which women writers should be considered canonical? Should a new, Feminist canon be created alongside the traditional canon, or should the traditional canon be reevaluated to reflect the contribution of women writers to American literature? This research will examine the influence the Feminist movement has had on American literature studies and the American canon.

Samuel Johnson compiled the first English canon in the late eighteenth century; he included works and writers whom "he personally admired and who [sic] educated society agreed were central to the tradition of English letters" (Kaplan and Rose 15). With the birth of American literature, a new canon was created. Because the idea behind creating an American canon was to represent American, as distinct from English, literature, the primary criterion for inclusion was not merit in the Johnsonian sense so much as content. In particular, works which best exemplified the "American experience" were favored rather than those works which were perhaps artistically superior, though of course what constitutes an exempli...

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Creating a syllabus for American Literature. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 10:31, August 04, 2020, from