Talk:Western canon/Archive 1

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I think this article is a good beginning, but could someone help in producing a good opening definition and history of the canon? What we have here is a very brief def, a big paragraph of how it has been under attack (without much discussion of WHY) and then the list which i have started and which has grown a bit. The canon is a problem of duality: we need to anchor more strongly why it exists both historically and socially, and then why it has been opposed (for good and for ill). I know the issues at stake in general, but I will need to find the time to do more research if I were to flesh out this article any more than it is. Is someone else more fluent in the canon debate? Please help. --trimalchio

Where does this list come from? It doesn't mention Plato or Aristotle, and yet it mentions Salman Rushdie! They have been FAR more influential on the development of Western civilisation than Rushdie ever will be.

Not only that, who decides who is in and out of the canon? Any attempt to draw up a list can't be objective, its just going to end up as a "list of works anonymous likes". -- SJK

Well, the list is ongoing. If you think its insufficient, add people to it. But you can't accurately describe the Western canon in literature without some sort of list. That's the whole point of a canon. But I agree wholeheartedly that the very idea of choosing who is and is not on the list is a problematic and controversial endeavor. Does anyone know a Canon expert (not that any one "expert" would be of tremendous help)? I also put a second list header, people who may be considered to belong on the canon. Maybe move more minor authors there. Just don't freak out. I agree that the idea of a western canon is a real mess, but I didn't invent it. And who said literature was an objective subject? Pretending that there is virtually anything objective about literature is a misdirection of worry. One might argue that the very idea of a Western Canon stems from the misplaced assumption that literature COULD be considered objectively. anyway, these issues need to be addressed somehow in the article itself. -t
I added names to the list because it was extremely short (only Homer and Shakespeare). Of course, my choices were subjective, and everyone elses will be too. Maybe it's better to have some examples of canon lists during the times to show how the canon has changed. --Tsja
The problem with that Tsja is that I don't believe there really have been canon lists. A canon of sorts has always existed, in the sense that certain works have always been studied and considered important, but I doubt many people ever explicitly listed what works were in it. Besides, the canon is a fuzzy set -- its not a question of works being in or out, but of degree. A list, being inherently binary, can't really capture the true nature of the canon. (I suppose you could in theory give a list with a number (0-1) showing the degree to which each work belongs to the canon, but good luck finding an objective means of calculating it.) -- SJK
The best way to add lists is to add more than one coherent list developed by outside sources, and then commment on what the list leaves out and what it chooses. For example, the reading list from one of the 'Great Books' programs - either Mortimer Adler's or the curricular list from St. John's College of Annapolis. That way we won't have yet another 'Famous Authors' list with endless bickering (I for one don't think Rushdie belongs on the Western Canon. He's an interesting case, though). It's actually very interesting to compare the publishers list for Penguin's World Classics with major French publishing houses (I wrote a paper on the topic long ago and far away). The overlap outside their own national literatures was considerable, but not identical. --MichaelTinkler

Harold Bloom's list of the Western Canon is here:

It might be a good start.


I'll put it among external links on the page. Thanks, Anatoly!

<IANAL> However, we cannot include the list itself because

  1. it was first published on or after January 1, 1923 (US copyright statute), and/or
  2. one of the authors was surviving on or after January 1, 1931 (EU copyright treaty).

See Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act for information on relevant recent developments in copyright law. </IANAL> --Damian Yerrick

However, it is simply a list of books, which probably can't be put under copyright. I'm not a laywer either. We should really get a copyright laywer hooked on Wikipedia. --Stephen Gilbert
It might qualify as a "compilation" which is protected under copyright law: "a work formed by the collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship." This quote comes from a text I received from Susan Kornfield, J.D. when she spoke to my class on copyright law for writers. her email address is: and I think the issue might be well addressed by her. She's a cool lady... or at least seemed so for the brief minute that I met her personally after class. --t

I think if we included a copy of Harold Blooms list and other lists also, for the sole purpose of commenting upon them and comparing them, that would fit within fair use requirements I suspect. The other possibility is that we ask him -- he might not mind us including a copy, if we explain why we want to. Also, MichaelTinkler, about that paper you said you wrote years ago: could that be used in Wikipedia? Would its content be suitable? -- SJK

Yep, but it was very unambitious (it was a presentation write up for a seminar on What are the Liberal Arts/What is a Liberal Arts Education?). I'll look around. It's fun to compare people's reading lists. --MichaelTinkler

Niccolo Machiavelli, John Milton, and Thomas More weren't on the list before I added them. Joseph Heller, J. D. Salinger, and Alice Walker are on the list. Whatever one's personal opinion on the merits of these authors, shouldn't we have a "cooling off period" of 75 years or so after their deaths before we add them to the Canon? (Something of the sort is done with Catholic saints). Well, whether we include popular modern authors or not, we need to be sure we include those who have been fundamental for centuries (or millenia).

I believe that Charles Darwin should be added to the list. Any discussion to the contrary?

I believe that Karl Marx should arguably be added to the list. Any discussion?

Hmmmm. Darwin and Marx both wrote seminal things that have influenced Western thought one way or another ever since they were published, but they aren't works of art in the conventional sense. I think we need to decide whether we're defining the canon as "books that have had a major influence on Western civilisation" (in which Darwin, Marx, Machiavelli etc. certainly qualify) or "works of art (in written form) that have had a major influence on Western civilisation" (in which case they don't). So which is it, everyone?--Bth

IMHO, in general usage, it's primarily "written works that have had a major influence on Western civilisation, including some fiction or works of art".

I think it makes very little sense to have a 'canon' of authors rather than of books. While there may be SOME authors whose complete works belong (Plato, arguably Shakespeare) most of the other authors have one or two works which belong here.

Darwin doesn't belong, Origin of the Species does. Marx doesn't belong: Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto do (as does Wealth of Nations...

Canonical works would be those essential to the understanding of western civilization. Most authors, and most works of most authors, wouldn't be on it. Someone else 21:55 Oct 1, 2002 (UTC)

Agreed. Can we make such a list? If not, better to have the list of authors than no list. Tell you what, I'll try to start it and we'll see how it grows.

Interesting discussion so far. My advice is, follow the experts (and isn't that what the Canon is all about anyway -- following the advice of those who've gone before?) Bloom's list is really too big for here, but you can use it as a guide. And the Adler list too. There are some others also available at (and elsewhere). The entry must have some kind of list to be credible, so let's just start updating. There's a lot to add. I've made a start just now, but I think we need to work on the formatting and agree on a single format for the list. Also need to add a philosophy section. As to whether author's should appear, they have to -- you can't cite a title without its author. But I agree that generally specific titles need including. (A few authors deserve the more general Works. Pamplemousse 08:41 Oct 6, 2002 (UTC)

then we'll need to move Joyce as well right? I'm ok with that but I don't want to see the canon broken up by tribal rivalries. the scots, the irish. the welsh etc. but then again I'm a yank, so that stuff doesn't really make sense to me so what do I know?

It's not clear to me why you'd want to break up the list by nationality anyway. It's supposed to be a Western canon, not a national one. Classification by genre seems pertinent, but not by nationality or language... these should be works that have transcended those classifications. Someone else
good point. I've tried to keep it kind of chronological actually and the point of national origin seemed to be useful because it seems so varied, and therefore more interesting, at the beginning. But again, the western part of it... the Nations represented are western, hence the reference. Debatable. or not. but you're right. the canon should transcend...but, that said. I'm going to work on fleshing out the genre more anyway. the refs. to nations will be nominal at best.
Getting rid of the nationality break-downs wouldn't much bother me - I just moved Beckett because I didn't like seeing him labelled as from England when he wasn't. However, I do think there's something to be said for division by language - it would seem a bit odd to me to have Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Ibsen all in the same section (although now I've written that down, it doesn't seem too odd any more...). (btw - I'd've moved Joyce if I had spotted he was listed as British, yes) --Camembert

I've reformatted the list with bullet points and proper headers. I think it looks better now. I've also removed most of the divisions by nationality, but I've kept the Greek/Shakespeare/other division under "Drama" because that seems quite a useful one. With the removal of nationalities, a lot of the chronological nature of the lists has gone, so I don't know if somebody wants to fix that up. Also: shouldn't Goethe's Faust be listed under "Epic poetry" (it certainly isn't a novel, whatever it is); and is Poe really a "novelist"? I'm not sure he ever wrote a novel, but in any case his short stories (and a couple of his poems) are better known. --Camembert

I hope this doesn't start a ruckus, but by definition a canon is determined by a particular authority (although that authority might be consensus).

This particular canon list doesn't state its authority, other than to mention some of the (conflicting) sources that it draws from. So by default it can be assumed (and in practice it is indeed working out) that the authority declaring the canon is the Wikipedia consensus. As several people have mentioned above, Wikipedians are adding works because they believe them to be famous and/or influential and/or good. Indeed, several comments above are proposing works for inclusion precisely on the grounds of the judgement of the poster, and in each individual case it would be hard to argue conclusively for exclusion. But "influential" is almost always a subjective (i.e, not NPOV) judgement.

So, I think the article should explain more clearly what the criterion is for mentioning a work on the list - namely, that some Wikipedian feels it to be influential, rather than that it is considered influential by any cited academic source. Either that, or each work individually could have an external reference cited for its canonical status. Inclusion in "enough" school or university English reading lists might qualify, for example, if "enough" were defined with a bit of rigour.

There's a big difference between "Western canon according to academic sources, as compiled by Wikipedia" and "Western canon according to Wikipedia". I don't think this article makes that difference adequately clear, and I think that since it is providing such a list, it should. -- Onebyone 17:11, 27 Sep 2003 (UTC)


I replaced the following paragraph with one I thought was less biased. See what you think. I think the political right exaggerates the degree to which the canon, as instantiated in fresman lit and humanities classes, is really being revised; but I didn't want to assert that in the article since it's not backed up by data and wouldn't be neutral.

Starting in the 1960s, but growing considerably in the 1980s, classic books were attacked by various groups as being from "dead, white, Western men" and not representing the viewpoints of other people (i.e., most people in the world). These groups advocated inclusion/study of all literature, sometimes to the exclusion of literature ordinarily placed in the traditional Western canon; this practice has been called "rewriting the canon." This trend continues strong in most universities, but has waned somewhat in its influence in recent years.

As you may have noticed I removed the list. I post it here per the suggestion (somewhere, I think), to post large removals on talk pages. Daniel Quinlan 04:25, Dec 13, 2003 (UTC)

Works which are commonly included in the canon:

Works of fiction

Epic poems

Other poetry


The novel

Pre-19th century

19th century

20th century

The conspicuous absence of works not generally considered mainstream literature should be noted here (e.g. crime fiction, science fiction), in addition to recently published works.

Non-fiction works







Authors whose works which are commonly included in the canon: Please keep this list unless the list of works becomes sufficient to render it superfluous. (Also for authors whose entire corpus has been influential.)

(or move to book list once satisfied the appropriate works have been entered)

Why did I remove it? The list is POV (as evidenced by the continual editing, additions, and removals). If there was a firmly entrenched canon or one accepted by some number of universities, I could see my way to accepting it, but it seems like it's just turned into a list of what some Wikipedia editors think should be in the canon. And I'm no literary critic and not as well-read as some people, but there's a number of things in there that just don't belong. See, POV. ;-) Daniel Quinlan 04:25, Dec 13, 2003 (UTC) addis

I think we need to decide at some point whether or not we're going to have a list at all, and if so, what kind of list and whether or not it should be tagged with a disclaimer. Otherwise we'll probably wind up with more controversy and edit wars ("Where's Gaddis?! Where's Amis?! Where's..?") than it's worth.

Maybe we could cross-reference a number of different lists, take those who are present in all of them, and present these unanimously canonical works in their own list. (I'm talking about people like Shakespeare; I don't think there's a single Western educated person who would disagree with his being in the Western canon.) To be honest, though, I wasn't particularly disappointed to see the list unexpectedly missing, just a little surprised.

By the way, when you say that "there's a number of things in there that just don't belong", which items are you talking about? I'm not saying you're wrong, I just can't think of anything terribly unsuitable in the list. (But I'm not too well-read either.)

-- (17:44, Dec 13, 2003 (GMT))

I'm going to argue for a list, & one that is not obviously POV. We need some kind of list with this article; as it stands, this article looks as if it is documenting the hobbyhorse of a small group of overeducated professors who need to sepnd a few years earnign a living washing dishes or digging ditches.

The argument for a canon of Western classics goes back to Classical times (pun not intended, but unavoidable). A solid grounding in Greek literature meant reading Homer's two works, one of the major philosophers (usually Plato or Aristotle, but the Stoics or Epicureans were also included), some of the playwrights (whose works, until papyri were recovered from Egypt in large numbers, survived in collections created for use in schools), & some of the non-epic poets. As for Latin, it was Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, Vergil's Aeneid & Gregorics, & the works of Horace & Ovid. However, knowledge of Greek was of limited importance outside of the Byzantine Empire, & so the four Latin authors tended to be it -- with the occasional inclusion of a historian like Suetonius or Tacitus, one of the Silver Latin poets like Persius, Lucan, or Claudian, or one or more of Cicero's speeches.

That was the entire canon for over a thousand years. Later in works in either Latin or one of the common tongues was not considered as serious. The Humanists made the first major contribution to the canon by recovering many of the other Latin authors of the Golden & Silver Ages -- as well as helping to reintroduce the Greek classics to the West. This brings us to 1600.

It was the critical work of the following two or three centuries to get various works written in vernacular languages -- English, German, French, Italian -- accepted into the canon. (This was driven by the fact fluency in Latin was an obsolecent skill.) The Neo-Classicists argued for authors who sounded the most like the Ancient models; the Romantics argued for the authors who didn't. And to this point, the canon was limited to poetry, some drama (such as Shakespeare), & works of history & philosophy; the writings of scientists, economists, & political theory was considered technical writing, about as worthy of being considered serious literature as an article from Popular Mechanics or Psychology Today.

It was in the decades around 1900 when the canon was enlarged another time, this time by critics like Ezra Pound & T.S. Eliot, who argued for inclusion of other authors whose writings were considered less polished: the Medieval Troubadors, Machiavelli, & the other Elizabethan playwrights. I believe it wasn't until the Great Books mentioned in the current article that works treating of science, economics, & politics were considered for inclusion.

When looked at in this wise, the canon is a small group of books -- & predominently written by dead white European men. Obviously, one would hope that the list be enlarged to add the genre of novels -- but in writing this brief history, I couldn't recall when or where Fielding, Victor Hugo, & the older & younger Dumas were admitted to the canon.

The canon is as much an anachronism as it is a value judgement; it lists the books that have been judged worth reading, & that few people bother to argue should not be in the canon. As a result, I'd say that any list must omit recently written works -- e.g. anything published by an author whose career began at some point after World War II. -- llywrch 06:06, 14 Dec 2003 (UTC)

I agree that we can't add items to the canon without a time limit. I suggest that 70 years must have passed from publication before a work can be added. (Which would strike off Miller, Orwell, Salinger, Nabokov, Kerouac, Burroughs, Heller, Pynchon and Rushdie, as well as Finnegans Wake by Joyce: everything after 1933.) -- (23:33, 16 Dec 2003 (GMT))

Well, my idea was a time limit that affected when the author's careers started. Using that rule, Miller, Orwell and Joyce could be considered; the others would be excluded. But I think 70 years is a little too far, & I'd suggest 50-60 years, say any author wose career started before World War II.

In response to Tuf-Kat's objection below, we need a time limit in order to gain some objectivity. Not only is there a certain subjectivity amongst academics about who is currently the fiction/non-fiction/essayist whose work will last (obviously because they can then crow over whose scholarly work is more important), but also because the value of literary properties is at issue. If one says that Hemmingway is a far more significant writer than, say, Dos Passos, then Hemmingway's heirs will expect more royalties.

On the other hand, no one is at risk if it decided, say, that Christopher Marlowe is a better playwright than Shakespeare: the works of both are in the public sector, & teachers in public school districts would then tip-toe around the theme of homosexualty in Marlowe's works, much as they tip-toe around the obvious sexual content of Romeo & Juliet.

But as I think my response thru, I realise that the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act mentioned above has in effect made 1920 a time limit -- making all books & writings from that year on of value to someone. That year may become our time limit. -- llywrch 23:50, 17 Dec 2003 (UTC)

Here is a page with links to some of the lists. [1] Rmhermen 17:56, Dec 13, 2003 (UTC)

Just to but in for a moment, it might be worth trying something along the lines of list of grunge music albums. Thus, each entry on the list would include a link to a site that includes it in the Western canon. This would allow the reader to see a wide range of works, while making it clear which ones are most commonly included in the Western canon, because they will have far more links. Tuf-Kat 06:16, Dec 14, 2003 (UTC)
I like that idea if we could only have numbered footnotes, not the mix of footnotes and text notes they have. Looks cluttered. And it would be nice to add a footnotes section at the bottom of the page so we could check it without having to leave Wikipedia. Rmhermen 15:31, Dec 16, 2003 (UTC)
Good suggestions. The primary difference is that there are many amateur lists of the best grunge albums, but not many people include a list of what they consider the Western canon on their homepage. I disagree with the assertions above that the list should be limited in time since publication. Many people don't use the term like that, and it would be POV to claim that Western canon excludes recent works. Tuf-Kat 23:46, Dec 16, 2003 (UTC)
That's true, but it's difficult to debate whether or not a work has sufficient merit to be present in the canon when it's only 10 or 20 years old (such as in the case of The Satanic Verses). Having said that, it's entirely possible that my 70 year waiting period could be considered too long to be sensible. -- (01:19, 17 Dec 2003 (GMT))

What about Mendel's article on genetics ? That meets the "dead for decades" test :) and was, I think, a seminal work in its field, although it took years to have an affect. Does that kind of work (ie, in one scientific field) count ?

It is not our job as Wikipedia editors to decide if work from one field, or from a certain period of history, is allowed to count. We can only describe what other people claim. If a literary critic includes Mendel or Anne Rice or James Joyce or Gunter Grass, Wikipedia can't claim that his choice doesn't count. It is not our job to define Western canon, it is to describe how others define it. Tuf-Kat 00:47, Dec 18, 2003 (UTC)

I think that despite the controversy regarding choices for The List, the article is much more valuable with than without it. It's unique in that it's organised by subject as well as by author and period. Vive la liste! Please, add to it, change it, but don't delete it. -TD (too technically hopeless to actually edit)

What does the name Lysistrata?

Does any one know? If so help me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!