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Literary Canon: What Constitutes a Classic? Essay

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Classic works of literature are not arbitrarily deemed as such. In order to be regarded so highly, a literary work must demonstrate its ability to touch upon – and thoughtfully examine – important issues of a particular era (so to speak, a slice of time). A traditional canon is substantiated by consistent and legitimate acclaim, and while of course there is an underlying element of subjectivity, literary scholars tend to possess discerning taste. Blindly placing faith in the opinions of experts can be dangerous, however; trusting all of their judgments and assuming the entire literary canon is worthwhile to read would be a misstep. Ideally, by initiating readers with exemplary works, a unique taste is born and the reader can then pursue the literature of their choosing. A truly alluring work of literature is one that retains meaning no matter who the audience is – if the impact of the story only resonates with a small group, its scope (and message) is limited.
Perhaps the most dominant feature of ‘classic’ works is the presence of a particularly memorable character. Multi-layered, evolving characters enhance the progression of the story, but not in a perfunctory manner, and not simply as a device to move the story forward. Additionally, if a primary character is similarly constructed to the average reader, it legitimizes the plausibility of the work. By offering a portrayal of a character that is grounded in reality connects the reader – who may be able to relate to the character’s plight or triumph – and lends real meaning to the story. For instance, in Melville’s “Bartelby, the Scrivener,” the titular character is thoroughly downcast and displays no fun characteristics, but a great number of people can sympathize with the mis...


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...sic American storytelling, and their prodigious skill should not be overlooked. I would have enjoyed more exposure to African-American literature within the curriculum, as I find it a good deal of it saturated with authenticity and a very approachable (but sophisticated) prose. Although I can admit the inclusion of several prolific and respected female writers was rewarding and enhanced the scope of the course.
Ultimately, enforcing a strict traditional literary canon is logistically implausible, but holding reverence for outstanding literary works should be continued. In some ways, it is the natural progression of a well-rounded education: what sort of high school student should be exempt from reading “The Catcher in the Rye?” If we expanded this discussion to foreign writers, it becomes immeasurably and unflinchingly imperative to maintain a traditional canon.



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