Canon of literature

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A canon of literature (Greek: canon rule, yardstick, guideline) is a compilation of those works to which a prominent value or an essential, norm-setting and time-lasting position is ascribed in literature .

The term literary canon is usually used to denote an ideal corpus of literary texts that a certain supporting group, for example an entire linguistic or national culture or a subcultural group, considers valuable or authorized and whose transmission it is interested in ("materialer Canon").

In addition, this term also describes a corpus of interpretations , in which it is determined which social norms , values or interpretations are associated with the canonized texts ("interpretation canon").

Originally, the "canon" as a biblical canon was related to the selection of recognized scriptures by religious communities before the concept was applied to literature.

A canon of literature is particularly important in school lessons and in philology as a basis for examinations - here it notes the titles that are required to be known. In the book market and in discussions of general education, it is of interest as a field of titles whose reading makes it easier to participate in discussions. The compilation of such a canon depends on subject, location and education, just like the question of what knowledge of this canon should mean exactly.

In principle, a canon does not arise from the fact that texts prevail on the basis of inherent timeless literary properties or qualities, but rather is the historically and culturally determined, variable result of complex selection and interpretation processes that are carried out both through internal and external literary (e.g. social or political) factors are determined.

The establishment of such a canon fulfills various functions for the respective supporting group: It creates identity through the representation of the norms and values ​​that are constitutive for this group; at the same time it delimits this group from others and legitimizes them. Likewise, the established canon provides action orientations by encoding aesthetic and moral values ​​as well as rules of behavior . In this way, communication about common objects in the carrier group is also ensured. The more homogeneous a society or cultural group, the more likely it is that certain texts will be canonized.

Typical of modern, increasingly differentiated societies or cultures, however, is the plurality of canons: different canons stand next to and against each other and meet the self-expression and legitimation needs of the various supporting groups.


The canon of the great works of world literature is not one thing: the list of works that have fascinated and preoccupied mankind over the ages. Our current canon hardly dates back to the 17th century and began there largely without any prehistory. When it was first introduced, it aroused both surprise and fascination.

17th century

Triumphant advance of the "belles lettres"

The development of a canon of world literature began in the field of " belles lettres " - in that area of ​​the book market that is still alive today in fiction. In contrast to the “belles lettres”, “ literature ” was the field of science until the 19th century. It encompassed theology , jurisprudence and medicine and tended to dismantle its canon. Since the 17th century it has just established the ongoing specialist discussions as a replacement for any long-established canon of ancient authorities.

What is now “literature” existed under the words poetry and novel - neither of these fields knew any national traditions. Poetry was linked to current music through opera , the novel reached into history. Ancient poetry - the works of Virgil and Ovid - was read in selected passages in grammar schools and in preparatory philosophical studies in order to learn Latin from them. In the current market situation, poetry remained subject to fashions and without a story of its own. Old novels were read in the cheap book market. New novels, on the other hand, were elegant and mostly out of date after a decade. In the course of the 17th century this changed with the importance that Cervantes ' Don Quixote (1605/15) gained. Scudéry's novels became modern classics in the mid-17th century. The novel, which until then had been frowned upon as a medieval relic with tales of knights and princesses, gained respect. In the “belles lettres” market, Cervantes and Scudéry became contemporary classics. Women became famous with the "belles lettres". Daughters of famous scholars and wives of famous authors caused a sensation if they understood Latin and read the original poetry of the Romans - they were excluded from the universities, but in the elegant life of Paris they maintained literary circles in which lovers of modern taste and one another new cross-gender education came together. Ancient Greek was a secret educational goal - hardly any men spoke this language. One spoke of “ gallant sciences” in German with a view to the “belles lettres”, which incidentally noted that this was an education shared by men and women.

European readers preferred to read the “belles lettres” in French. A second national language production started in England in the 1680s. London's book market, like the one in Paris and Amsterdam, was oriented towards the fashionable taste of the public. The publishing offer of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge was more antiquated . The German book market, on the other hand, had its center in Leipzig, precisely in the network of university cities. London's market eagerly responded to customer requests for “belles lettres” and “polite literature” in English editions. In the German-speaking area it was like a revolt when a university lecturer like Christian Thomasius acknowledged the new market in the 1680s and called for it to be expanded to include the German language. The immediate translation of French titles came up. At the same time, English authors of education began to serve the new commercial market with their own offers in the popular fields of novels, history, memoirs and travelogues. In Germany, on the other hand, the French goods produced there for international trade were imported from Amsterdam and The Hague.

1670: First canon of world literature

The first canon, the preface to Marie de LaFayette's Zayde , 1670

The first modern canon of world literature appeared in 1670 with Pierre Daniel Huet's Traitté de l'origine des romans (1670) - as a preface to a novel and as the story of the novel. The entire book was immediately translated into English, and the preface soon found separate editions. The German translation was delayed until 1682 and - presented by Eberhard Werner Happel - did not gain any major influence. Germany's readers read the French original or, with a university education, Latin translations. For Huet, the entire history of fictions was part of the story of the novel . This included the parables of the religions, the epics of Homer and the verses of the Middle Ages, of which only the titles were known. The Bishop of Avranches presented a world history of literature in just over 100 pages before the word "literature" was even available.

Most of the titles mentioned by Huet could not be bought in stores. However, the book market responded to customer demand. Heliodor, Longus and Petron appeared a little later with prefaces that made it clear that Huet had noted these books as classics of the novel.

18th century

Interest in foreign culture

With the advent of the classic market, reading novels and poetry gained entirely new qualities: Medieval novels had seduced their readers into dream worlds, according to the recurring criticism of all older novels. Contemporary novels, on the other hand, had taught morality and cleverness in intrigue, and in the process had become scandalous readings. The classic market exempted any such criticism. As a classic one could read novels of antiquity, the Middle Ages or the present without any risk.

A Select Collection of Novels (1720-1722)

For the book market, classic novels were a profitable line of business, for example A Select Collection of Novels (1720–1722) on the English market in the early 18th century. The six-volume edition offered "Novels" from Machiavelli and Cervantes to LaFayette's novels. Huet's treatise on the origin of the novels was also part of the collection. Younger English classics, on the other hand, were deliberately left out. In 1720 they were looking for international tastes, not national ones.

Anyone who understood Huet's treatise read any novel with an interest in the foreign culture and the past - and read the novel of the present with no other interest. Huet interpreted novels and thought about the people who wrote and consumed them. He founded his own cultural studies with the new reading.

It was fitting that the now emerging canon came up with strange encounters: In the early 18th century, Anne Dacier presented Homer's Odyssey and the Iliad in French prose. Europe's intellectuals and the general public read the volumes with horror and with a sense of secret triumph. Put into plain literal prose, Homer turned out to be utterly unpolished. His linguistic images were inelegant. In 1699/1700 François Fénelon had published his Telemach , a novel of the same subject in modern French prose, and this clearly showed the much higher level of civilization the 18th century was at compared to antiquity.

The first European translation of the stories from 1001 Nights occurred in the same discovery of the foreign and the canon of world literature. Europe read the stories of Arabia with emotion - they seemed to be permeated with a human authenticity that modern Europe's intrigue-loving readership had long abandoned.

National traditions in the international canon

The classic market, as it has been built up since the 1670s, had national lines of tradition. However, until the middle of the 18th century, when the audience read the classics of the “belles lettres”, it was primarily about receiving reading from abroad and the past for entertainment. By the middle of the 18th century, the confrontation with the foreign had advanced so far that the national, possibly foreign, past gained new interest.

Shakespeare was still performed in modernized versions in Great Britain in the 17th century. Neither the drastic linguistic images nor the course of the pieces could have done much at the end of the 17th century. Why did the lovers in Romeo and Juliet have to die? A more sensitive audience wanted a happy ending. In the middle of the 18th century, the relationship to its own classic in England changed. The original text began to interest. David Garrick played the roles of the rejected heroes in new productions of Shakespeare tragedies with an interest in the horror and the harsher sentiment that alienated his own time.

Samuel Johnson explored the history of the English language. In Germany, new literary journals in the middle of the 18th century were devoted to the "beautiful sciences", the current word for "belles lettres", with cultural anthropological theses - Lessing did this in his book How the ancients formed death . Something new emerged from the cultural distance: interest in and enthusiasm for a past that was only revealed with education in the now emerging field of beautiful sciences.

A canon of world literature and a subdivision of world literature into national traditions emerged, but ultimately there was no institutional need for the new subject of education. The still vague canon existed between reviewers and their audience. The new journals devoted to the beautiful sciences presupposed a basic consensus on titles that could be alluded to when presenting evidence. The 19th century brought about the next step in canon formation.

19th century: Canon of Nations

Washington Irving and his literary friends , 1864: an imaginary meeting of the greats of American literature at the time in Irving's library. Irving (in the middle) is portrayed as the "father" and center of American literature.
Pictured from left to right are:
Henry Theodore Tuckerman , Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. , William Gilmore Simms , Fitz-Greene Halleck , Nathaniel Hawthorne , Henry Wadsworth Longfellow , Nathaniel Parker Willis , William Hickling Prescott , Washington Irving , James Kirke Paulding , Ralph Waldo Emerson , William Cullen Bryant , John Pendleton Kennedy , James Fenimore Cooper , George Bancroft .
The selection illustrates the change in the literary canon: many canonical authors of the 19th century such as Herman Melville and Walt Whitman are missing, and former grandees such as Tuckerman and Willis are almost forgotten today.

In the 19th century the state developed its interest in the national canon of literary history - literature was now the field that had been marked out with the "belles lettres". Small states of Germany and France as a nation that, with the French Revolution, had an interest in new national educational goods, promoted the movement - more in detail in the articles Literature and Canon (German Literature) .

Literature entered the school curriculum, it occupied national philologies at the universities and one of their literary studies. The canon of world literature became a matter for the book trade, which was now devoting its own edition projects to the classics of world literature - own publishers such as Reclam's Universal Library shot themselves into the market segment with systematic exploration of the canon.

The national canon, on the other hand, was laid down in literary histories and brought to the point in the curriculum of school literature lessons. The Middle Ages had aroused increasing interest since the 1760s - it guaranteed encounters with texts that did not share the aesthetics of their own time. With the 19th century it had challenged a new philological science that edited and researched the linguistic monuments with textual criticism. The canon, which ran from the first linguistic monuments to the present as a national one, required effort and respect in school lessons - readiness to learn Middle High German and Middle English in order to read the first works of one's own nation. It resulted in a competition among nations for the greatest art.

What had arisen on the book market in the satisfaction of curiosity, what had allowed a more relaxed reading of novels around 1700, a reading that was now interested in culture, had become a field of broad exchange in journals in the 1760s. In the 19th century it had conquered school teaching and education. The canon of world literature had become a canon of national literatures that required a science of its own. A revolt against the canon formed in the shadow of canon formation.

Canon debates

The canon debate is more interesting than the canon. In the religions it had been led through all schisms . Every new split found here one of the best places to position itself: it stood up for texts that, in its own view, were unjustifiably excluded from the canon; or it came out against the canon, which was permeated with forgeries, and demanded a restriction to “pure doctrine” and the true texts of tradition. The structure of the modern canon of literature allowed a more varied game than the religions previously played with the tradition of antiquity. Every nation had its canon in world literature. The literatures themselves developed - here a closed canon was hardly possible, at best a dispute over the best canon, and that in turn depended on many factors: on what this canon was used for. For school, university, general education? The broader questions had to be about educational goals: Was it about introducing the youth to the culture of the nation? To increase respect for one's own nation? To encourage you to think critically? A different canon was required in each case.

Intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s were repeatedly skeptical of the whole idea of ​​a canon. It sets educational goals and rather serves to curtail culture in its diversity. Disputes and different opinions presuppose a willingness to distance oneself from the canon and from the opinions of society.

The discussion that arose in Germany in the late 1970s and early 1980s about the ZEIT library of the 100 best books in world literature was therefore great . Critical writers and intellectuals had discussed their favorite books here. They had not asserted a canon - they had just sought a variety of personal points of view. But in the end they had achieved the opposite: with their 100 reading tips they had presented a new canon. The ZEIT canon was internationally oriented, but it included German authors who did not say anything to anyone abroad. At the same time, Germans claimed that these titles were worth being ranked among the best in the world.

The underlying nationalism of the ZEIT canon was criticized, but at the same time it was clear that the German lessons, which had been a critical institution since the Second World War, were a far more decidedly national undertaking than this list. There is no instruction in the canon of world literature in the schools of the nation. The fact that there is a growing interest in comments on the canon outside of the traditional educational institutions of schools and universities can be seen in popular scientific titles such as Rommel's 50 classics of world literature. (Hamburg: merus, 2006). Columns that appeared in a weekly newspaper over a long period of time are summarized here.

The debate did not lead to a more international orientation in education. It led to an even more unbiased question about the German canon . Marcel Reich-Ranicki presented one such under the title Canon of German-Language Works Worth Reading in 2001 in Spiegel magazine . It was marketed together with book editions for educated customers under the title “The Canon”. What is new about the movement is that it does not come from the school system and is not presented in weighty literary stories. Rather, the new search for the canon is an offer by the media to a reader's need. TV shows fueled the search.

There are similar discussions abroad. Harold Blooms The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages sparked heated discussions in the Anglo-Saxon-speaking world in 1994. As far as can be seen, the current interest in a world canon and in national title lists is primarily due to a new appreciation of education and behavior. Schwanitz ' education. Everything you need to know made unexpected business with an all-round canon offering in search of new consensus and greater education. The modern marketing projects of the Süddeutsche Zeitung , which present important titles from the history of novels, movies and popular music of the 20th century in a uniform design, are currently picking up the thread with greater freedom and a broader perspective on modern cultural assets worldwide.

When ZEIT published a canon in 2018 whose works were 91 percent male, Sibylle Berg , Margarete Stokowski and others initiated a female canon (#DieKanon), which was initially published on SpiegelOnline.

Also in autumn 2018, Deutsche Welle published the list 100 Good Books , in which one hundred modern and contemporary works by German-speaking authors since 1900 that have been translated into English are listed in chronological order. For publication it was said that the list was “not a listing of the best, not a ranking”, but an inventory of the literary reception of German-language works in the English-speaking area, which is intended to encourage discussion, for example about the reasons for the low market share of German-language literature in Anglo-Saxon literature Countries or why only just under a third of the authors in the list are women.

See also


  • Robert Charlier, Günther Lottes (Ed.): Canon formation . Protagonists and processes of creating cultural identity. Wehrhahn, Hannover 2009, ISBN 978-3-86525-220-3 (= Enlightenment and Modernism , Volume 20).
  • Manfred Engel : Canon - pragmatic . With an excursus on literary studies as a moral institution. In: Nicholas Saul, Ricarda Schmidt (Hrsg.): Literary evaluation and canon formation . Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2007, ISBN 978-3-8260-3593-7 , p. 23-33 .
  • Hans-Dieter Gelfert: What is good literature? How to tell good books from bad ones. 2nd, revised edition. Beck, Munich 2006, ISBN 978-3-406-51098-4 .
  • Renate von Heydebrandt (Ed.): Canon Power Culture . Theoretical, historical and social aspects of aesthetic canon formation. Metzler , Stuttgart / Weimar 1998, ISBN 3-476-01595-5 .
  • Renate von Heydebrand, Simone Winko: Introduction to the valuation of literature . UTB , Stuttgart 1996, ISBN 3-8252-1953-4 .
  • Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer: Children's literature . Canon formation and literary evaluation. Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2003, ISBN 978-3-476-01942-4 (also habilitation thesis at the University of Tübingen 2002).
  • Fritz J. Raddatz (Ed.): ZEIT library of 100 books . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1980, ISBN 3-518-37145-2 ("Not accepting an invitation to work on the" Library of 100 Books "would mean turning down the invitation to one of the first European salons." Herbert Marcuse for his Work on Karl Marx for this volume).
  • Gabriele Rippl, Simone Winko (Ed.): Manual canon and valuation . Theories, instances, history. Metzler, Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-476-02430-5 .
  • Thomas Rommel: 50 classics of world literature . Read and understand books. Merus, Hamburg 2006, ISBN 978-3-939519-40-9 .
  • Olaf Simons: Marteau's Europe or the novel before it became literature . A study of the German and English books on offer from 1710 to 1720. Rodopi, Amsterdam / Atlanta, GA 2001, ISBN 90-420-1226-9 , pp. 85-95, 133-194, 488-495 .
  • Georg Stanitzek : 0/1 once / twice - the canon in communication . In: Bernhard J. Dotzler (Ed.): Technopathologies . Fink, Munich 1992, ISBN 978-3-7705-2726-7 , pp. 111-134 .
  • Franco Volpi , Julian Nida-Rümelin (ed.): Lexicon of philosophical works (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 486). Kröner, Stuttgart 1988, ISBN 3-520-48601-6 .
  • Gero von Wilpert : Lexicon of world literature . Biographical and bibliographical concise dictionary based on authors and anonymous works. 4th, completely revised edition. tape 1 : German Authors A - Z . Kröner, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 978-3-520-83704-2 .
  • Gero von Wilpert: Lexicon of world literature . Biographical and bibliographical concise dictionary based on authors and anonymous works. 4th, completely revised edition. tape 2 and tape 3 : foreign language authors A-K and L-Z . Kröner, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 978-3-520-83804-9 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Heike Gfrereis (Ed.): Canon . In: Heike Gfrereis (ed.): Basic concepts of literary studies . Metzler Verlag , Stuttgart and Weimar 1999, ISBN 978-3-476-10320-8 , p. 97.
  2. a b c Simone Winko: Canon, literary . In: Ansgar Nünning (ed.): Basic concepts of literary theory . Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart and Weimar, ISBN 3-476-10347-1 , p. 114.
  3. The following after Olaf Simons: Marteaus Europa, or, The novel before it became literature . Rodopi, Amsterdam, ISBN 90-420-1226-9 , pp. 85-95, 133-194 and 488-495.
  4. Further information on printing in a blog from Princeton University: The Sensation of the Day is the Great National Painting ( Memento of August 20, 2010 in the Internet Archive ). In: .
  5. ^ Dietrich Schwanitz: Education. Everything you need to know . Eichborn, Frankfurt 1999.
  6. Thomas Kerstan: We need a canon , Die ZEIT from August 15, 2018
  7. General knowledge. You must know these women, in: SpiegelOnline of 23 August 2018
  8. Sabine Kieselbach: With a love of reading and a new look: Our project “100 good books”. In: Deutsche Welle. October 11, 2018, accessed on July 22, 2019 (with a separate project page where all contributions are collected; full list of all 100 titles ).