It depends on which definition of the word canon you consider if there are or have been canons of English and American literature. Therefore it is necessary to shed light unto the different meanings in order to find a sensible answer to the canon question.
The Inappropriateness of the Biblical Parallel
The meaning of the Greek word kanon is “rule” or “measure”. As there has been a need for a term referring to selection of authors more precise than selection, the adaption of canon progressed rapidly, even though the notion entangles connotations of authority and exclusivity not necessarily applicable to the literary canon. While the normative aspect is important for the biblical canon it is a futile undertaking to draw parallels between the biblical and the literary canon. Literary canons are not composed according to the view of an authority, but to fulfill certain functions. Neither has there ever been an author canonical in the biblical sense, as inclusion in the literary canon does not demand faith in the included works. Nor is the aim of the literary canon to be conclusive, for it, at least implicitly, always allowed expansion. Kermode suggests that certain texts somehow get licensed for exegesis and will therefore be continually explicated, though this would mean that that the process of canonization is not the inclusion of texts into an authoritative list but the acceptance into the ongoing critical colloquy. Crucial for this acceptance is not only the content of the texts but also the aptness with which it is introduced into the colloquy.
A Multiplicity of Canons and the Pressures on Them
Alastair Fowler differentiation between six different kinds of canons is widely accepted. The potential canon compromises the complete oral and written literature. The accessible canon restricts it by availability at a given time. Selective canon consists of lists of texts and authors found for instance in anthologies, while the personal canon is selected in accordance with the taste of an individual reader. Even though these classifications are handy, it is very important to be aware of their underlying principles, looseness and the need for further classification. The term canon used referring to the biblical texts does not match any before mentioned categories. So we would need a seventh category for an authoritative closed body of text. There is still room for a pedagogical canon containing texts commonly taught in school and undergraduate classes. It is further possible to differentiate between a slowly changing diachronic canon and nonce canon of which only a tiny fragment is ever to enter the diachronic canon. One might confuse the diachronic canon with monolithic body of text due the smoothness of the inclusion and exclusion processes. Authors suffering exclusion from diachronic canon rarely drift into complete insignificance and usually retain importance in a niche at least. It ought to be noted that until eighteenth century there virtually were no selective canons of European vernacular literature. The only authoritative lists of texts were those of required readings at universities, though those lists remained completely classical in England and the U.S. until the second half of the nineteenth century. Thus both the canons of American and English literature developed about the same time and went through the same twentieth-century revisions.
Selective Canons: Criteria and Functions
Extracting the criteria applied to selective canons is a non-trivial task, for they are often implicitly understood and have a tendency to overlap. The New Critics claim that poetry has not propositional meaning and discussing it is therefore vain endeavor. It is possibly to simplify the problem of differentiating criteria by analyzing how useful a text is to certain individuals or societies. According to Arnold two major factors used in the selection of texts are the “personal” and the “historical” estimate. The first is the correspondence to an individuals need while the latter seeks to improve understanding of historical developments. These are but two functions of selective canons, a comprehensive list is unlikely to be possible or useful. Providing role models is one of the oldest functions of selections, nevertheless what is considered to be an example of virtue is under constant change. Nowadays it is usually not viewed as a compliment to call literature moralizing, but Marxist or feminist literature fulfills the function just as well as Wordsworth’s, Holme’s etc.
Transmitting the Heritage of Thought. It can be said that “cultural literacy” is one of the goals of the canon. Thus imparting the knowledge required to see texts and events in a historical context, and to be able to understand texts written by writers assuming such literacy. With the fulfillment of this function the canon becomes our collective memory, which when tried to be overthrown usually expands.
Creating Common Frames of Reference. Without some sort of canon it would not be possible for a literary community to establish itself. Institutional discussion of literature requires common points of reference.
Logrolling. Which writers enter the nonce canon does not only depend on the appeal of their writing to society but also on their espousal of criteria benefitting their own aims.
Legitimating Theory. Though it was the stated aim of the New Critics explications to reveal as much meaning as possible, the works they had chosen implicitly fulfilled the function of underlining the power of their approach.
Historicing. When looking at older texts, the focus has shifted from asking questions about how well past times are represented in the texts to questions about the motivation of the writer and the reasons for its (un)popularity.
The end of the 19th century was strongly pluralizing time. Women and other minorities were much more represented in the important anthologies than today. This is true for both American and British literature. Reasons for this are the eastern white elitism in the teaching of literature and organization of literature into periods and themes.
The Selection of Texts as the Selection of
Any selection actually does not consist of texts but of reading of texts. The Catcher in der Rye, for example can be read as portrait of adolescence but also as a neo-Marxist text pointing out the omnipresence of capitalist ideology. Annette Kolodny is in favour of pluralizing and the official canon and expanding it with texts that defamiliarize older texts in the canon.
The Ultimate Function of Canons Is to Compete
It is not possible to determine a single power being responsible for all selection processes, because in societies many powers are closely intertwined at work. It is important to strive for an expansion of the pedagogical and critical canon with texts selected by new criteria, so that there is no risk of intellectual stagnation. However, this does not mean to read as an ideological censor and condemn older texts containing elitist or capitalist ideas. It can be argued that there are no ways to proof truths absolute, so no text may be preferred for its truth value. The liberal tradition of education refuses to use standard selections of authors because of this argument. Still there will always be canons as it is not possible to avoid selection. Recent textbook anthologies increased in volume due to containing a bigger cultural diversity. The time available for teaching literature though, remained unchanged so it is now even more the task of the literature teachers to select. Critics agree with bacon in that two main functions of criticism are to help people decide what and in what order to read. None of the functions of the canon is either nefarious or trivial. It is useful to have an idea about the major influences on texts and to be familiar with the texts the educated reader is expected to know. It is most important though, to be honest, and to accept that no selection of texts can fit into an undergraduate literary course or even a bachelor degree.