It seems that, in passing, some books are referred to as "an American classic," or "one of the great American classics." This seems like it's a whole subsection of what counts as "classic literature."

Oddly, while infrequently, certain books are debated, or people discuss which new book is going to be canonized as the next Great American Book, most of the books that we describe as "classics" are ones that nobody would bother to refute. Everyone seems to agree, or assume, that they are. Stuff like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or The Jungle, or For Whom the Bell Tolls, or 1984, or Of Mice and Men, or The Great Gatsby...

Then we have the American classic authors, some of whom appear in that list: Mark Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald...

Nobody disputes that these are "classics". But, how did they get labeled that way? Does somebody decide which books are classics and which aren't? Is there a process for canonization of the body of classical literature that I'm just not aware of?

If there isn't, then how did this terminology come about, and why is it so consistent everywhere you look in America?

  • 3
    Voted for reopening. Note that this question asks far more than "what is an American classic" and is very process-oriented. " Is there a process for canonization of the body of classical literature that I'm just not aware of?" seems like a perfectly on-topic question to me.
    – VicAche
    Apr 4, 2017 at 13:01
  • "Is there a process for canonization of the body of classical literature that I'm just not aware of?" No, there is no such process. The concept of "canon" has been attacked as a list for works by dead white males. To the extent that there was a process, it has been ditched.
    – Tsundoku
    Jan 2, 2022 at 20:32
  • Sure, and that's a basis for a good answer. It's not obvious how books become classics. Also some literary traditions have more institutionalized canonization, eg Les Immortals in France, or the Four Classic Chinese novels.
    – Adam Burke
    Jan 3, 2022 at 2:59

2 Answers 2


The noted science fiction author Samuel Delany has a lengthy discussion of the canonization process in his book About Writing. His conclusions are:

  1. While there is a definite relationship between canonization and quality, canonization is socially constructed, mutable, and often affected by incidentals not directly related to the work's quality, including alignment with prevailing social trends, mores, or commitments, the persistence or effectiveness of individual promoters of the work, and the vagaries of fate. Canonization is thus not infallible, inferior works can be canonized over superior ones.

  2. The key element of canonization is a body of scholarship built up around the work, as supplemented by things such as awards, inclusion on lists, adaptations and derivative works.

In short, the defining characteristic of the canonized work is that it continues in living memory beyond its initial publication. There is therefore a self-reinforcing aspect to canonization. The more a book is referred to, the more visible it is, and the more likely it is to continue to be referred to.

  • 3
    ...huh. I'd really love to see/read that reference, if you can find it!
    – user80
    Jan 24, 2017 at 21:28
  • 2
    @Zyerah - Added the reference. Better late late late than never, right? It's a terrific book. Nov 20, 2018 at 14:27

Italo Calvino's "Why read the Classics" (2000)

Italo Calvino lists 14 "definitions" of a classic

Although (As mentioned in the comments) although the viewpoint of Italo Calvino is quite abstract and possibly intentionally ambiguous, I believe it gives a good initial idea of just the difficulty in describing a "classic".

Another interpretation is given by Richard J. Smith:

First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.

Richard Smith seems to give more common suggestions, describing "fundamental issues" and a common suggestion of "staying power across both time and space" essentially being timeless, and relevant no matter how many years had passed.


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