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Ranking the Writers

At his wonderful Paleofuture blog, Matt Novak explains that “In 1936, a quarterly magazine for book collectors called The Colophon polled its readers to pick the ten authors whose works would be considered classics in the year 2000.” Here’s their top ten:

  1. Sinclair Lewis
  2. Willa Cather
  3. Eugene O’Neill
  4. Edna St. Vincent Millay
  5. Robert Frost
  6. Theodore Dreiser
  7. James Truslow Adams
  8. George Santayana
  9. Stephen Vincent Benet
  10. James Branch Cabell

Of course, everyone will first note the missing names: Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. Me, I’m a bit surprised at how many of the names I recognize.

I’m surprised for several reasons. First, I don’t know anything about the readership of The Colophon, so I don’t know what magazines they read or what publishers they favored; but I’m guessing that they were a rather conservative crowd, since their authors are a little older than the ones we best remember from that era. Most of these authors were born in the 1870s, whereas Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald were all born in the late 1890s and so were in early-to-mid career at the time of the poll. (Among this top ten, only Stephen Vincent Benet was of their generation.)

It takes time for a general assessment of the achievement of younger writers to settle into place. And that happens even if they die young (Fitzgerald) or fail to keep up the standards of their early career (Hemingway). Right now David Foster Wallace is more widely celebrated than any other author of his generation, but who knows what his reputation will look like in twenty years? Maybe his status will rise still higher; or maybe he’ll look like a superannuated relic of his period.

Plus, at any given time, in any given literate culture, there will be different circles of conversation and influence. The people who love DFW probably also admire other experimental novelists, for instance Wallace’s primary influence, Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon will be at or near the top of many Best Living American Writers lists, but will be wholly absent from those made by people who prefer more traditional novelistic forms. There are ideological issues in play too: if you asked people about best American writers since 1950, Walker Percy would be high on the list of many Christian readers, but wouldn’t even be on the radar for many other kinds of reader.

And canons change over time. John Donne was forgotten for 250 years, until T. S. Eliot celebrated him and altered everyone’s understanding of what early 17th-century literature was all about. The town I live in is full of elementary schools named after American writers, some of whom are still famous (Emerson, Hawthorne), some of whom are still rather well known (Longfellow), and some of whom have been nearly forgotten (Whittier, Lowell).

It may seem obvious to us now that Nathaniel Hawthorne will always be considered a far greater writer than James Greenleaf Whittier, but let’s not be too sure. Different cultural and historical circumstances bring out certain writerly virtues and make others seem less important. Perhaps a hundred years from now people will look at The Colophon’s list and think, “Well, of course James Truslow Adams is a magnificent genius, but who the hell is Robert Frost?”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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