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Ranking the Writers

At his wonderful Paleofuture blog [1], 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?”

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20 Comments To "Ranking the Writers"

#1 Comment By Ted On November 26, 2012 @ 10:45 am

Donne was not “forgotten for 250 years”, at least not completely. He furnished one (or two) of the citations in Johnson’s Life of Cowley. Coleridge wrote an epigram on him (“Donne’s muse on dromedary trots”–I’m away from my books); and, I believe, he furnishes more than one epigraph for chapters of Middlemarch. By the time Eliot was ready to go there was in fact a Donne revival on, with a biography by none other than Edmund Gosse. Eliot could hardly have written “The Metaphysical Poets” without Grierson, etc., etc. No?

#2 Comment By Alan Jacobs On November 26, 2012 @ 10:50 am

Ted, you are correct, if by “Done was forgotten” one means “no human being was aware of his existence or that of his poems.” I was not writing quite so literally.

#3 Comment By Ted On November 26, 2012 @ 10:56 am

Wow. That was quick! My point was that those are three impressive names–Johnson, Coleridge and Miss Evans. By the public at large, yes–forgotten. But whoever cares about English letters cares about all of it. Somebody ought to write a book about Keble and the metaphysicals.

Love your blog, btw. do you really think anybody’s going to care about “DFW” in 50 years? Or is he the J.B. Cabell de nos jours?

#4 Comment By Dan Davis On November 26, 2012 @ 11:24 am

For those who are interested: [2]

I seem vaguely to have heard of it, probably from my days (and nights) of prowling the stacks of my university library.

That original ten list looks pretty good to me, though I’m not too familiar with Cabell or Adams. I think a current list looking 50 or 1oo years into the future would include some science fiction authors.

#5 Comment By Nick Carr On November 26, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

Re: “Well, of course James Truslow Adams is a magnificent genius, but who the hell is Robert Frost?”

I take your general point, but your example stretches it too far. No one will think such a thought in a hundred years, or a thousand.

#6 Comment By isaacplautus On November 26, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

“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.”

Pynchon is experimental, yes. But because Gravity’s Rainbow is “experimental” and To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t, does that by nature make it a “better” novel than To Kill a Mockingbird? I was reading an encyclopedia of Literature in which Jack London and Rudyard Kipling were dismissed as “innovative in neither style nor content.” Perhaps, but they were among the greatest innovates of the story that we’ve ever had. And story matters, as Chesterton would say.

#7 Comment By Scott Lahti On November 26, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

At the risk of a mild hijacking with “Literary Top Tens from the Jazz Age” as ground cover, I pull from my Gmail archive one contribution to “The Ten Dullest Authors: A Symposium”, in which “A Group of Eminent Literary Specialists Vote on the Most Unreadable of the World’s Great Writers”, in a 1923 issue of the old Frank Crowninshield Vanity Fair, as reprinted in a 1960 anthology (Cleveland Amory, Frederic Bradlee, eds.) of the magazine I recently snapped up for 99 cents:

H.L. Mencken

“It is hard for me to make up a list of books or authors that bore me insufferably, for the simple truth is that I can read almost anything. My trade requires me to read annually all the worst garbage that is issued in belles lettres; for recreation and instruction I read such things as the Congressional Record, religious tracts, Mr. Walter Lippmann’s endless discussions of the Simon-Binet tests, works on molecular physics and military strategy, and the monthly circulars of the great bond houses. It seems to me that nothing that gets into print can be wholly uninteresting; whatever its difficulties to the reader, it at least represents some earnest man’s efforts to express himself. But there are some authors, of course, who try me more than most, and if I must name ten of them then I name:

1. Dostoevski
2. George Eliot
3. D.H. Lawrence
4. James Fenimore Cooper
5. Eden Phillpotts
6. Robert Browning
7. Selma Lagerlöf
8. Gertrude Stein
9. Björnstjerne Björnson
10. Goethe

“As a good German, I should, I suppose, wallow happily in Faust; I can only report that, when I read it, it is patriotically, not voluptuously. Dostoevski, for some reason that I don’t know, simply stumps me; I have never been able to get through any of his novels. George Eliot I started to read too young, and got thereby a distaste for her that is unsound but incurable. Against Cooper and Browning I was prejudiced by schoolmasters who admired them. Phillpotts seems to me to be the worst novelist now in practice in England. As for Lawrence and Miss Stein, what makes them hard reading for me is simply the ineradicable conviction that beneath all their pompous manner there is nothing but tosh.

“The two Scandinavians I need not explain.”

#8 Comment By Scott Lahti On November 26, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

For more telling interwar evidence to the effect that, per the opening line of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, take a look at the way in which the country – not excepting, center stage, its naturalized Japan-born contingent – [3] on a level that would have today’s Tea Partiers hurling themselves to the last tricorner-hatted man from the John Hancock Tower. And over at Archive.org, you might browse [4] from 1940, an anthology from the DeWitts’ flagship monthly’s first eighteen years, co-edited and introduced by – speaking of Roosevelts – Theodore, Jr. You might, in contrasting it with not just its postwar and/or post-millennial incarnations, be stunned by the appearance within of such characteristic writers as, e.g., Lewis Mumford, Lafcadio Hearn, Julian Huxley, and H.G. Wells, but by the many reprints from such journals, most long since departed, as The American Magazine, The Century, The Forum, The North American Review, The Review of Reviews, The Scientific Monthly, Scribner’s, the Survey Graphic, and even such humanist-academic quarterlies as The American Scholar, The Virginia Quarterly Review and The Yale Review. The whole of the magazine from those years was back-lit by a period mission civilisatrice that is hard to miss – and harder still by far to imagine back at the supermarket checkout of 2012.

#9 Comment By Carl Lowland On November 26, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

What an enoyable little article!
I’m still waiting for John LeCarre` to receive proper literary glorification. A statue or something that we can all pilgrimage too would be sufficient. Though many of these names here I have enjoyed immensely, they have already achieved canonization.

#10 Comment By Alan Jacobs On November 26, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

Great links, Scott.

isaacplautus, you write, “But because Gravity’s Rainbow is “experimental” and To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t, does that by nature make it a “better” novel than To Kill a Mockingbird?” No! — and no one would ever say that it’s better for that reason, would they?

Nick: as James Truslow Adams once wrote, “Extremity of example in the service of a cheap point is no vice.”

#11 Comment By Sloth On November 26, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

“I’m still waiting for John LeCarre` to receive proper literary glorification.”

And the late Patrick O’Brian, with whom Le Carre shares a background in intelligence. In fairness, neither can complain of neglect except from the high lords of The Lists.

The Aubrey-Maturin novels are one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century. Matchless powers of characterization, a rare sense of humor, beautifully reclaimed, plotted and written, and with all the gone world of the early 19th century for a stage.

#12 Comment By Drieu On November 27, 2012 @ 12:28 am

An interesting list might be first-rank or near first-rank writers whose reputations have suffered due to their right-wing politics, although some may retain devoted cult followings.

A brief list, limiting myself to fictional/poetic output:

Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly
Maurice Barrès
Massimo Bontempelli
Mateiu Caragiale
Jacques Chardonne
Gerardo Diego
Heimito von Doderer
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle
Mihai Eminescu (not well-known outside of Romania, though this may also be related to translation issues)
Manuel Gálvez
Ángel Ganivet
Stefan George
Arthur de Gobineau (a fine novelist/short story writer)
Nikolai Gumilev
Vintilă Horia
David Jones
Marcel Jouhandeau
Jean de La Varende
Saunders Lewis (only well-known in Wales)
Leopoldo Lugones
Dmitry Merezhkovsky
Henry de Montherlant
Paul Morand
Giovanni Papini
Charles Péguy
José María Pemán
José María de Pereda
Ernst von Salomon
Botho Strauß (not well-known outside of Germany)
Gonzalo Torrente Ballester
Lorenzo Villalonga
Hugo Wast

#13 Comment By Athenian Stranger On November 27, 2012 @ 1:34 am

At what point did Keats and Blake begin to be more well-known than Byron and Shelley? That ought to be the real litmus test for judging when an age can be well-assessed.

#14 Comment By Steffen Silvis On November 27, 2012 @ 8:30 am

Some enterprising soul should fund a study on the reputation of various pieces of American literature and their authors abroad. When I moved to the Czech Republic, I was astonished to find that both Sinclair Lewis (the top of “The Colophon” list) and William Saroyan were still very much in print and treated seriously. My Czech is not at the level where I could judge the work of the Czech translators, who perhaps, like Baudelaire, have out-Poed Poe.

#15 Comment By isaacplautus On November 27, 2012 @ 11:22 am

I’ve heard people dismiss books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Grapes of Wrath as “high school reading list.” What they usually mean is that because books like this have an accessible style and more linear plot that puts them on a lower tier of 20th century lit; whereas Joyce and Pynchon rank higher because they are less accessible. It’s not that I think Joyce and Pynchon aren’t deserving of admiration. It’s just that I regret the trend in postmodern literary theory to view that style of disorienting the reader as the highest form of literature.

#16 Comment By isaacplautus On November 27, 2012 @ 11:25 am

@Steffen

I think it’s a mistake to say that the French misread Poe. His rhymes can be awkward, but his symbolism is first rate. The symbolism and imagery of his poems were what the French saw genius in: and they were right.

#17 Comment By Steffen Silvis On November 27, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

Isaac,

I agree with you, but I do think that Baudelaire’s translations brought out certain essences that were occasionally lost or obscured for English readers by Poe’s periodic awkwardness (and I am a great admirer of Poe). We did, after all, have to reassess Poe through French criticism. My point (perhaps poorly stated) is that the Czech translators, through their readings of Lewis and Saroyan, might allow us to reread these authors, if they too have detected depths we’ve yet to plumb.

#18 Comment By Christopher Benson On November 27, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

Do I correctly infer that The Colophon was polling its readers about living writers at that time rather than writers at any time? I’m just thrilled that the periodical’s readers had the prescience to choose Willa Cather, one of the most under-appreciated, under-valued writers in the American canon. She’s as good or better than any male writer. But if we evaluate her as a female writer, she’s to America what Austen or Woolf are to Britain. While my favorite novel of hers is Death Comes for the Archbishop, we can’t forget what H. L. Mencken said: “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is onehalf so beautiful as My Antonia.”

#19 Comment By James Kabala On November 29, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

Interestingly, James Truslow Adams was (according to Wikipedia) a historian. I can find no record that he wrote poetry or novels.

#20 Comment By Franklin Evans On December 3, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

I’d be very curious to see this “list” formulated for the year 2100 (or whichever future date one may deem appropriate). My self-appointed limitation has long been science fiction and speculative fiction (which the modern incarnation of it is not, being more mythic fantasy than science-based), and I have a short list to offer from that genre in no particular order:

Frank Herbert
Poul Anderson
Phillip K. Dick
Isaac Asimov
Ray Bradbury
Robert A. Heinlein
Cordwainer Smith

I would posit for the fantasy crowd — if only to spur their exploration of its roots beyond J.R.R. Tolkien — the following:

Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian and other sword-and-sorcery stories, ably extended by the late Robert Jordan)
Michael J. Moorcock
Edgar Rice Burroughs

And two special mentions, just because I can. 😉

Mary Stewart for “The Merlin Triology”
Taylor Caldwell for her fictionalized biography of Marcus Tulius Cicero A Pillar of Iron