Greatest American Authors

Recently this list of greatest American authors came to my attention.  The 20 most influential authors in American history.  These are the authors you read if you want to gain a sense of what “America” is.  What it means to be “American.”

So you don’t have to click, here they are:

Willa Cather              J.F. Cooper                   Emily Dickinson          R.W. Emerson

William Faulkner       F. Scott Fitzgerald          Robert Frost             N. Hawthorne

E. Hemingway           W. Irving                       H. Lee                     J. London

H. Melville                M. Mitchell                     E.A. Poe                  J.D. Salinger

J. Steinbeck              H.D. Thoreau                M. Twain                 W. Whitman

I’m not sure how I feel about the list.  For starters, there’s an author on there I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read (Cooper).  There are also two authors on the list who only have one major book (Mitchell and Lee) and although I love both of their books (oh man did I love Gone with the Wind) I’m not certain that one influential novel is enough to put you on the list of American greats.  15 of the authors on the list are men, and only five are women.  All are white.  Only four are known as poets (although many of the others wrote lovely poetry).  None of them are dramatists.

Is this a representation of “American Literature?”  It’s certainly a representation of traditional American literature.  They are all (with the exception of Mitchell and Lee) authors I read in American Literature I or II in college.  They’re all canonical.  But do they tell the American experience, as the list suggests?

Considering that none of them are minorities and so few of them are women, I’d say that the list does not do what it sets out to do.  This is the white, largely male American story.  Where is Toni Morrison?  Or Maya Angelou?  How about authors who published after the 60s?  Tom Wolfe (drunken loon that he is) or Jack Kerouac?  I’m not sure we need both Emerson AND Thoreau (I secretly believe they were the same person anyway).  Ditto London and Cooper.  I’m hesitant to say that authors like Foer, Chabon or Franzen (although I love the former two) should be included.  They just haven’t been around long enough.  We can’t be sure of their “longevity” yet.  And where are the playwrights?!  No Arthur Miller?  No Eugene O’Neill?  No Tennessee Williams?  The horror!  The horror!

The list doesn’t work for me.  What’s great about Amercan literature is that it is still evolving.  And I just don’t think this list captures that evolution.

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4 Comments

Filed under Books, School

4 responses to “Greatest American Authors

  1. Applegate

    Where’s Vonnegut?

    I think the exclusion of dramatists is a safe move. Whats the difference between a stage play and a screen play? Aaron Sorkin represents more “American” language and characters than O’Neil or Miller. Its a slippery slope but one that opens the question: Where are the Jews?

    I had to google JF Cooper and Willa Cather. The rest; I “know” all these authors to varying degrees of familiarity but I think the list could have been ripped off the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.

  2. I would definitely try to squeeze in Norman Mailer.

  3. The purpose of the list is muddled to begin with, since “celebrated” and “influential” are two very different things. For example, Poe is not much celebrated (most people read him in high school because they have to, and that’s it), but he invented the detective story and the modern horror story, so that’s a lot of influence. Some of the others are much celebrated, but it’s hard to see how much influence they have in the modern world.

    I think you hit the point with “canonical.” This is re-asserting the canon, the entirely white and mostly male (and respectable — hence no Kerouac or Ginsberg or Burroughs or Vonnegut or Mailer or Hunter Thompson) Great Authors.

  4. Oh my… well, to tell the truth, I KNOW most of them, but if it comes to reading … Eeer …
    I’ve read Poe (depends on the story, for horror, I definitely prefer Lovecraft), started Thoreau and Salinger, liked Fitzgerald and Frost and had to read Hemingway in my first literature course at university (and didn’t like it).

    MY big questions are: Where is T.C. Boyle? And where is John Irving?

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