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.