Greatest American authors of the 20th century
A couple of years ago, one of my brightest, most driven students asked me a simple question for which I had no ready answer: “Do you know where I could find a list of the 100 or so most important works of American fiction from the 20th Century?” I didn’t. I knew of more general lists (The Modern Library ‘s 100 Best Novels) and s 100 Best All Time Novels). I also had several major anthologies of American literature, but I had no link, article, book, or other resource to offer, nothing really that might guide his curiosity.
I was frustrated; this is my field after all, and I like to be able to answer questions like this. But I also knew exactly what he was feeling: the 20th Century in American letters is so diverse, weird, confusing, fragmented, and fascinating that it’s difficult to know where to start. College survey courses try to give students an overview of some of the trends and major works, but they are pieced together and incomplete by necessity.
So I decided to draw up a list–a list of major works that would serve as a starting point and overview of 20th Century American fiction. And then the trouble began. As you might imagine, there are all sorts of problems with any such list: what does important mean? are only American authors included? Are 1900 and 2000 meaningful start and end dates? Do you list multiple works from authors? Single short stories? How do you judge the later works, which haven’t had enough time to simmer in history? Unlike other top 100 novel lists, this one was to be about coverage rather than judgment or ranking.
The end result of my puzzlement were these decisions, which say as much about how I understand literature as they chart any real course.
- I’d rather have just one Faulkner under my belt if that means I can read another author. So each author only gets one slot.
- We need 20 years of perspective before we can have any sense of a given work’s longevity. So the latest works we can reasonably include have to have been published in 1991 or before. Mark back 100 years from there and you have 1891, which is good because it falls just after Twain’s high period and catches some late 19th Century work that has more to do with 20th century fiction than 19th.
- “Important” means that a work is important to readers, writers, critics, and scholars. Not every work will do all three, but the final list should be sufficiently multi-purpose to speak to these groups.
- This isn’t a judgment but a tool. There’s nothing that says that these will be the works that people who care about literature will care about in another 100 years, but they do need to represent our current sensibilities. “Merit” matters less than influence and reach.
- While I think the selected work for each author is important, there is some interchangeability. If you’ve read Song of Solomon, but not Beloved, you have a sense of Morrison.