HAVE you heard of Edna St Vincent Millay? Ever read any James Truslow Adams?
In 1936, both these names appeared on a list of 10 American authors whose work would be most likely to still be thought of as classics in the year 2000.
They were chosen by polling the readers of The Colophon, a New York-based quarterly periodical for booklovers, which ran from 1929 to 1950 and featured articles by well-known writers of the day such as Edith Wharton.
To the list provided by its readers, the publication added some names of its own – Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel; The Story of a Novel), journalist and satirist HL Mencken, Hervey Allen (Anthony Adverse; The Disinherited), and the best known of all – Ernest Hemingway.
The full 10 chosen by the poll runs as follows: Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill, Edna St Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Theodore Dreiser, James Truslow Adams, George Santayana, Stephen Vincent Benet and James Branch Cabell.
So, how many of these authors have you read or even heard of?
In the UK, where the National Curriculum doesn’t tend to immerse pupils in the classics of early to mid-20th century American literature, I would be surprised if you had read them all.
Even in the US, the Smithsonian’s website states that “some of the authors are likely forgotten names to even the most ardent reader here in the year 2012”. Best-selling fantasy author Neil Gaiman, whose Twitter feed I trawl for book recommendations (see also Joe Hill’s Twitter feed for same), said he was only unfamiliar with James Truslow Adams when he tweeted a link to the list earlier this week.
Of the 10 names, I have read three, although I had heard of more – two of them, Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser, as part of my degree.
As I like to flatter myself that I’m quite well read – I love those self-congratulatory Facebook quizzes where you tick off how many books you’ve read – this makes me cross. I’ll be adding the rest of the names to my ever increasing list of authors I will aim to read at some point if I can just bring myself to put down Terry Pratchett’s latest.
Although we may not be so familiar with them now, all the writers were extremely well-regarded and influential in their day. Minnesota-born Sinclair Lewis for example was the first US writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1935, with It Can’t Happen Here in which a fascist is elected as American president. On receiving the award he spoke out about other authors’ reluctance to write books that contradict the vision of the American dream.
Playwright and Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill was among the first to revolutionise American drama with the techniques of realism used by Chekhov and Ibsen, while Maine-born Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St Vincent Millay shocked audiences with her exploration of female sexuality and feminism and was later criticised for her poetry she wrote about the Allied war effort.
Like most authors, they must have asked themselves whether their work would continue to be read long after their death. Which makes me wonder – which currently living writers’ work will still be getting read in 2076?