Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Discarded "Literary America": a chronicle of American writers

So I'm given this library book. I flip it open to the copyright page and see it was published the year of my birth--and has now been discarded by my school's library. There's a weird moment.

Literary America, it's called, and the front cover sub-text states: "A chronicle of American writers from 1607 to 1952 with 170 photographs of the American scene that inspired them"--compiled and written by David E. Scherman and Rosemarie Redlich (Redlich is a "redhaired Viennese" and Scherman a New Yorker, both of whom had worked for Life magazine).

Famous American writers: Captain John Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Washington Irving . . . Cooper, Thoreau, Emerson, Twain, Whitman, Melville--on to more modern writers: Jack London, Willa Cather, T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg . . . Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Richard Wright.

But here are some other American writers of the 93 chosen in 1952 as significant: Artemus Ward, Lafeadio Heran, Hamlin Garland, Winston Churchill (not the Brit P.M.), Ellen Glasgow, John P. Marquand.

Either my education was shabby and my reading habits spotty, or a "contemporary" vision of who is going to pen the classics is a chancy affair. I admit there are holes in the fabric of my education, but I suspect the time-tested process of letting time winnow out the classics is best.

Of the 93 authors, I had never heard of sixteen. Perhaps when I read the sketches of the writers' lives, some spark of connection will fire--a book title, an event, a genre.

I intend to research and read more deeply. This is my chance to fill a few neglected corners of my education. Perhaps public domain ebooks through Project Gutenberg will yield unexpected treasures.

A tidbit chosen at random from the "unknowns": Frank Norris "is now generally credited" with bringing naturalism to the American writing scene. I have heard of his novel The Octopus, but to be honest, I thought it was one of Upton Sinclair's novels, along with Sinclair's muckraker The Jungle. Norris died at thirty-two years of age, his trilogy of "man in a struggle with social forces" only two thirds completed.

Learn something every day . . . 

I might be coming back to this 1952 "chronicle of American writers" to learn a little more literary history and to ponder more on our assumptions of literary greatness.

I've made some personal connection with this book published the year of my birth. I think I'll keep it out of the "discard" pile a little longer.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


  1. I'd never heard of the book, Literary America," but I'm going to have to check it out. Love your blog and I'm now following you!

  2. Strongly suggest adding a "google+" button for the blog!