ALL-TIME AMERICAN WRITERS TOURNAMENT
THESE SELECTIONS are a mixed bag of qualities and achievements. Perhaps all they have in common is that each attained, at some point– while alive or afterward– an enormous critical or popular reputation. Are the reputations larger than the actual work?
A.) Harriet Beecher Stowe
(Etching by Francis Holl.)
Author of the most influential novel in American history. (Abe Lincoln himself half-in-jest credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin with starting the Civil War.) No American novel so keyed into its moment of time– the zeitgeist of the day. Or so provoked the emotions of its readers.
B.) James Baldwin
Like other writers of his era– Gore Vidal; Mary McCarthy– Baldwin was a better essayist than novelist. An excellent essayist, during a golden age of American essays. But he was also a superb short story writer, penning several which retain their power and relevance; “Sonny’s Blues” and “Going to Meet the Man” among them.
(Photo by Allan Warren.)
C.) Kurt Vonnegut
One cannot ignore the Cult of Vonnegut! He took the serious American novel out of strictly realistic bounds into new worlds. The novels Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions were imaginative and wildly popular– especially among college students. (Would that a novelist could be so now!) In his later works Vonnegut was trying too hard to be original while simultaneously repeating himself. His best novel might be his first, Player Piano.
D.) Henry James
A critical darling, reputation courtesy of Harvard and Oxford. Producer of a collection of plodding, word-clotted novels, James makes the Tournament based on three of his shorter works. The pop story “Daisy Miller.” The creepy gothic pop tale Turn of the Screw. And the weirdly effective novella, Altar of the Dead.
(Portrait of Henry James by Jacques Emile Blanche.)