A partial list
At a family dinner recently, the conversation turned to American writers. Who were the most important American writers? Which of the thousands of acclaimed writers throughout American history best represent our country’s literary heritage? Naturally when attempting to define great writers, be they novelists, poets, short story writers, playwrights, screen writers, and yes, even comic strip cartoonists, it all gets very subjective and open to much debate.
If you were taking a course on the greatest American writers, who would you say were the authors of America’s most influential and celebrated writing? I have my opinion and here they are.
A good start, I think, would be James Fenimore Cooper, best known for The Last of the Mohicans published in 1826. Among other things, Cooper gave us the first American hero, Natty Bumppo, a white child raised by Delaware Indians who matures into an adventurous, honorable and fearless woodsman.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is next in line. An American poet and educator, Wadsworth’s works include Paul Revere’s Ride, The Song of Hiawatha, The Village Blacksmith and Evangeline.
Speaking of poets, Emily Dickinson was one of the nation’s most prolific, writing nearly 1,800 poems while living a reclusive life at her family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Hardly any of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime; most of her work was discovered in her bedroom after her death. Sad.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an ordained minister, philosopher, essayist and poet. His best stuff explored the mind of man and his relationship with nature. Emerson’s uniquely American vision and writing style is illustrated in the 1836 essay “Nature” and the 1841 essay “Self-Reliance.”
Herman Melville is undoubtedly best remembered for his 1851 masterpiece Moby Dick, an epic novel about an obsessed sea captain of a whaling ship and his vengeful pursuit of a ferocious white whale.
Washington Irving was one of the earliest American fiction writers. He wrote the famous and timeless tales Rip Van Winkle in 1819 and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow first published in 1820 and famously brought to the movie screen by Walt Disney in 1949.
Edgar Allan Poe is widely recognized as the nation’s first published horror, mystery and science fiction writer. Poe’s haunting, eerie, and cryptic tales exemplified in his 1839 short story The Fall of the House of Usher, his 1843 short story The Tell-Tale Heart and the 1845 poem “The Raven.” In almost 200 years his writing has lost none of its creepiness.
No one knows who William Sydney Porter was, but everyone knows his pen name, O. Henry. He was the king of the surprise ending short story, The Gift of the Magi being one classic example.
No list of classic American writers would be complete, in my opinion, without including Henry David Thoreau, Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, and of course, Mark Twain, often called the Father of American Literature. Add to those the names of Jack London, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey and L. Frank Baum.
The literature of Tom Wolfe and John Updike top the list of the more recent great American writers. My list would also include the wonderful essayists of the mid-20th century such as E.B. White, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and H.L. Mencken. Another favorite would be Damon Runyon, who had a genre and style all his own.
There were plenty of crime writers working in pulp fiction in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s but the standouts were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, both of which make my best American writer list. In the same spirit I might include James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis.
Playwrights George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon are on my list, as are motion picture writers Preston Sturges, Ben Hecht, Ernest Lehman and Billy Wilder (along with Wilder’s collaborators Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond).
Comic strip cartoonist/writers who definitely belong on the list are George Herriman (Krazy Kat), E.C. Segar (Popeye), Chic Young (Blondie) and Charles Schultz (Peanuts). So many of these comic strip guys shaped and reflected the American culture of the 20th century: Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), George McManus (Bringing Up Father), Al Capp (Li’l Abner) and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) among others.
And then there’s Dr. Seuss, who has probably had the greatest impact on more generations of Americans than any other children’s book author.
Greg Crosby is a writer and cartoonist and former executive at the Walt Disney Company.