November 27, 2012

Your favorite authors are going to be forgotten



On the Paleofuture blog of Smithsonian Magazine Matt Novak points us to an interesting list that appeared in a 1936 edition of The Colophon.

The Colophon was a “Quarterly for Bookmen” that ran from 1929 to 1950 in various formats. You can read pages from a few issues here. In 1936 it seems they polled their readership — about two thousand book collectors — as to which authors would remain popular to the end of the century and beyond. Their answers?

  1. 1) Sinclair Lewis
  2. 2) Willa Cather
  3. 3) Eugene O’Neill
  4. 4) Edna St. Vincent Millay
  5. 5) Robert Frost
  6. 6) Theodore Dreiser
  7. 7) James Truslow Adams
  8. 8) George Santayana
  9. 9) Stephen Vincent Benet
  10. 10) James Branch Cabell

As Novak writes, it’s unsurprising that Lewis tops the list: he’d won the Nobel prize only five years previously. And some other names listed, though perhaps a bit lacking in luster these days, are still recognizable. Frost is still a giant, for instance, and O’Neill. We ourselves published Willa Cather just this year.

Dreiser remains less popular, despite literally having written the book on unethical financiers. Some of the less known names, like Cabell, are famous chiefly because they’d been favored by Dreiser, who was something of a kingmaker in his day.

All in all the list is largely a reflection of the biases of their readership, which skewed populist but also, interestingly, toward the fantastic. Branch Cabell and Truslow Adams, for instance, both dabbled in the science fictional. It is also notable for those who didn’t make the list, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway among them.

It’s a trifle of a thing, this list, but it begs the obvious question: who will we be reading in seventy years? Who, writing today, will last?

Who is our Frost and who our Truslow Adams? Or — and you begin to see it already with these authors, even in 1936 — will the ballooning population of  readers leave a place for such factionalism and dissension and varied fractive readerships that even the idea of a recent canon will become more or less useless?




Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.