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105 Greatest Living Authors Present the World's Best: Stories, Humor, Drama, Biography, History, Essays, Poetry edited by Whit Burnett



Pretend it's 1950 and the so-called "105 greatest living authors," if we're to believe the title of this book, have hand picked themselves -- writer rating their fellow writers -- the best writers and writing that "the World" has to offer.  If by "the World" they meant mostly U.S.A., then I'd say they did splendidly in selecting the best that "the World" had to offer in 1950!  Any dead writers in this book?  Nope.  Though a few, apparently, had died between balloting and the book's publication (Willa Cather was one) but thankfully, for the sake of the book (and Cather!) -- and since they'd already voted -- they considered her "alive" rather than "dead".

105 Greatest Living Authors Present The World's Best: Stories, Humor, Drama, Biography, History, Essays, Poetry has got that nice musty old book smell that reminds me of my grandparent's house, and namely their World Book Encyclopedia set from the late 1940s they proudly displayed next to my grandfather's wing back chair.

The writers included in this anthology were voted in to it by a decent percentage of their fellow contemporary writers. And that's the most fascinating aspect of this volume, I think (which I'll elaborate on later) seeing what a, say, Hemingway or E.M. Forster personally considered in their minds to be the world's greatest writers at the time, circa 1948-1950. In fact, ninety-six of the 105 authors featured herein cast a ballot for whom they felt belonged in a book featuring the so-called, 'Greatest Living Authors.'

Note: This anthology did not attempt to answer, 'Who the Greatest Authors of All Time' were, only the best at the moment; and that moment being, 1950.

Here's who else participated: A total of 643 individuals cast their ballots, made up of, besides the aforementioned 105 authors, officers of both the P.E.N. Clubs (Poets, Editors, and Novelists) of Europe (30) and the United States (36); editors of the Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature (70); magazine and literary journal editors (24); book reviewers (31); U.S.A. college presidents (121), U.S.A. librarians (108), booksellers (23), subscribers to The Saturday Review of Literature (82), and some other miscellaneous sources (22). Published in 1950, the ballots overwhelmingly favored, as can be expected considering the chauvinist era, male authors, and mostly United States or British male authors. Here's the statistical breakdown (since I'm a data freak) by nation:

U.S.A...........32 authors (29 men, 3 women)
England.........20 (17 men, 3 women)
France..........13 (12 men, 1 woman)
Ireland............5 (4 men, 1 woman)
Germany.........4 (all male)
Spain..............4 (' ')
Russia.............3 ( ' ')
Canada...........2 (1 woman, 1 man)
Chile...............2 (both male)
China..............2 ( ' ')
Denmark.........2 (1 woman, 1 man)
Hungary..........2 (both male)
India...............2 ( ' ')
Italy................2 ( ' ')
Norway..........2 (1 woman, 1 man)
Argentina........1 man
Finland............1 man
Greece............1 man
Holland...........1 man
Iceland............1 man
Mexico...........1 man
Scotland.........1 man
Switzerland.....1 man

TOTAL.............94 men, 11 women.

Australia, Japan (wwii had just ended), Africa (the entire continent!), Brazil, Israel & the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and many other nations, got nary a vote! Interesting! (if not U.S.A.-centric-biased).

The above itemization sort of reminds me of how the Olympics inevitably break down, medals-won-wise, except Russia and China are usually up there closer to the top with U.S.A.

And since I absolutely love lists, here's how the top 50 authors fared, keeping in mind the year, 1950, vote-wise:

01. George Bernard Shaw (Ire.)............539 votes
02. Thomas Mann (Ger.)......................524
03. Eugene O'Neil (U.S.)......................508
04. Ernest Hemingway (U.S.)............... 466
05. Sinclair Lewis (U.S.).......................453

(My what 60 years can do to a writer's popularity!  Poor Sinclair.)

06. Sigrid Undset (Nor.).......................452
07. George Santayana (Sp.)..................436
08. T.S. Eliot (Eng.)..............................435
09. Aldous Huxley (Eng.)......................434
10. Robert Frost (U.S.).........................432
11. John Steinbeck (U.S.).....................427

(I'm happy to see Steinbeck this high! So take that you elitist East Coast Ivy League New Yawkers who think yaw know better than everybody else!)

12. W. Somerset Maugham (Eng.).........424
13. Carl Sandburg (U.S.).......................414
14. Willa Cather (U.S.)..........................409

(As mentioned above, Willa Cather died just after the ballots were prepared ... perhaps from shock over her position on the list?)

15. Edna St. V. Millay (U.S.).................403
16. John Masefield (Eng.).......................393
17. André Gide (Fr.)..............................382
18. Maurice Maeterlinck (Bel.)...............377
19. Thornton Wilder (U.S.).....................373
20. John Dewey (U.S.)...........................368
21. John Dos Passos (U.S.)....................365
22. Jules Romains (Fr.)...........................358
23. Benedetto Croce (It.).......................342
24. Pearl Buck (U.S.)............................332
25. E.M. Forster (Eng.).........................328

(Let's see, Sinclair Lewis in the 5 slot, and Forster in the 25th? What were these people smoking in 1950?! There weren't even any beatniks around back then!)

26. Van Wyck Brooks (U.S.).................324
27. Arnold J. Toynbee (Eng.)..................318
28. Erich Maria Remarque (Ger.)............313
29. Bertrand Russell (Eng.).....................311
30. Charles and Mary Beard (U.S.)........307
31. H.L. Mencken (U.S.)........................306
32. Sholem Asch (U.S.)..........................305
33. Walter de la Mare (Eng.)..................300
34. Knut Hamsun (Nor.).........................293
35. André Maurois (Fr.).........................290
36. William Faulkner (U.S.)....................287

(Faulkner's international import, in 1950, had obviously yet to be recognized, for how else can you explain a Sholem Asch (who!?) being ranked higher than Faulkner?  It's fascinating to me to see how legacies in literature have risen and fallen over the past sixty years).

37. Lin Yutang (China)............................280
38. Maxwell Anderson (U.S.)..................278
39. Rebecca West (Eng.).........................277
40. André Malraux (Fr.)..........................276
41. Arthur Koestler (Hun.).......................268
42. Edgar Lee Masters (U.S.)..................264
43. Archibald MacLeish (U.S.)................255
44. Hilaire Belloc (Eng.)...........................253
45. Jacques Maritain (Fr.)........................250
46. W.H. Auden (Eng.)............................249
47. Lord Dunsany (Ire.)............................247
48. José Ortega y Gasset (Sp.).................245
49. Noel Coward (Eng.)...........................243
50. Upton Sinclair (U.S.)..........................237

The system of voting implemented I won't even attempting describing, other than to say it sounds as complicated a procedure as the B.C.S. College Football rankings employed by the NCAA.

What sets this anthology apart, besides its lists and lists and lists and further literary, bibliophilic itemization of data, from other anthologies, is that the featured writers were first included in the anthology based on a vote of writers, publishers and critics; and then the writers voted for inclusion picked their own pieces to be included (and not an editor); the only editorial criteria being the writing that "best represented their aims and ambitions of their work."

So, in essence, this is an anthology of the best writers in the world, a snapshot taken in the late 1940s, sharing with their audience what they themselves (and not a lone potentially biased editor) considered their most representative work.  And the writer's choices, sometimes, are surprising, if not ridiculous.  Sinclair Lewis, for instance, choosing Cass Timberlane over Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Babbitt, or Arrowsmith, speaks, if such a dubious choice can be understood, to a writer's tendency to favor their most recent work over their most lasting.

105 Greatest Living Authors Present The World's Best: Stories, Humor, Drama, Biography, History, Essays, Poetry.

Maybe not the World's best, but switch out "World" for "North America and Great Britain," and this book anthology becomes much more palatable, and, I'd add, reasonable too.

Comments

Rebecca Glenn said…
Kind of makes you think of the meaningless of prizes, when you see some of the winners who have been consigned to the dust bin of history. Sinclair Lewis? What were they thinking! And who the hell are Charles and Mary Beard?
EnriqueFreeque said…
I would have to google Charles and Mary Beard to know. WTF! I wonder if maybe their were humorists popular at that time? A newspaper column tandem?

And yeah, the meaninglessness of prizes indeed. Especially the Pulitzer -- a death sentence for the novelist ...

More importantly, what the hell are you doing up at 6:35am on a freaking Sat. morning? It's called "sleeping-in on the weekend"! You should try it sometime! ;-)

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