The Top American Writers?

Last week, the MLA* ranked the top 25 American writers according to the amount of scholarship that has been devoted to those writers and their works in the past 25 years. I looked over the list, and, for the most part I was not all that surprised by the names that I found there. I was pretty proud of myself, actually, because I have read something by each author. There were a few names, however, that made me stop, including the first one on the list – Henry James.

My confusion about James’ position on the list stems from the fact that he is called an American author. Let me explain. Henry James was born in the United States. This is true. However, he spent much of his life abroad, traveling extensively throughout Europe and living for extended periods in Paris and London. In 1915, the year before he died, he actually became a British subject. That is the nationality that he chose to identify himself with. As a result of the years that he spent in that country and his choice to become an official citizen, the British claim him, too, as part of their literary cannon – much of the time.

T.S. Eliot makes an appearance as number 3 on this list of American writers. He left the US at age 25, became a British subject by age 39, and spent the majority of his life across the pond. He is almost universally accepted as a British writer. Why, then, does he qualify to be on the list of top American writers? It would seem, at this point, the main criteria for being considered American is that the author was born in the United States. Then we come to number 5 on the list- Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov is widely recognized as a Russian author, having been born there and having written his first several novels in Russian. After fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, his family moved throughout Europe. When he was in his early forties, he brought his family to the United States, where he worked as a lecturer at several colleges and wrote his most famous work, Lolita. The Nabokov family stayed in the US for just over 20 years, until they could save enough money to return to Europe. He then lived the remainder of his life in Switzerland. A little more than 20 of his 78 years were spent in this country, but because he wrote such a well-known work during his time here, we claim him as one of our own?

The methodology used in constructing this list is flawed. There is a glaring inconsistency when it comes to the classification of these authors as American. I also find fault with the assumption that, because a lot of scholars are researching one particular author, said author must be one of the “top” writers in America. I have attended many a conference where these sames scholars wrote about authors that they felt were overrated with the hope that their careful consideration of the works produced by those authors would make people see reason. I have even sat in on a panel or two where Henry James received that treatment, and I heard a very convincing argument for why he is, most certainly, NOT American (the very bare bones of which I took you through earlier).

On Monday, Edd asked readers to help him figure out whether or not there is such a thing as an American novel. Today, Riot readers, I am asking for your help in determining what it means to be an American writer. Is it dependent upon where that author was born? Or does it only matter where the author did his or her best work?

 *The list was actually compiled by D.G. Myers at Commentary Magazine. It is merely based on the MLA International Bibliography.