November 22, 2006

List Hubris

Filed under: reading — ted @ 10:55 am

In the most recent edition of The Atlantic, you’ll find a list of “The Top 100” most influential figures in American history. There are few surprises.

Lincoln is number 1, of course, and the rest of the top 5 is as follows: Washington, Jefferson, F.D.R, & Hamilton. Basically, folks who made it onto the money. The best part of the list is the pithy one-sentence descriptions that accompany each figure. For example: George Washington: “He made the United States possible — not only by defeating a king, but by declining to become one himself.” Thanks for that.

The explanation of the selection process makes for interesting reading.

More interesting to me is the ranking of literary figures, especially since the list was compiled from the votes of historians, meaning that literary merit is not as important as historical influence. Hence Mark Twain’s (16) being listed above Walt Whitman (22). If I was voting, Whitman would be in the top ten for certain — but I’m not a prominent historian. The historians do credit Whitman with “shap[ing] the country’s conception of itself,” which counts for a lot in my opinion. Other literary types on the list:

  • 33 Ralph Waldo Emerson (“The bard of individualism, he relied on himself — and told us all to do the same”)
  • 41 Harriet Beecher Stowe (proving beyond doubt that literary merit was not a prime criterion)
  • 43 W. E. B. DuBois (great to see him ranked above his nemesis)
  • 47 Frederick Douglass
  • 60 William Faulkner (I’m very pleased with this)
  • 62 William James (but his brother Henry doesn’t make the list — despite being perhaps the country’s best novelist)
  • 65 Henry David Thoreau
  • 83 James Fenimore Cooper (“The novels are unreadable, but he was the first great mythologizer of the frontier.”)
  • 85 Ernest Hemingway (“His spare style defined American modernism, and his life made machismo a cliché.”)
  • 92 John Steinbeck
  • 100 Herman Melville (rolling over in his grave at seeing Steinbeck ranked ahead of him)

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