The unread

The always-interesting Paleo-Future, which specializes in wacky and often misguided visions of the future published decades ago, had a post the other day the brought me up short. Sinclair Lewis Will Be Read Until Year 2000, noted that the Chicago Tribune, in 1936, reported the results of a reader poll by The Colophon on the contemporary author most likely to be read 64 years hence.

I last read Sinclair Lewis in 1973, 27 years short of The Colophon’s estimate and even then I was part of a small minority. I wrote my junior paper at New Trier East Township High School on Babbit and Arrowsmith, largely on the urging of my father. In his formative years, “Red” Lewis (because of his hair, not his politics) was the great American author. In 1930, when my father was a book-loving 13-year old, Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. From looking at rankings, the only Lewis book that more than a handful of people buy these days seems to be It Can’t Happen Here, his novel about the election of a fascist in the US.

When I read Lewis, I was particularly taken with Arrowsmith, which is the story of an idealistic epidemiologist. I generally lapped up stories of starry-eyed idealists, and I probably still do.

Most of the other authors in The Colophon’s 1936 rankings have similarly fallen by the wayside. Number two was Willa Cather, who I suspect is more popular these days than Lewis, but shading to the obscure (another favorite of my father). Number three is certainly a full-fledged member of the “canon”: Eugene O’Neill (who always struck me as one of the most unlikely Princetonians of all time). Robert Frost is next, who is certainly read, but then the list really fades into obscurity: Theodore Dreiser, James Truslow Adams, George Santayana, Stephen Vincent Benet and James Branch Cabell. Santayana is still quoted (“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), but not read. All of these authors were well represented in my father’s library. I suspect if I examine my sister’s bookshelves (she took most of the fiction), I could still find them.

Who did The Colophon’s readers miss? Two giants, certainly: William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. It’s interesting to me that they didn’t select John Dos Passos, another favorite of my father’s – and another of today’s unread. And it’s wholly predictable that a so-called genre writer like Dashiell Hammett didn’t make an avowedly “literary” list.

The current issue of The New Yorker has a profile of the curator of the University of Texas’ world-beating literary archive, Tom Staley.  He and his colleagues divide living authors into As, Bs and Cs. They set out to snaffle absolutely everything they can from As, from Bs they want a fairly comprehensive set of literary materials, and from the lowly Cs they seek merely first editions. Ian McEwan is apparently an A, and from the discussion of Texas acquisitions it’s apparent that Tom Stoppard and Norman Mailer are as well. Bs include JD Salinger, David Foster Wallace and JM Coetzee. Cs: Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers. I wonder if in 64 years the University of Texas scholars will be any more prescient than The Colophon’s readers in 1936. I suspect not.

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