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« In Which Our 100 Greatest Writers Of All Time List Rolls Ever Closer To The Titans »

You can find the first quarter of our 100 Greatest Writers of All Time list here.

Ezra Pound photographed by Richard AvedonThe 100 Greatest Writers of All Time: 75-51


The list rolls on, and we get more excited about these masters. Other lists of this kind have been attempted, none very successfully. We would like to stress that there is a crucial difference between "an important writer" and "a great writer"; the latter is at this time our sole interest. We will account for some of the names that did not make this list in a later dispatch. There is nothing bad to say about anyone we list here, except in some cases that they were anti-Semitic or racist, hated women or hated men. Literary crimes are usually relative, the caveats of which we shall enumerate:

75. Ezra Pound

Somewhere between the worst person who was a great poet and the greatest poet who was an asshole sits Pound. After living with Yeats in Stone Cottage, Ezra Pound married an artist named Dorothy Shakespear. Previously, he had been engaged to Hilda Doolittle. In Paris, Hemingway taught him to box, but he decided to become a composer instead. He fell in love with the only violinist who could make sense of his compositions. Later, in Italy, the two would try (and fail) to write a detective novel in the manner of Agatha Chrystie. He then spent 25 days in a cage outside Pisa for hating the country of his birth. His poetic innovations and sense of the lyric are actually somewhat underrated, and The Cantos must be the great long poem of the 20th century. It will never be in Oprah's Book Club, but then again neither will any book of serious poetry. The first 50 copies were printed on lambskin.

74. Philip K. Dick

Oh Philip was the conjurer, the mad genius. The completely humane. In The Man in the High Castle he dismissed fascism with the cautious wave of a hand. Was he the greatest prose stylist on two feet? No, but he had his pathos—the lost, last moments of A Scanner Darkly, the incredible pull of Ubik. He was like a free object spinning in zero gravity: Radio Free Albemuth; his stories are so endlessly inventive it is like he was starting them from scratch. Paranoid fuck.

73. Percy Shelley

Attended Oxford; read sixteen hours a day. It worked—he would write lively novels, and poems that were representative of the time and the place, and went beyond it. Seems to have survived his Wordsworth obsession, as many after him would not. He wasn't that popular during his lifetime, but his reputation lived on, and his work would remain a touchstone for poets and fiction writers in the two centuries after his death. Recommended reading: of the lyrics, we prefer "Ozymandias" and "Ode to the West Wind"; the long-form and dramatic verse reached their apices with Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci; the early Gothic novels, most notably, Zastrozzi, are a good companion on a stormy autumn night, but you'll never find a copy.

72. James Agee

The foremost journalist of his era, he also wrote a tremendous novel, A Death in the Family, and the bible of creative nonfiction, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Had an important side career as a screenwriter; but in the main he wrote many of Life magazine's most enduring pieces with Whittaker Chambers. One of those sad, great-looking literary demigods who died in a taxi cab before his 50th birthday.

71. Stanley Elkin

The greatest American comic novelist, Elkin was one of the smartest people ever to live. His stories are a blossoming achievement, a dramatic victory of non-realism in the dreary bog of American fiction. He is incredibly underappreciated and all of his novels deserve revisiting. It was in the stories that he really shined, always avoiding the easy resolution, always being more moral with other people than he would be with himself. He was a master critic, a polished prose stylist. Recommended reading: Mrs. Ted Bliss, Searches and Seizures, The Franchiser, A Bad Man.

70. Walter Benjamin

A German Jew who redefined how the essay should operate. Was killed by Germans in a hotel room running from the Nazis, or he could have just committed suicide. Translated Proust and Baudelaire. His ideas about art pretty much all came true, eventually. Skilled consumer of hashish, of bearing down on some truth you did not know was there but would have come to the surface eventually, probably, without him.


69. Harold Pinter

The greatest English dramatist of his time, we have taken so much from his clipped ways of saying, his extraordinary grasp of how the theater operates and how it ought to operate. His ideas have been stolen by Larry David and Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, a testament to their timeliness. Married to Antonia Fraser, his political views weren't always to my taste, but he was a fierce proponent of freedom at home and abroad, and helped many writers on that account. Recommended reading: The Dumb Waiter, The Homecoming, The Birthday Party, his novel The Dwarfs.

68. John Berryman

The Dream Songs is one of the top 5 poetry manuscripts ever written, bringing character and voice to new hights in American verse. He was born in 1914, he committed suicide in 1972. The between years were drunk and hard, but the poetry came easy. His father killed himself when he was 12, from that he basically never recovered. Recommended reading: Dream Song 34.

67. James Baldwin

Born in Harlem, he was gay, black and brilliant. His novel Go Tell It On The Mountain is a work of incredible depth and sensitivity, probably the second-best novel of the 1950s and one of the ten greatest novels of all time. His short story "Sonny's Blues" might be best remembered. It holds up better than any short story you'll find in a rag like The New Yorker. He needs a renaissance more badly than most.

66. Tu Fu

The greatest of the Chinese poets, he is a master in any time. Chinese schoolchildren still recite his verses, as do their businessmen. Claimed to have lived in a "straw hut," but really it was just another one of those upper-middle class two story affairs on a whispering brook like they had in those days. Kenneth Rexroth's 100 Poems From the Chinese is pitch-perfect, and includes all of the memorable Tu Fu.

65. Jorge Luis Borges

A blind, deep thinker. His stories are endlessly rewarding and entertaining. The genre of science fiction virtually does not exist without him. Astounding how often a gunshot or a stab wound ends these tales, but still, Comp Lit programs across the Northeast would be a lot poorer, and certainly a lot less sexy, were it not for this man.

64. Malcolm Lowry

He was a crazy and he was a drunk, but he managed to outwrite most of the non-crazies and non-drunks despite spending his days chronicly impoverished. Under the Volcano is up there with Ulysses, with Molloy, with Light in August. Its narration is unchallenged for veracity of human feeling and expression. He was never much good at living, but through his work he'll live on for centuries.

63. Willa Cather

An American lesbian. She was Episcopal, an American original. The glories can be found in The Song of the Lark, O Pioneers!, The Professor's House. Her ways were sometimes new, sometimes old. She wrote about the people that existed, that she knew, that had never before made it to these pages. Recommended reading: Death Comes For the Archbishop, My Antonia.

62. Edgar Allan Poe

Horror we needed, craved. The short story was brought to entertain in his mode, the beating heart someplace you weren't sure was there, his inventiveness and sense of menace. An American simultaneously at its most base and most necessary. The poetry is repetitive but sublime, largely centered upon his 13 year old cousin, whom he married. Our kingdom by the sea, indeed.

61. Henrik Ibsen

Torvald! He was a master of character, of menace. His drama was challenging, exciting, and his outlook was more shits and giggles than devotion and God. Extremely prolific, he managed so many excellent dramas, slamming Victorian morality, forging his own. Recommended reading: Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Master Builder.

60. W.H. Auden

He was the most acclaimed poet in the world while he lived. He seems sort of old-fashioned now, but that doesn't dim his impossibly wide view of human existence, his innate knowledge of history, his incredible sense of the possibilities of the lyric. It is now assumed that he was gay, but how, really, could a poet of his time not be. Students of verse should be forced to transcribe, memorize, and possible have tatooed on their rib cage Mr. Auden's September 1, 1939. Just a tremendous poem, a model of unacknowledged legislation.

59. Thomas Pynchon

An enterprising American fabulist whose self-imposed retreat from the public sphere probably venerates him more than it should. Mason & Dixon could be praised or reviled; it was a massively courageous undertaking, a screaming across the sky. Worked at Boeing for a time. After publishing V. the greatest first novel ever by a human, he wrote to his agent. "If they come out on paper anything like they are inside my head then it will be the literary event of the millennium."

58. Emily Brontë/Charlotte Brontë

The first wrote Wuthering Heights, which has survived more splendidly than any story we can think of. She barely lived long enough to write anything else, but what else exactly did she need to write? She'd written Wuthering Heights: that was enough. The second discovered her sister's talents, and became the more prolific of the two.

57. Flannery O'Connor

She was a faithful practitioner of an emerging style, a slyness, an understanding, that exposed the depth of human character in her moral gaze. Redefined the American short story, repudiated the saccharrine elements that had defined it and gave fiction a seriousness of purpose that resonates decades after her passing. Recommended reading: "Everything That Rises Must Converge", Wise Blood, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

56. Leo Tolstoy

Born to the aristocracy of Russia. His cousin was Alexander Pushkin. Managed to pen Anna Karenina, the greatest novel ever written in Russian. Flaubert said, "What an artist and what a psychologist!" His endings were legend, his characterizations revolutionary. He was an accomplished political writer, and espoused nonviolent resistance. His autobiographers are very dated, but his correspondence has held up far better. Maxim Gorky's "Reminiscences of Tolstoy" is the only way to know this talented, magical novelist, this anchor for Russian literature as the world knows it.

55. Tennessee Williams

The nature of his art was evident from the very first. You could walk into a performance of one of his plays and you would know instantly that it belonged to him. His characters were darts of light, flickering across the stage, surprising even themselves. His sister was a schizophrenic, his lover was a Sicilian navy man. He brought his tendrils of genius to wherever and whenever he was. He choked on cap from a bottle and perished in 1983, the year we were born. His short stories are surprisingly revealing, like a Rosetta Stone for the sheer madness of his plays. Love the one-acts.

54. Nathaniel Hawthorne

Why did America become the finest country the world had seen to that point? Its artists played a crucial role. In his incredibly perceptive stories and novels, Hawthorne achieved heights that were reserved for the European masters before he brought his insight to bear on them. We'll never forgive him for how he treated Melville late in their lives, but the penning of phantasmagorias like "Young Goodman Brown" are enough to forgive most of his other personal failings. We've always though that the crimson A in The Scarlet Letter stood not for Adultery but for American, and it makes sense—we would be living in a different country were it not for this book.

53. T.S. Eliot

Terrible playwright. Also, it's probably about time for everybody to admit that The Waste Land is totally boring. Four Quartets, on the other hand, is enduring poetry. As are a handful of his other shorter lyrics, and probably the one about J. A. Prufrock. The twentieth century would have been more beautiful had he not lived, but still, the twentieth century happened the way it did, largely because of him. Oh wait, that was Hitler. Same difference.

52. Sophocles

Born a few years before the battle of Marathon, he would be the second of three playwrights to rock the ancient world to its core. Banged many young boys in his times, the greatest writer-pedophile who ever lived. The magic of the Theban plays; the lyricism of Oedipus, psychology's first tragic hero. In even dealing with myth strived towards naturalism, beginning the slow march towards the reality of things. Recommended reading: Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus.

51. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

His drama Faust begins in Heaven, has a poodle turning into the devil. He was born in Frankfurt in 1749, and he'd live long, to the age of 82. He became an international celebrity at the age of 24 with the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther, a fact he would live the rest of his life regretting.

Will Hubbard is the executive editor of This Recording. Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can visit the This Recording tumblr here. Tune in tomorrow for the penultimate 25 entries in our list.

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References (12)

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Reader Comments (6)

Pinter's in for his Nobel speech alone.

July 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteven Augustine

where is edith wharton? surely she's coming.

A+ boys

July 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteryvonne

The following phrase from the Goethe blurb clangs against my ears: "a fact he would live the rest of his life regretting." Not sure I trust the literary judgment of the author of such a phrase.

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJG

There is a lot of cock on this list. I would like more hamentaschens.

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

'probably that one about Prufrock'. Yeah don't get too excited about it. Presuming Orwell and Waugh are somewhere in the top 50.

July 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCatherineS.

there was no shakespeare but other than that i think this is a very unbiased and good list

December 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterROSE

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