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MLA Rankings of American Writers

Since the 1980’s, literary scholars have complained of a “fixed” and “restrictive” canon of American literature. While working on another project, my curiosity was aroused. What actually is the American literary canon, as determined by what literary scholars actually work on?

Over the past 25 years, Henry James has been the top-ranked American writer, according to the latest MLA International Bibliography. More than 3,000 pieces of scholarship have been devoted to him in whole or part since 1987. Only William Faulkner approaches him in volume. If the scholarship is counted since 1947, however (the date of the earliest entries in the Bib), Faulkner is the runaway leader with 7,108 scholarly pieces on him. And James trails with 6,760.

One of the changes over the past 25 years, then, is that James has supplanted Faulkner as America’s best or most important writer. T. S. Eliot and Herman Melville have also swapped places. After that, things get interesting. Vladimir Nabokov has become of the five most talked-about American writers, and Toni Morrison (whose Beloved will be 25 years old in September) has jumped from far back into the top ten. The reputations of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Fitzgerald, and Frost have slipped badly. Poor William Dean Howells has fallen out of the top 25 altogether (to be replaced by Richard Wright). Has the literary scholars’ 25-year worship at the holy shrine of race, class, and gender brought about major changes in the canon? You be the judge.

Here are the top 25 American writers as determined by the amount of scholarship on each. In brackets is the rise or fall of each writer when compared to his or her ranking since 1947.

( 1.) Henry James (3,188 items) [+1]
( 2.) William Faulkner (2,955) [-1]
( 3.) T. S. Eliot (2,659) [+1]
( 4.) Herman Melville (2,579) [-1]
( 5.) Vladimir Nabokov (2,290) [+5]
( 6.) Ernest Hemingway (2,220) [-0-]
( 7.) Edgar Allan Poe (1,958) [-2]
( 8.) Toni Morrison (1,950) [+9]
( 9.) Nathaniel Hawthorne (1,751) [-4]
(10.) Walt Whitman (1,647) [-2]
(11.) Emily Dickinson (1,623) [+2]
(12.) Ezra Pound (1,620) [-3]
(13.) Willa Cather (1,482) [+5]
(14.) Ralph Waldo Emerson (1,326) [-3]
(15.) Wallace Stevens (1,122) [-1]
(16.) Edith Wharton (1,087) [+5]
(17.) Henry David Thoreau (1,076) [-5]
(18.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (1,002) [-3]
(19.) Flannery O’Connor (935) [+3]
(20.) Mark Twain (882) [-4]
(21.) John Steinbeck (823) [+2]
(22.) William Carlos Williams (772) [-0-]
(23.) Saul Bellow (706) [+2]
(24.) Richard Wright (670) [+2]
(25.) Robert Frost (661) [-5]

Disclaimer: These rankings are based entirely on the research of the author, and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the Modern Language Association in any way.