Commentary Magazine


Literary Blog

Ranking American Novelists in 1929

“The worst thing about American fiction these days is the blah that gets printed about it,” a critic wrote to two psychologists who proposed a ranking system for American novelists — “and here you are, proposing to provide the blah-blah-black sheep with valuable assistance in the guise of a scientific survey!”

Nevertheless, 83 years ago next month, two psychologists went ahead with their plan. They sent questionnaires to 65 critics, asking them to rank the living American novelists in order of merit. Whether their “scientific survey” has any methodological advantages over my own survey of literary scholarship is a good question. Their rankings are fascinating, though, if only as a historical curiosity. The novelists are ranked on the basis of how many critics listed them and how much the critics agreed on them. The results were published in the English Journal in April 1929:

( 1.) Willa Cather (30, 0.96)
( 2.) Edith Wharton (30, 0.78)
( 3.) Theodore Dreiser (31, 2.18)
( 4.) James Branch Cabell (29, 1.85)
( 5.) Sherwood Anderson (30, 1.54)
( 6.) Sinclair Lewis (31, 2.36)
( 7.) Thornton Wilder (24, 1.97)
( 8.) Glenway Wescott (22, 1.95)
( 9.) Joseph Hergesheimer (30, 1.67)
(10.) Zona Gale (29, 1.43)
(11.) Booth Tarkington (29, 1.94)
(12.) Ellen Glasgow (29, 1.99)
(13.) Elizabeth Madox Roberts (20, 2.28)
(14.) Ruth Suckow (27, 2.02)
(15.) William McFee (27, 1.85)
(16.) Robert Welch Herrick (28, 1.31)
(17.) Thomas Beer (26, 1.52)
(18.) Elinor Wylie (28, 2.10)
(19.) Louis Bromfield (27, 1.40)
(20.) Edna Ferber (29, 1.95)
(21.) DuBose Heyward (21, 2.17)
(22.) Hamlin Garland (26, 2.44)
(23.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (28, 1.81)
(24.) Mary Austin (26, 1.44)
(25.) John Dos Passos (28, 2.33)

(Note: The numbers in parentheses indicate, first, the number of critics who ranked the novelist and, second, the degree of agreement among the critics. The smaller the number, the greater the agreement.)

“Ernest Hemingway was not included on the original list,” the psychologists explained, “because we judged him primarily as a short-story writer rather than a novelist.” Nine critics ignored their instructions and ranked him anyway — after all, The Sun Also Rises had been published three years earlier, although A Farewell to Arms was not due out until September 1929 — and the degree of agreement among them would have put him somewhere between Wilder and Glasgow on the final poll.

The critics agreed most strongly on two writers — Edith Wharton and Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan books. They agreed that Wharton is wonderful and Burroughs is “not worth reading.” Harold Bell Wright, the preacher who wrote The Winning of Barbara Worth, and Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Clansman, joined Burroughs at the bottom of the heap.

After studying the results of their survey, the psychologists concluded that an intelligent reader in 1929 who “desires to keep up with The Best” should concentrate on the top 12, also including Hemingway. Today’s quota hawks, who complain about the exclusion of women from the American literary canon, have every reason to cheer the rankings from 1929. Not only do women head the list, but nine of the top 25 are women.

If scholars buckle down to work on Zona Gale (the subject of 36 scholarly items in the MLA International Bibliography since 1947), Ellen Glasgow (419 items), Elizabeth Madox Roberts (117), Ruth Suckow (34), Elinor Wylie (46), Edna Ferber (48), and Mary Austin (148), who knows what the MLA Rankings of American Novelists will look like in another ten years?



Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »





Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.