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?