Hole in the Atlantic

The Atlantic Monthly's cover story this month lists the 100 "most influential Americans." The novelists selected are completely unsurprising -- Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc. -- and the side lists for poets (Plath, Whitman) and critics (Greenberg, Jarrell) allow the 10 historian-judges to expand things beyond such a tight set. The only black author of any kind, by the way, is Frederick Douglass.

As a scholar once pointed out to me, when you get a group together to assemble one of these lists, everyone can generally agree on the first 25 people or so. After that, things get interesting or quirky or complicated. It's extremely easy to find gaps, to complain about important individuals left out. It's often more interesting to try to suss out the overall reasoning that led repeatedly to this kind of person being chosen over that one. But the Atlantic's is is a pretty unsurprising list overall and the story's attempt to define "influential" doesn't overwhelm one.

Only three things leapt out at me immediately: No actors. Authors and artists and film directors and composers are here but not a single actor. One could argue that more people around the world have gotten their understanding of what it means to be an American from Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn (or W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers) than from dozens of the political figures included.

And no economists. Not that that's a great loss. It only surprised me because of the recent death of Milton Friedman and the dozens of obituaries that hailed him as such a titan of liberty and freedom -- obituaries that pretty much toed the conservative-libertarian line and ignored the fact that this messiah of the free market as a cure-all had supported the New Deal's relief programs. But that's only because the Depression, he wrote, was an extreme case, an exception. What that makes of the Panic of 1837 ("the land stinks of suicide," Emerson wrote at the time), the Panic of 1873 and the Panic of 1893 is a good question.

In any event, Mr. Friedman didn't make the list but neither did Paul Samuelson, Arthur Laffer (thank God) or John Kenneth Galbraith.

Neither did any playwright or Broadway musical creator. Which seems only typical after the complete lack of actors. Yes, George Gershwin is included but that's mostly for his boundary-breaking with jazz and classical music. In other words, the Broadway musical may be as distinctively an American creation as jazz or rock or the comic book or blues or gospel, but Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim didn't rate. Hell, as the saying goes, Irving Berlin is the American songbook, and he's not even here.

Neither is Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams. Or Arthur Miller or David Mamet or Edward Albee.

Conclusion: Someone has a definite blindspot when it comes to theater.

A late addition: The lack of Edgar Allan Poe is also curious. Not as poet or critic or fantasist. But as the inventor of the detective story, another hugely popular art form that America created.

November 26, 2006 8:45 PM | | Comments (4)



I don't have a subscription to The Atlantic, so I can't see all the persons listed in the all the lists. I agree with you on economists, though, and I would put Friedman on the list not so much because of his public promotion of libertarianism (which has had fairly little effect, in my opinion), but because of his work on monetarism, which has indeed affected how we deal with business cycles.

But the only other "economist" I think I would include would be Fisher Black, the guy who figured out how to price options. For better or worse, this changed the way financial markets of all kinds work, and therefore financial matters on the level of companies and even individuals work.

(Which gets away from the subject of books, admittedly.)

Re: Atlantic's most-influential list.

"No actors"? How about Reagan? Many would argue that he never stopped acting, that he perfected the part of the ideal President, albeit without substance.

Sorry, I think you're just a wee bit wrong. You're forgetting Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism -- which, with Brigham Young actually means TWO Mormons on the list -- plus Mary Baker Eddy and Lyman Beecher, Harriet's clergyman father (arguably, the only mainstream Protestant of these three, although his abolitionism made him a radical at the time). That makes SIX religious figures. True, there are no big-name modern religious leaders (beyond King) on the order of either mainstream preachers (Billy Graham and the like) or thinker-philosophers like Reinold Niebuhr (ironically, a major influence on King). But in comparison, not a single Catholic leader appears. My nominee would be Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker.

And I agree absolutely on the snarky Nader entry, but I think they were occasionally trying to inject some humor and attitude in what is a pretty dull list.

Thanks for writing.

Jerome Weeks

"James Fenimore Cooper: The novels are unreadable." Yeesh, that's more than a little harsh and not at all true. I mean, I'm no big Cooper fan, but The Pioneers is enjoyable enough. (Of course, the Atlantic comment on Nader is even snarkier.)

Personally, I was struck by the small number of religious leaders, at least given the importance of religion to this country. Martin Luther King, Jr., Brigham Young, and Jonathan Edwards are the ones on the list.


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on November 26, 2006 8:45 PM.

The Dave Hickey excerpts, cont'd was the previous entry in this blog.

Failing to cross the Alps, again is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.