Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The #1 Seeds


Two American writers were so gigantic in standing and influence, even on the world stage, that they're automatic #1 seeds. Both of them, in ways good and bad, helped define what it is to be American.

1.) Ernest Hemingway. Possibly the biggest writer persona ever. In his day he was a bigger figure than movie stars and pop singers. Instantly recognizable. Larger than life. A giant part of the culture. He destroyed the effete image of literature. He had popular best-sellers but was also a critical darling. He defined, at least for a while, the American voice-- and in many ways transformed the English language. Even the Brits weren't the same after Hemingway. In America, the hard-boiled detective genre sprang from a single Hemingway short story. ("The Killers.") Hemingway began as an underground writer, the artistic creation of Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. He took from his mentors, synthesized their ideas and made them accessible to the world. It's impossible for us today to understand how revolutionary was the early Hemingway sound. Though much of his work today is dated, his best stuff holds up-- his "Macomber" story one of the most exciting tales ever written; his top novels, "Sun" and "Farewell" striking reads also.

2.) Walt Whitman. More than any other single writer, Walt Whitman created the American voice and justified a distinctive American literature very different from its Old World models. Beyond that, he transformed the art of poetry on a world scale. Many consider him the father of free verse. Not just his art, but his persona was distinctively American. "Leaves of Grass" was every bit as revolutionary an artistic happening as anything Hemingway wrote. Or, for that matter, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who would've been impossible without Whitman blazing the trail before them. Whitman was the first hippie. He lived during a time when poetry was popular, and he was the most popular poet. The American character is a mix of several influences. Whitman is surely one of them.
Those are the two automatics. This leaves us with two more slots to fill. Who else is on their lofty level? There are several candidates. The literary establishment surely wants Henry James up there-- but he has a couple strikes against him. Other names seem to fit more comfortably as #2 or #3 seeds. Then there are the Nobel Prize winners, but some of the winners have been quite mediocre. I have a rough idea of who else belongs at the top of the seeding, but am willing first to hear remarks. (After all four top seeds are determined, there will be a news conference, at our venue site, at which I hope to get a few remarks from the big four.) 


  1. I don't even know what "seed" means, but from the world of weird poets, I nominate Dickinson.

    Nobody knew more.

  2. Don't know if it merits a #1 seed, but what I've gleaned from doing as audiostories some of the best short stories ever written is this: "The Minister's Black Veil" by Nathaniel Hawthorne is far and away the most popular American short story ever. The data I use for this conclusion are the play counts on my audio players, play counts on my videos on YouTube, and requests and comments, all of which show that this story is head and shoulders above the rest.

    One explanation is that this must be a popular high school curriculum story, and it seems I do get some academics checking things out in audio, as a time-saving measure.

    Of course Hawthorne also has THE SCARLET LETTER top his credit, which is so impactful, they recently made yet another movie based on it, "Easy A." Really amazing for a guy writing in the 1800's!

  3. Hawthorne's up there, but I don't know if he has the full weight necessary to be a #1 seed.
    Re seeding, for those new to it. As in sports, it's meant to give an easier route to the title to those who've earned a higher status. The #1 seeds will thus square off against the #16 seeds. #2 versus #15. And so on.
    Re Emily D: As evidenced by my ouija board conversations with her, I'm a huge fan of "The Woman in White," and consider her a dark horse candidate, based on her genius, to take it all.
    I will do a discussion of underdogs at some point, and get into what the Vegas touts, the 1-800 and 1-900 crowd, and such, are already saying as regards a "line" on this competition.
    By the way, I've decided to enlist a few commentators for the event among the likely contestants. Emily D has agreed to be one of them.
    Yes, yes, I know that she was a bit of a recluse in her day, but if you read between the lines, she didn't want to be.
    As she said to me (or to someone),
    "If fame belonged to me,
    I could not escape her."
    It'll be interesting anyway to see what she thinks of Hem and others.
    (Meanwhile, Mr. Self-Advertisement himself, Mailer, is standing outside my door-- I recognize his shock of hair-- desperately kneading his fists muttering to himself "I, Mailer" and wishing to put himself forward as one of the commmentators.)

  4. p.s. When I asked Emily to sign on board she told me,
    "They put me in the Closet.
    They might as wise have lodged a bird."

  5. I'm for Mark Twain as a #1 seed, but then wouldn't the fourth #1 have to be 20th century, preferably a woman, preferably of color, and preferably a playwright? Or is it too late to impose political correctness on American letters at this point?

  6. Twain's a giant, no doubt. Would be hard to argue against him as a #1 seed.

  7. Hard choices will have to be made all the way down the line.
    Fitzgerald or Faulkner?
    Faulkner's stock has slipped a bit in recent years, but the Southern lit crowd is a strong group.
    Neither is quite a #1 seed in my book.
    I'll explain this.
    Hawthorne or Melville?
    Both are significant. Melville's writing sounds today more contemporary. Like Hawthorne-- or Fitzgerald-- he has masterpieces. Melville also looks the part of Great American Writer, so can balance out Fitzgerald's near-mythic persona.
    Decisions, decisions.
    Choosing women writers is problematic. Believe me, I'm determined to allow for my male bias, and adjust accordingly-- but only to a point.
    If we choose a woman, then who?
    Toni Morrison? A top candidate no doubt.
    Is Beloved up there with Gatsby? Moby Dick?
    Edith Wharton?
    Margaret Mitchell? Willa Cather?
    Harriet Beecher Stowe?
    There's only one woman novelist with a giant persona who wrote sweeping novels which significantly influenced American thought, for better or worse-- and she's more scorned by lit critics than Stowe is.
    A top seed needs in some way to represent America-- the size, variety, uniqueness, and madness of America.
    The writing should also, in some way, still live.
    There are a couple women I already know I'm going to rate high based not on output so much as talent and persona. Sylvia Plath, for instance, is as much a mythic figure as Fitzgerald. (That Plath is a feminist darling I treat as neutral.)
    Mere academic p.c. approval isn't good enough.
    We'll get into these questions more, I hope, as we go along.
    Let's hear arguments. The brackets are in flux.
    (Twain? Watch for Twain. He's on the scene in case needed at the top seed press conference>)

  8. For me, Fitzgerald is way ahead of Faulkner. Gatsby may be THEE quintessential American novel, but even if not, it tops anything Faulkner ever did, easily.

  9. I also want to make a pitch for Ambrose Bierce being included in the tournament. I know he never wrote a novel, but in addition to many, many great short stories (including "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" - perhaps the finest short story ever), he also wrote The Devil's Dictionary, which should garner him some additional points.

  10. Twain for #1 seed: persona – body of work – critical standing. Only argument against is The Prince and the Pauper. Still, he should be at that press conference. Who else would have the Supreme American-ness to arrange for publication of his memoir one hundred years after his death, serially, not in chronological order, but in the order of his least to his most intimate revelations? I sense Walt Whitman getting weak in the knees, Hemingway pouring himself a good stiff drink.
    If every #1 seed ends up born in the 19th century, can we have every #2 seed born in the 20th century? I promise I won’t ask for #3 seeds from the 21st.

  11. Frank- I'm with you. I have tried reading Faulkner a few times and had to give up early on each time as it put me to sleep. Plus, Fitzgerald was one hell of a short story writer as well

  12. Yeah, while Faulkner has some short story gems ("A Rose for Emily"), Fitzgerald outclasses him there, too, IMO.

  13. Beloved is definitely up there with Gatsby.