A.) F. Scott Fitzgerald. With Fitzgerald the case to be made is why he isn't a #1 seed. For two reasons. First, he didn't influence and express the American voice to the same extent as the four. Nobody talks like Fitzgerald or writes like him. Being the best means being unique-- and I think he's the best American writer, if not the most important. Second, Fitzgerald has never been as big on a world scale as the others. Other cultures have never quite "gotten" him-- a sign of how truly American he is. Still, he's never been more appreciated than now-- another Gatsby movie upcoming-- and his work can become more influential, if writers understand exactly what he did and how he did it. I'll address his writing in another post.
B.) Ayn Rand. The literary world for sixty years has refused to acknowledge this person, but it's like trying to ignore the sun or the moon. Her influence on America is bigger than what has become quite a tiny literary world. Her ideas and analysis are the world we live in now. America, with its oversized strengths and flaws, its egoism and materialism, is a Randian world. If we as advocates of literature ask literature to be a living part of the civilization, a necessary part of the argument, then Ayn Rand, more than any American writer, past or present, fulfills that role. The Reagan era took its ideas from her. The Tea Party today is part Jefferson, part Jesus, and part Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged alone sold a million copies last year. With a movie version due out, that number will only go up. Added note for the p.c. crowd: Ayn Rand was a feminist before there was feminism.
But, the writing? What about the writing? Despite the ostensible logic she claimed to express, Ayn Rand's novels-- even their ideas-- are illusion. Her books are very much works of art. I'll address this next week in a separate post.
C.) Toni Morrison. Morrison allows us to bring American literature to its varied present while at the same time strengthening its tie to the past. Morrison has a unique voice-- a big, loud, American voice-- which at the same time is tied inextricably to founding American authors like Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe. If Ayn Rand's viewpoint is part of the contemporary American argument, then so is Morrison's. Besides, Toni Morrison isn't just a renowned novelist. She's also a dominating essayist, and has even written the libretto for an opera-- "Margaret Garner"-- which I saw presented in Detroit in 2008. I was blown away by it.
D.) Jack Kerouac. As dynamic a persona, as mythic a person, and as American a voice as anyone. On the Road, his most influential book, is quintessentially American. As much as any work of literature, it captures and defines this country, which has always, always, been about the open road-- the impulse toward freedom, the need to travel ever farther. Where, we're not always sure. Fitzgerald called it a green light. Kerouac expressed the driving and striving on a more visceral level.