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The World's Best by Whit Burnett
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The World's Best

by Whit Burnett

Other authors: James Branch Cabell (Contributor)

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The concept was that "105 greatest living authors" present the World's Best stories, humor, drama, biography, histry, essays, poetry. Burnett explains he had officers of PEN Clubs etc. vote --96 authors actually took patr. These are selections from the work of authors living at the time, chosen by authors living at the time. There are al;so interesting ballots on diferent groups choice of the ten best --overall, the top ten were Shaw, Thomas Mann, Eugene O'Neill, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Sigrid Undset, George Santayana, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Robert Frost (as more voted from the US than elsewhere, there may be some bias) ( )
  antiquary | Aug 25, 2011 |
Pretend it's 1950 and the so-called "105 greatest living authors," if we're to believe the title of this book, have hand picked themselves -- writers rating their fellow writers -- the best writers and writing that "the World" has to offer. If by "the World" they meant mostly U.S.A., then I'd say they did splendidly in selecting the best that "the World" had to offer in 1950. Any dead writers included? No, though a few, apparently, had died between the time of the balloting and the book's publication (Willa Cather was one) but thankfully, for the sake of the book (and Cather!) -- and since they'd already voted -- they considered her "alive" and included her.

105 Greatest Living Authors Present The World's Best: Stories, Humor, Drama, Biography, History, Essays, Poetry has got that nice musty old book smell that reminds me of my grandparent's house, and namely their World Book Encyclopedia set from the late 1940s they proudly displayed in its own cherrywood rack next to my grandfather's maroon wing back chair.

The writers included in this anthology were voted in by a decent percentage of their fellow contemporary writers. And that's the most fascinating aspect of this volume, I think (which I'll elaborate on later) seeing what a, say, Hemingway or E.M. Forster, personally considered in their minds to be the world's greatest living writers at the time, circa 1948-1950. In fact, ninety-six of the 105 authors featured in the book cast a ballot for whom they felt belonged in a book featuring the so-called, 'Greatest Living Authors.'

Note (and pardon the redundancy but I just want the premise behind this book made explicitly clear): This anthology did not attempt to answer, "Who the Greatest Authors of All Time" were, but instead only attempted to answer who the best writers writing today were; "today" being 1950. The book is a time capsule of literary tastes, sixty-three years old.

Here's a summary of who participated in the voting: A total of 643 individuals cast their ballots, made up of, besides the aforementioned ninety-six of 105 authors, officers of both the P.E.N. Clubs (Poets, Editors, and Novelists) of Europe (30) and the United States (36); editors of the Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature (70); magazine and literary journal editors (24); book reviewers (31) -- peons like so many of us!; U.S. college presidents (121), U.S. librarians (108), booksellers (23), subscribers to The Saturday Review of Literature (82) -- more anonymous peons, and some other miscellaneous sources (22). Published in 1950, the ballots overwhelmingly favored, as can be expected considering the chauvinist, mid-Twentieth century zeitgeist, male authors, and mostly U.S. or British male authors. Here's the statistical breakdown (since I'm a data freak) by nation:

U.S.A...32 authors (29 men, 3 women)
England...20 (17 men, 3 women)
France...13 (12 men, 1 woman)
Ireland...5 (4 men, 1 woman)
Germany...4 (all men)
Spain...4 (' ')
Russia...3 ( ' ')
Canada...2 (1 woman and man)
Chile...2 (both men)
China...2 (both men)
Denmark...2 (1 woman and man)
Hungary...2 (both men)
India...2 (both men)
Italy...2 (both men)
Norway...2 (1 woman and man)
Argentina....1 man
Finland....1 man
Greece...1 man
Holland...1 man
Iceland...1 man
Mexico...1 man
Scotland...1 man
Switzerland...1 man

TOTAL.............94 men, 11 women.

Australia, Japan (WWII had just ended), Africa (the entire continent!), Brazil, Israel & the Middle East and Eastern Europe received no votes.

The above itemization seems familiar to me, like the medal count for any given Olympics? Except Russia and China are usually up there closer to the top.

And since I absolutely love lists, here's how the top 50 authors fared in the vote. Keep in mind the voting was circa 1950, and only writers who were alive at the time of voting were considered.

01. George Bernard Shaw (Ire.)...539
02. Thomas Mann (Ger.)...524
03. Eugene O'Neil (U.S.)...508
04. Ernest Hemingway (U.S.)...466
05. Sinclair Lewis (U.S.)...453

(My what 60 years can do to a writer's visibility. Would Sinclair Lewis have even made the top 500 if a vote were taken by contemporary writers today?)

06. Sigrid Undset (Nor.)...452
07. George Santayana (Sp.)...436
08. T.S. Eliot (Eng.)...435
09. Aldous Huxley (Eng.)...434
10. Robert Frost (U.S.)...432
11. John Steinbeck (U.S.)...427
12. W. Somerset Maugham (Eng.)...424
13. Carl Sandburg (U.S.)...414
14. Willa Cather (U.S.)...409

(As mentioned above, Willa Cather died just after the ballots were cast ... perhaps from shock over her position on the list, below Steinbeck and overrated Hemingway?)

15. Edna St. V. Millay (U.S.)...403
16. John Masefield (Eng.)...393
17. André Gide (Fr.)...382
18. Maurice Maeterlinck (Bel.)....377
19. Thornton Wilder (U.S.)...373
20. John Dewey (U.S.)...368
21. John Dos Passos (U.S.)...365
22. Jules Romains (Fr.)...358
23. Benedetto Croce (It.)...342
24. Pearl Buck (U.S.)...332
25. E.M. Forster (Eng.)...328

(Let's see, Sinclair Lewis in the 5 slot, and Forster in the 25th? What were these people smoking in 1950?)

26. Van Wyck Brooks (U.S.)...324
27. Arnold J. Toynbee (Eng.)...318
28. Erich Maria Remarque (Ger.)...313
29. Bertrand Russell (Eng.)...311
30. Charles and Mary Beard (U.S.)...307
31. H.L. Mencken (U.S.)....306
32. Sholem Asch (U.S.)...305
33. Walter de la Mare (Eng.)...300
34. Knut Hamsun (Nor.)...293
35. André Maurois (Fr.)...290
36. William Faulkner (U.S.)...287

(Hard to imagine that even as late as 1950, Charles and Mary Beard were more respected by their professional colleagues than William Faulkner!)

37. Lin Yutang (China)...280
38. Maxwell Anderson (U.S.)...278
39. Rebecca West (Eng.)...277
40. André Malraux (Fr.)...276
41. Arthur Koestler (Hun.)...268
42. Edgar Lee Masters (U.S.)...264
43. Archibald MacLeish (U.S.)...255
44. Hilaire Belloc (Eng.)...253
45. Jacques Maritain (Fr.)...250
46. W.H. Auden (Eng.)...249
47. Lord Dunsany (Ire.)...247
48. José Ortega y Gasset (Sp.)...245
49. Noel Coward (Eng.)...243
50. Upton Sinclair (U.S.)...237

The system of voting used for this anthology I won't even attempt describing, other than to say it sounds as complicated and convoluted a procedural matrix as the B.C.S. College Football rankings employed by the NCAA. Mystifying.

What sets this anthology apart from others, besides its endless lists, is this unique feature: the writers who made it into the anthology got to pick their own poems, stories, essays, or novel excerpts for inclusion in the anthology (instead of an editor's or advisory board's selections); with the only editorial criteria mandated being that the writer should include the piece of writing that "best represented their aims and ambitions of their work."

The writer's choices, sometimes, are surprising. Sinclair Lewis, for instance (I seem to be picking on him, even though I adore Elmer Gantry), choosing Cass Timberlane over Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Babbitt, or Arrowsmith, speaks, if such a dubious choice can be understood, to a writer's tendency to favor their most recent work written as being their best, rather than recognizing what is or will be their most enduring.

105 Greatest Living Authors Present The World's Best: Stories, Humor, Drama, Biography, History, Essays, Poetry.

Maybe not the World's best, but switch out "World" for "North America and Great Britain," and you've got a good sketch of what mid-Twentieth Century writers perceived as being the finest writers of their time. ( )
23 vote EnriqueFreeque | Nov 5, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Whit Burnettprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cabell, James BranchContributorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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