“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson
This past week I listened to an audio lecture by Professor Elliot Engel called The Rise and Fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In it he begins by making the case that there were only four major American authors in the twentieth century whose works would still be studied 200 hundred years from today. They would be Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. That’s quite a short list, and Professor Engel makes his case as to why Fitzgerald should be included amongst the others. It’s the same dilemma any time people make lists, whether it be who are the five greatest guitar players, jazz singers or inventors.
In 1942 The Dial Press pulled together a book titled This Is My Best in which “America’s 93 Greatest Living Authors” were asked to select their very best prose or poem and tell the readers why. If you like anthologies, and I always have, this one’s unique feature is that the authors themselves are the ones doing the selecting, as well as the defending of their selections.
The book is 1180 pages and like many such books you’re not likely to just pick it up and run through from start to finish. In fact, while you are not reading it you can use it as a doorstop. F. Scott Fitzgerald is not one of the contributors because he’d died two years earlier. But the list of those who did get included is fairly substantial. Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, H.L. Mencken, Stephen Leacock, Conrad Aiken, Morley Callaghan and George Ade make up the first section, titled The Man’s Story. Quite a few heavies there, but a few who have already been near forgotten. The second section is titled The American Dream and it features selections from Archibald MacLeish, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, James Truslow Adams, Mark Van Doren, Bernard De Voto (a bio of Mark Twain), Dorothy Parker and Wolcott Gibbs.
One thing I enjoy about anthologies like this is that they can introduce you to writers with whom you were previously unfamiliar. In the 1980’s I spent quite a bit of time looking for new authors whom I could then mine like a coal vein. Considering that there are 93 authors covered — I won’t list them all here — there are dozens of whom we are all familiar including Upton Sinclair, E.B. White (of Strunk & White fame), John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, Eugene O’Neill, Wallace Stevens, Ogden Nash, James Thurber, Lillian Hellman and John Gunther.
But it’s the selections that they chose that make this volume interesting. Hemingway selected “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Steinbeck selected “The Leader of the People.” Upton Sinclair selected an excerpt from his novel which he titled “The Slaughter of the Pigs.”
What is your favorite story? And if you are a writer, what do you consider your best work?
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com