Jonathan Yardley: “… my own list of unjustly overlooked and underrated writers …”

August 8th, 2006

Source: “‘Woman Within': An Unlikely Rebel of the Privileged South,” Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post, 29 November 2003, available online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A20195-2003Nov28.html

Reading through the individual articles in Washington Post Book Editor Jonathan Yardley’s excellent series on neglected and revisited classics, Second Readings, I came across the following quote worth highlighting here:

The court of literary opinion is no more fair or just than the court of public opinion. Writers of limited gifts and accomplishments (Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck) are overpraised and over-rewarded, while others of great gifts and singular accomplishments (William Humphrey, Dawn Powell, Jerome Charyn) are ignored or misunderstood. This of course is true in other endeavors, but somehow it seems especially unjust that writing, the best of which is supposed to stand the ages, so often produces such small recognition for those who do it so well.

My own list of unjustly overlooked and underrated writers is long; it includes, in addition to those mentioned above, John P. Marquand, Thomas Savage, Roxana Robinson, Harold Frederic, Elizabeth Spencer, John Oliver Killens and, at or very near the top, Ellen Glasgow.

A few expository notes on these writers:

  • Marquand is one of the more oft-mentioned underrated writers, and his works appear on a number of lists on this site. In fact, I’ve been toying with the idea of devoting a separate website to his works.
  • A New York Times reviewer once wrote of Thomas Savage: “The best-seller lists make it clear that American readers are powerfully fond of the familiar and the accessible — and if there were justice (or better taste) in the literary marketplace, surely one or another of Thomas Savage’s dozen novels would have been topping those lists for the past 30-odd years.” His 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog, was included in Roger Sale’s “Neglected Recent American Novels” article in The American Scholar. Unfortunately for Savage, he’s taken as his subject the American West, which has often been a kiss of death for critical recognition and sales. Annie Proulx, whose “Brokeback Mountain” avoided the same fate, wrote the introduction to the 2001 Bay Back Books reissue of The Power of the Dog. Even readers who got to the point of picking up the book, though, had to get past this opening sentence:

    Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed.

  • Roxana Robinson is a biographer, novelist, and short story writer. The youngster of this group, illustrated by the fact that she’s got her own website and domain name.
  • Harold Frederic was a contemporary of Twain and Howells. The texts of three of his novels — The Damnation of Theron Ware, In the Valley, and The Market-Place, can be found at Project Gutenberg.
  • Elizabeth Spencer is known for her novella, Light in the Piazza, but her critical reputation is best reflected in her extensive oeuvre of short stories. And it turns out she also has her own website.
  • John Oliver Killens was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Of his 1963 novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder, Yardley once wrote that it was “one of the few distinguished novels about World War II.”
  • Ellen Glasgow’s recognition improved, along with that of a number of other women writers such as Kate Chopin, when the eddies of the feminist waves hit the academic and publishing worlds, and all her major works are back in print. Yardley’s article moved me to order a copy of A Woman Within.

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