Literary 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, by Daniel S Burt

By Daniel S Burt

100 of the main influential literary artists of all time are ranked during this one quantity, together with poets, novelists, and dramatists, from Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer to Kafka, Garcia Marquez, and Ralph Ellison. images & illustrations.

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I salute thee, Mantovano, I that loved thee since my day began, Wielder of the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man. —Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from “To Virgil” Virgil, the supreme Latin poet, produced in the Aeneid an epic that has been one of the most revered and influential works of art in Western cultural history. Only Homer [3], whose heroic poetry Virgil absorbed and transformed, has exerted a comparable, continual influence in Western thought and art. 33 34 THE literary 100 Virgil also set the prototype for the artist for whom poetry is both a way of life and a means for the deepest personal, cultural, and religious inquiry.

With the exception of Shakespeare [1], no writer in English literature has enjoyed a comparable degree of popular and critical acclaim. Dickens is simply England’s greatest novelist and deserves to be ranked with the top literary artists of all time. Despite such high praise, an appreciation of Dickens is not free from criticism. It is possible to charge him with sentimentality, of tugging too insistently at our heartstrings, and of reducing experience to idealized and overly 21 22 THE literary 100 melodramatic patterns.

The technique of the epiphany, the foundation of Joyce’s art, shows him working out the central problem for the novelist in the 20th century, expressed in the choice between realism and symbolism. On the one hand, the novel was opening up new territory of reality rarely examined in fiction before; on the other, writers were searching for a way of penetrating reality to express its essential truths in symbolic patterns. Joyce is at the center of these tendencies. No realist has offered a more exhaustive and unsparing depiction of the immediacies of commonplace life; no symbolist has spun a more subtle or complicated network of meanings.

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