Apparently the MLA records the number of scholarly articles written about each author in the last 25 years, which can be used as a metric for “importance.” From this article, I take the following list of top 25 American literary figures. The number in brackets at the end is their change in position compared to when the list is compounded from 1947 to the present, rather than from 1987. My comments in bold.
1. Henry James (3,188 items) [+1] Meh. I’d have guessed he’d be a bit lower, but not that much lower.
2. William Faulkner (2,955) [-1] Good. The slight decline doesn’t surprise me either.
3. T. S. Eliot (2,659) [+1] Good! I knew the rumors of Eliot’s downfall were exaggerated.
4. Herman Melville (2,579) [-1] Interesting that Eliot and Melville switched places. I prefer Melville I guess but not by much.
5. Vladimir Nabokov (2,290) [+5] I do not understand the Nabokov-love.
6. Ernest Hemingway (2,220) [-0-] I wouldn’t have put him this high, but I don’t mind.
7. Edgar Allan Poe (1,958) [-2] I had no idea there was this much Poe scholarship. No idea.
8. Toni Morrison (1,950) [+9] Haven’t read her. But I find it hard to believe she’s this important.
9. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1,751) [-4] Too bad. Really, lower than Poe?
10. Walt Whitman (1,647) [-2] I don’t mind the decline. I guess he’s important. I guess.
11. Emily Dickinson (1,623) [+2] Good. Too bad she hasn’t passed Whitman.
12. Ezra Pound (1,620) [-3] Now this is interesting. He’s declined and Eliot has risen?
13. Willa Cather (1,482) [+5] This confuses me. Lots of people lower down seem obviously more important.
14. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1,326) [-3] Fall faster, American Transcendentalists!
15. Wallace Stevens (1,122) [-1] See, I’d have put Stevens much higher.
16. Edith Wharton (1,087) [+5] Haven’t read her.
17. Henry David Thoreau (1,076) [-5] Faster! Even faster!
18. F. Scott Fitzgerald (1,002) [-3] Huh. Weird. But I have no emotional investment either way.
19. Flannery O’Connor (935) [+3] Good to see her make an appearance. She doesn’t need to go any higher.
20. Mark Twain (882) [-4] I find it hard to take Twain seriously, but that might be just me.
21. John Steinbeck (823) [+2] Haven’t read him.
22. William Carlos Williams (772) [-0-] No comment.
23. Saul Bellow (706) [+2] He could stand to climb a bit, but not much.
24. Richard Wright (670) [+2] Haven’t read him.
25. Robert Frost (661) [-5] This fall angers me.
When you get up to the twenties it’s hard to find names that you were sure would make an appearance that didn’t. There’s plenty of names that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see: Anderson, Ashbery, Bishop, O’Neill, Lowell. (I haven’t read Anderson or Ashbery, I just know they’re important.) But Bishop is the only one whose non-appearance really surprises me. The list is weighted 8-15-2 poets-novelists-essayists (and no playwrights), which probably indicates why Bishop didn’t show up–poetry gets less attention from academics than prose.
These sorts of lists are flawed in obvious ways, but intriguing. It’s also somewhat depressing to think that over a thousand articles (this doesn’t even count books!) have been written in the last 25 years about such a minor figure as Edith Wharton. That’s what happens when you start treating the humanities as if they’re sciences, as if the task of academics is to do research that produces new knowledge that must be published.