A History of Recognition: Part II

Two weeks ago, we took a look at the American canon over the last century: how the unofficial ‘list’ of America’s best offerings has changed and expanded to encapsulate a variety of people who make up the country. But the canon – generally determined by scholars, educators, and policy makers – is only one way American authors have been recognized by the country over the years. Here are just a few more:

1.) Literary Tourism:

The American Writers Museum has partnered with dozens of other writers’ museums and sites, all of which have brought the nation’s authors (and author’s towns!) to the public in different ways. From California’s Jack London Historic Site Park to the homes of Herman Melville and Flannery O’Connor on the east coast, the public has valuable access to their favorite authors through historic sites and material culture. This provides another crucial dimension for readers’ appreciation for our favorite authors and their texts!

Tourism departments also capitalize on authors and their work: In North Carolina, you can follow a travel itinerary designed to give you a [less fatal] Hunger Games experience, ziplining through the forests where the Young Adult adaptation was filmed. You can also visit the home states of authors with particularly fervent followings for annual conferences: dedicated to the likes of Henry Thoreau or William Faulkner, for example.

2.) The Digital Humanities:

Don’t have the complete collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems? You can read them online – in her own handwriting, if you like. The web is an unfathomably deep resource and forum for reading and appreciating authors’ lives and work. Digital platforms now host archives, apps, research and bibliographies, writing education, and enthusiasts’ societies in innovative ways that are sure to grow in the coming years.

3.) National Awards:

The United States hosts a plethora of regional and content-specific awards, but more famous are the national Poet Laureateship and Pulitzer Prize. The U.S. Poet Laureate appointment is made annually by the Librarian of the United States, and each Laureate is given a formal platform on which to promote the reading and writing of poetry. The Pulitzer Prize Committee selects annual winners in “Arts and Letters,” including biography, history, drama, fiction, poetry, music, and general non-fiction. (Fun Fact: Robert Sherwood, Archibald MacLeish, Carl Sandburg, Robert Penn Warren, and Thornton Wilder have all won three or more prizes by writing in more than one category!)

4.) The Nobel Prize in Literature:

The United States is also well-represented in the most prestigious international literary award. The country’s authors have earned the second-highest number of Nobel Prizes in Literature, at ten: the first winner was Sinclair Lewis, 1930, and the most recent was Toni Morrison, in 1993. (The leading country, France, has fifteen awardees.) The Nobel Prize in Literature is determined by The Swedish Academy.

5.) Scholarship and Trade Books:

The prevailing attitudes towards individual American authors are usually in flux, if not the topic of outright debate. The result? A slew of author biographies and works of literary criticism. (New books on the life and work of Eugene O’Neill, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, and F. Scott Fitzgerald came out within weeks of one another in late 2014 – par for the course!)
It’s safe to say the American Writers Museum is built on a foundation of colorful tributes to our nation’s best and most important authors. What other spaces exist – on the road, on-line, in your community – where the public recognizes its literary traditions?

– Jill Dwiggins

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