State Writes

Before we go any further, let's make one thing clear: We're not going to attach the superlative "best" to the list of 10 great Minnesota writers whose lives and work are chronicled inside this issue. That's not to say we don't believe they might very well represent just that--we do. But the recent controversy over the list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, released by the Modern Library, has given us pause.

In that instance, an august selection committee filled out ballots in order to assemble a genuinely strange set of rankings--one that deemed The Great Gatsby and Brave New World two of the five best English-language novels of the century. It turns out that Random House editors had weighed the ballots in a manner that might best be described as capricious. (Their formula, it seems: Break egg in bowl; beat 50 times; insert face.) The panel, which was all white, mostly old, and almost exclusively male, had never met; precise rankings for the vast majority of titles were never discussed; and much of the list was ultimately decided at the editors' whim.

Here at Scrawl headquarters, we've forgone the phony ballots and blue-ribbon committee and cut straight to the whim.

In fact, there were some consistent criteria employed to arrive at a list of 10 writers. In brief, they are as follows:

To start, we selected on the basis of residency. To make the list, authors had to fulfill one of three criteria: 1) They were born and raised in Minnesota; 2) They completed some of their most important writing while living in Minnesota over a number of years; 3) They died in Minnesota, and spent a significant part of their writing career here.

By these guidelines, we were forced to exclude candidates like Laura Ingalls Wilder, who left Minnesota as a child, and the redoubtable August Wilson, whose stay in St. Paul was memorable yet brief. By the same measure, we omitted F. Scott Fitzgerald, who left as a teen, and whose greatest connection to the state seem to be the boosters who zealously slap his name on festivals and theaters.

We also attempted to expand the definition of "literature" by allowing genres of writing that would not traditionally be considered for such a list. The selection includes a cartoonist, Charles Schulz; a naturalist, Sigurd Olson; and a writer of speculative fiction, Eleanor Arnason; in addition to two poets (John Berryman and Thomas McGrath), four novelists (Sinclair Lewis, J.F. Powers, Tim O'Brien, and Louise Erdrich) and one category-defying writer, Meridel LeSueur.

At this point, some unified field-theory of Minnesota writing is probably in order; these sorts of list-making exercises practically demand it. Sure enough, several characteristics shared among the authors appear salient.

Three writers on this list--Schulz, McGrath, and O'Brien--were profoundly affected by their experiences in war, while two others, Powers and LeSueur, gave themselves over to pacifism.

Arnason, LeSueur, Lewis, and McGrath might be defined as political radicals and sometime Utopians.

O'Brien and Powers dropped out of academic programs; Olson was chronically discontent as a professor and dean; McGrath and Berryman were fired from teaching posts; and LeSueur was the daughter of an itinerant English professor.

Erdrich, LeSueur, and Olson concern themselves explicitly with the environment.

Olson, Berryman, and O'Brien might all be characterized as chronic depressives.

What can we gather from all this--except that the quintessential Minnesota writer is a Prozac-popping renegade with serious war issues and a lot of camping gear who is soon going to be denied tenure? Hard to say. What these writers ultimately bear in common, and how this reflects our state's literary heritage, is subject to debate. As, of course, is the list itself.

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