Four Great 20th Century Writers on the Fast Track to Oblivion

May 27, 1964

There are not many odd curmudgeons such as myself who sometimes enjoy dipping into the work of totally forgotten writers. In my case it is the rambling solo fiction and nonfiction of Mark Twain’s onetime co-author Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900), the lazy nature essays of John Burroughs (1837–1921), and the spirited fiction of Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885), who used her work (read the 1884 novel Ramona) to speak to the plight of Native-Americans long before this became a popular cause célèbre.

All three of these were famous bestselling authors in their day. Their work appeared in national magazines, and their faces on the covers of those magazines. Just as a lucky few contemporary writers wind up on President Obama’s well-publicized summer vacation reading list, so too did Burroughs receive vociferous recommendations from Theodore Roosevelt. He even went camping with the president and turned the experience into a bestselling book.

As I say, I am something of a curmudgeon in these matters. I’m not at all surprised that the ghosts of Warner and Burroughs and Jackson linger only in the dark attic of American literature. And I’m by no means outraged that no-one else reads them. Their mechanics, metaphors, and intentions are quite dated. I read them in the same spirit as I might (and often do — another absurd hobby) study the ribbing in the dried bones of an ancient schooner. In this they are unlike Poe, Melville, Dickens and other authors who address universal themes which resonate as loud (if not louder) today than they did in their own day: authors who remain contemporary despite the tick-tock of time.

This is as it should be. We somehow expect the veil to fall over purely popular literature as time runs on. We don’t much care that Arthur Hailey or Jacqueline Susann or Clive Cussler are not taught in schools, or that they do not inspire critical attention. We would not be surprised to learn that in the distant future our great-grandchildren will not be aware of Dean Koontz or John Grisham, no matter how much we ourselves might enjoy these writers (and I, for one, certainly do).

But it is remarkable how very quickly the veil can fall over even truly exceptional, highly literary writers not long after they’ve gone to their graves and stopped producing. Just off the top of my head, I can think of four such writers of the 20th century whose reputations sail closer and closer to the brink of oblivion every day — and quite undeservedly so.

We all think we know whose work is likely to “last” and remain relevant. We feel confident in guessing which 20th century names will endure, even though, a mere 16 years into the 21st century, we are still in the guessing stage: Flannery O’Connor, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Eudora Welty, Thomas Pynchon, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Bill Styron, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, George Orwell, Ralph Ellison, and so forth. (I suppose I need not mention Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger, and Steinbeck.) But there are some among their contemporaries who — though equal in importance and quality — have already begun to fade.

Here’s my list of just four: Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, John Cheever, and Ken Kesey. (Full disclosure: Kesey was a friend of mine.)

Robert Penn Warren, 1981

Robert Penn Warren is most well known in popular circles — to the extent that he is known at all — as the author of All The King’s Men. Most people recognize the title of the novel (or, more likely, the title of the two major motion pictures that have been made from the novel), but few outside the walls of your local English Department or the offices of The Paris Review can name the author.

Warren died in 1989, at age 84. He was America’s first Poet-Laureate. He left behind numerous novels, collections of poetry, books of criticism, books of social commentary, and one volume of short stories. He also won three Pulitzer Prizes — one in 1947 for All The King’s Men, and two for poetry in 1958 and 1979 respectively — and was one of the originators of the New Criticism.

Save for All the King’s Men, Warren’s work is scarcely on the reading list of any college course anywhere — not even at Yale, where he taught for many years. Such masterpieces as the novels World Enough and Time and Wilderness gather dust. There’s a small “Robert Penn Warren Circle” which hosts symposiums at meetings of the Modern Language Association, but aside from this there’s very little scholarship focused on his work. Many of his books remain out of print. Joseph Blotner published a biography in 1997, but the last serious book-length study of any aspect of Warren’s work appeared some seven years ago. Since then, silence.

Like Warren, Katherine Anne Porter’s most important book is far better known as a film: Ship of Fools. Such is the case even though the book version became the best-selling American novel of 1962. Porter, like John Cheever (see below), appears to be the victim of a rule to which Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty remain two of the few exceptions: Short story writers generally enjoy far less longevity in the way of fame than do novelists. Porter wrote but one novel, albeit one of the very greatest of the 20th century. The balance of her work — 26 short stories, three of which Porter preferred to call short novels — is a collection equally brilliant as it is small, revealing Porter as one of the true masters of the short story form.

Porter died in 1980 at the age of 90. The Collected Letters of Katherine Anne Porter came out in 1990. The University of Georgia Press published Joan Givner’s biography of Porter in 1991. Also in the early nineties, two university presses published collections of Porter’s book reviews and youthful ephemera. In 1996, another university press brought out a volume of her not-very-many and not-very-good poems, never before collected. “American Masters” portrayed her in 2002. Her face graced a stamp in 2006. Finally, 2008 saw a Library of America collection of her best work. Since then, no noticeable scholarship, and damn little teaching at the college (or any other) level.

John Cheever thought highly of Porter, and he said so at a time when he was at the top of his game, and the top of his fame.

Cheever’s portrait graced the cover of Newsweek in 1977 and TIME in 1964. The year 1980 saw him featured in a Rolex ad: The watch for those who set the measure of the times. His short stories — most of them brilliant odes to the contradictions, cowardice, bravery, sexual guilt, and suburban self-loathing of a generation later to be chronicled in the television series Mad Men — were for decades a staple in The New Yorker, Esquire, and other top-drawer magazines. His thick 1978 doorstop of a collection The Stories of John Cheever won him a Pulitzer Prize, the National Brook Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. He also wrote novels, among them The Wapshot Chronicle, which won the National Book Award in 1958, and Falconer (1977) which won universal praise and became a bestseller. But his primary work was in the short story form.

It can be argued that there is no American writer more representative of his era, yet also in tune with universal and timeless tragedies and truths, than Cheever. Yet, despite the publication of several biographies as well as Cheever’s selected letters and edited journals, he remains vague on the literary horizon. There is no scholarship. His books don’t sell. He is not taught.

First Edition, 1962

Now, lastly, Ken Kesey.

One of my friend Ken’s most quoted phrases is this: “Nothing lasts.” Unlike the aforementioned writers, Ken seems in some ways to have sought oblivion. In fact, he conspired with oblivion when, near the end of his life, he burned most of his papers and manuscripts at his farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. Though he personally hated the film, he might not even mind that these days more people know One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a movie than as a novel, and still fewer know the name of the book’s author. (In contrast, the film version of Sometimes A Great Notion, starring Henry Fonda and Paul Newman, has not overshadowed the novel. Both remain obscure, but only the novel remains great, as much a masterpiece as its predecessor.)

I count four minor book-length studies of Ken’s work published to date. We’ve also got one truly atrocious (just ask anyone who really knew Ken) full biography — Mark Christensen’s Acid Christ (2010). And we’ve got another quite good but grossly under-marketed book about Kesey’s coming-of-age: Rick Dodgson’s It’s All a Kind of Magic (2013).

Ironically, whatever cult status Ken has these days emanates not from his own work, but rather his role as the original Merry Prankster starring in a book he didn’t write: Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Ken’s own books — at least Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes — get taught here and there, but more often in their roles as artifacts of the Sixties than as literature. The subtext of that usage rings clear: Never mind that Kesey redefined the art of perspective and introduced truly original, translucent ways to defy chronological storytelling. Never mind that he invented a new manner of narrative all his own. The important thing is that he was pals with Jerry Garcia.

That’s where, in Ken’s case, the real danger lurks. Ken died in 2001 at age 66. Hopefully the world will eventually remember the Author over the Prankster. But so far, that is not the case.

My list here is, of course, entirely subjective. The reputations of Warren, Porter, Cheever, and Kesey could well have many miles to go before they sleep. I could be all wrong. And I’d certainly love to be.