Basketball star Lebron James made news earlier this year when he said that belongs on the Mount Rushmore of basketball players. Some agreed, others disagreed, but my opinion varied from all others I heard.
James was claiming to be one of the four best players ever and the debate revolved around that. The debate missed the point because of a flawed assumption. The assumption has nothing to do with Lebron James, but rather with the four presidents represented on Mount Rushmore.
The presidents figured do not represent the four best presidents. But rather the single best president to signify a certain aspect of American greatness. George Washington stands for Independence. Thomas Jefferson represents Freedom. Abraham Lincoln symbolizes Equality. Theodore Roosevelt emblemizes America’s role in world affairs.
It’s common to miss this point and consider the four best of anything to be the Mount Rushmore of this or that. So if I were to ever talk about the Mount Rushmore of Literature, it should follow the same pattern as the original intent.
The Mount Rushmore Of Great Authors
The literary equivalence to George Washington is Walt Whitman. He stands for American independence from the British literary tradition more than any writer of his time. Some would suggest Twain or Poe, which are fine options. But to me, Whitman breaks away from the British model and creates an American literary tradition all other American writers would follow.
Ernest Hemingway certainly walked down the trail blazed by Whitman, but he demonstrates freedom in a way that is different than the notion of independence. Hemingway composed in a way that was free from the patterns and the rules that governed most of the world’s literature, with the possible exception of the Russian writers of the 1800s.
If there is an American author who principally stands for equality, it is John Steinbeck. He believed in the concept of the oversoul. In this way, all living people are connected. So in a work like The Grapes Of Wrath Steinbeck demonstrates that we should care for all people and not just our family.
To find a writer who deals with the affairs of the world, I had to go outside of the American catalogue. William Shakespeare more than anyone who has ever lived expertly wrote of how it is to live the life of a human, regardless of when or where they lived. His plays handled a wonderful universality that makes his tales utterly timeless.
The Mount Rushmore Of Great Literature
But how about the four best representatives of written works? I would begin with The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. This masterwork by Mark Twain is arguably the novel that began American literature, at least in novel form. It not only addresses American issues, but it does so with an American tone and style. This story could not have been written by any of Twain’s contemporaries in Europe, and definitely not in his voice.
Just as Hemingway ventured from the old ways of writing novels, T.S. Eliot broke new ground with his poem, “The Waste Land.” It was not only a new way of composing poetry, it addressed a subject matter new to the literary scene. Arguably “The Waste Land” dealt with the emptiness of the Lost Generation following the Great War and all of its skepticism and disillusionment. Others wrote of this subject before and after this work, but none did it with the indelible ink of Eliot.
There were many American novels written in the 1800s that dealt with the sin of slavery, but Absolom, Absolom! handled the matter in the most unique way possible. The main character is appalled by a mixed race relationship but doesn’t bat an eye at incest. In the novel, those one-eighth black were called octoroons. One character comments that black blood must be strong if one-eighths of it in someone can overpower the remaining seven-eighths white blood.
Just as Shakespeare wrote stories with universal appeal, James Joyce authored the ultimate timeless novel with Ulysses. Joyce took Homer’s epic that covered twenty years and reduced it to twenty hours. And even though everything in the story deals with the adventures of one man, a Jewish advertising agent in Dublin, and everything takes place on June 16, 1904, Joyce nails down the universal message of love better than anything else I have ever known.
I know this is all my opinion. You may think of other writers or works that best suit the notions of independence, liberty, equality, and universality. That’s fine, in fact I encourage critical thinking on this and any subject. Make your own Mount Rushmore of Literature. Share it if you’d like in the Comment section below. In any instance, enjoy the construction work ahead.