We're No. 3! In masterpieces of U.S. literature
Illinois ranks behind only N.Y., Calif. in recognized award-winning novels, poems — led by Sandburg, Hemingway
By Ted Cox
We’re No. 3! Among all 50 states in recognized literary masterpieces produced by native authors, that is.
The Literary Hub website published a study by Emily Temple on Wednesday attempting to determine “which states are the most literary.” Tongue firmly in cheek, Temple set out to establish “the most objective possible criteria (read: not objective at all, but what we’ve got).” What she arrived at was a tallying up of all the novels and poems that won three major literary prizes — the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award — sorted by the author’s native state.
Millennial readers will find the list is dominated by acknowledged members of the 20th century literary canon. Nonetheless, the 28 awards won by Illinoisans placed the state third behind New York, a publishing center that of course led with 71, but hot on the heels of California, with 29.
Galesburg’s Carl Sandburg turns up a couple of times, for his collections “Corn Huskers” and “Complete Poems,” both of which won the Pulitzer for poetry. Glencoe native Archibald MacLeish gets double credit for his “Complete Poems,” which won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for poetry in 1953.
That was a good year for Illinois authors, as it also got the only citation for Oak Park’s Ernest Hemingway, winning the Pulitzer for his late masterpiece “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Those literary lions have been joined more recently by Jonathan Franzen, a Western Springs product who won the National Book Award in 2001 for “The Corrections,” and Chicago native Jennifer Egan, who got double points for her 2010 novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The list of New York authors is extensive, including Edith Wharton, Bernard Malamud, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Stone, Joyce Carol Oates, William Kennedy, E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Susan Sontag, and Colson Whitehead, to name just a few.
California, meanwhile, was represented by Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Jean Stafford, Jane Smiley, and Sharon Olds.
Pennsylvania came fourth after Illinois with 24 citations, six of them from John Updike, and Massachusetts rounded out the top five with 20, led by Robert Lowell, John Cheever, and Sylvia Plath.
Temple points out that only 38 states charted, leaving 12 out, and some were one-horse wonders, such as Kentucky (four, all won by Robert Penn Warren) and Idaho (three, all by Marilynne Robinson).
Still, take a bow, Illinois. We’re one of the most literary states in the nation — and remain so today.