The 2000/2001 Essay Contest has closed. The winners are:
First Place: James Joyce, by Warren Tusk, Briarcliff High School NY.
The literature of the earliest twentieth-century faced a quandary: all the good novel plots seemed to have been taken by 1900, and turn-of-the-century novelists desperately needed an alternative to simply telling stories. Yet for most of human history, the art of prose writing had consisted precisely of fashioning new and interesting storylines, peopled by original but believable characters, with or without an overarching message. It was the accomplishment of one man, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce, to create a substitute for the novel-story mode: a style suited, indeed devoted, to describing not deeds, places, things and people-as-they-sometimes-can-be but epiphanies, moments, dreams and people-as-they-universally-are.
Joyce was probably not the originator of the stream-of-consciousness techniques he adopts starting in Dubliners, but he was certainly the first to use it as more than a device for conveying a story. For Joyce, the emphasis was on the telling itself, on the words and images that embody, rather than describe, the characters' human perceptions. While Ezra Pound and company had already revolutionized poetry with a similar "impressionistic" philosophy , it took Ulysses and Finnegans Wake to change the way that workers of prose wrote and thought.
Through the influence of James Joyce's few works, an entire generation's worth of writing was produced with its emphasis on language instead of story, on subconscious murkiness instead of conscious clarity, on the way the world affects the human psyche instead of vice versa. On some examples of modern prose, Joyce's fingerprints are obvious; the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, with their lengthy ramblings on surreal subjects that can stretch a single second out over dozens of pages, are very much beholden to Ulysses, and the half-psychotic incoherencies of A Clockwork Orange smack strongly of Finnegans Wake (even more so as they are expressed in a very run-on, unidentifiable variant of English). The Illuminatus! books, which have largely defined the way many people think about "life beyond normality", treat Joyce's epiphanic writing as crucial to enlightened thought and even guest-star the Irish Beauty himself in one of their many volumes.
But there are many other pieces of modern literature whose debt to Joyce is hidden, noticeable only to those looking for it, but nonetheless crucial. The Loman family in Death of a Salesman, with its strained relationships and even its curious verbal habits, is highly reminiscent of Stephen's family in Portrait; Salesman's Joycean strain is especially strong in Mrs. Loman's "attention must be paid" speech. The entire giant genre of "common uncommonality", where the life of an everyman is observed and shown to contain as many adventures and poignancies as that of any hero or lord, can be traced back to its roots in Leo Bloom. This means that works ranging from Kafka's The Trial to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker "trilogy" are all inspired, directly or indirectly, by James Joyce and his literary dream-catching.
It is perhaps the greatest indicator of his significance, though, that Joyce's influence has so often transcended the world of fiction. Both Freud and his disciple Carl Jung found Joyce's novels (especially Finnegans Wake) to be sublime verbal expressions of the normally wordless subconscious, and Jung used Molly's final "speech" in Ulysses to demonstrate his notion of the chthonian. Noted, if not universally admired, composer John Cage has acknowledged Joyce as the inspiration for much of his more experimental music, including some pieces that consist solely of sea sounds, as well as the infamous 4:11. Ulysses has inspired many films and TV shows as well as novels with its "common uncommonality", including the emotionally subjective American Beauty, the many movies of Woody Allen about the neuroses that motivate ordinary men, and a few bizarre episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Even scientific terminology has been influenced by Joyce: the term for sub-neutronic particles, "quarks", is straight from Finnegans Wake ("three quarks for Muster Mark").
There are those of our century whose writings have been far more influential than anything written by Joyce; Einstein and Freud come quickly to mind. But their works, crucial though they have been to our understanding of the universe, have not as writing inspired new genres of art. It was James Joyce who, as a writer qua writer, gave new direction not only to future writers but to all makers of art who came after him. And that is why he is the "most influential writer of the twentieth century".
Second Place: Franz Kafka, by Josh Goodman, Suncoast Community High School, FL.
Der einflußreichste Schriftsteller
Franz Kafka: Voice of the Century
Early this morning, after awaking from unsettling dreams, I shut myself up in my room and began to gather information proving that Franz Kafka is the most influential writer of the last century. What I found leaves no doubt. Through his unique, disturbing, symbolic fictions, Kafka has established himself as the twentieth century's single most influential writer. The influence of Kafka's work has bridged cultural and linguistic divides, and has tremendously affected diverse writers, artists, and the general public.
Third Place: George Orwell, by Meghan Daley, East Brunswick High School, NJ.
Kafka's influence naturally is felt most forcefully in the field of literature. Though Kafka, from Prague, wrote in German, his appeal is universal. Kafka wrote troubling, ironic, Expressionistic short stories and novels frequently dealing with alienated protagonists trapped in complex situations beyond their comprehension and control. Much of Kafka's oeuvre was first published posthumously in the late Twenties, but, within a decade, Kafka's secure and prominent standing in world literature had been established. Subsequent generations of authors have been influenced greatly. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, extremely influential himself and the first to translate Kafka's work into Spanish, has claimed, "I felt that I owed so much to Kafka that I really didn't need to exist." Borges' blend of the fantastic and the real, and the brief, enigmatic short story form that he developed are clearly Kafka-influenced. Borges even argued that (reading) Kafka influences works written hundreds of years earlier (now that's influence!). Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez claims that not only did Borges' translation of Kafka's Metamorphosis inspire him to pursue literature, but also that it was Kafka's natural voice -- the same as his grandmother's -- that enabled him to tell the story of One Hundred Years of Solitude, considered his magnum opus. Certain plot elements of García Márquez's book, such as the two nameless agents who appear from nowhere to pursue and kill the Colonel's sons, also bear the indelible mark of Kafka. Albert Camus, the greatest French writer of the century, is probably closer to Kafka in philosophical orientation than in style, but Kafka's influence is still immense. "Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka," the appendix to Camus' influential essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, serves to link Kafka's ideas with Camus' own. Both authors treat 'existentialist' themes of estrangement, death, absurdity, and anxiety. Camus' most famous novels owe much to Kafka; the trial in The Stranger clearly evokes Kafka's own Trial, and The Plague alludes to Kafka too. Italian writer Italo Calvino leaves no confusion about his influences: "My author is Kafka, and my favorite novel is [Kafka's] Amerika." And the literary influence of Kafka is not waning. South African author Nadine Gordimer, 1991 Nobel Laureate, wrote a reply to Kafka's "Letter to His Father"; Portuguese author José Saramago, the 1998 Laureate, said Kafka was one of the writers who best embodied the spirit of the century; Kafka's influence on the 1999 Laureate, Günter Grass -- whose works in Kafka's native tongue also blend fantasy and reality and deal with guilt -- is clear.
An exhaustive enumeration of Kafka's profound influence on literature alone could span volumes, but the effects of his work are even more pervasive. In film, Kafka is felt in obvious places like Orson Welles' version of The Trial and the biographical Kafka, but the recent blockbuster The Matrix is also decidedly Kafkaesque -- the (over)use of this adjective outside the literary arena is another testament to Kafka's influence. In music, Kafka is found in unusual places; the alternative band K.'s Choice is named for The Trial's Josef K., and "Style" by electronica act Orbital is clearly Metamorphosis-inspired. The works of Kafka even exert themselves in the peculiar realm of postmodern theory. Félix Deleuze and Gilles Guattari argue that their interpretation of Kafka provides a model of the postmodern social world. Finally, Kafka's fictions seem to have influenced the reality of the past century. His nightmarish worlds of oppressive bureaucracy and alienation became a way of life for many in the decades following his death, giving an eerie confirmation to what was written in his obituary: that he was "a man condemned to regard the world with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable and went to his death." Because Kafka's work has so affected the writers of this century, because Kafka's work has affected so many people in so many places in so many languages, and because Kafka's work presents, in so remarkable a way, the themes that have characterized the century, it is Franz Kafka who is the twentieth century's most influential writer.
The twentieth century was, for good and evil, shaped by ideas. As John Maynard Keynes concluded in his General Theory, "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." The two warring ideas of the twentieth century were totalitarianism and freedom. The fall of Communism signaled the victory of freedom. Significant credit, and possibly the title of most influential writer of the century, goes to the man who, by being the most versatile, articulate, studied and honest enemy of totalitarianism served as freedom's poet laureate. This is George Orwell.
George Orwell is perhaps best known for two books, 1984 and Animal Farm. The first was a dystopia of a runaway state and the latter a masterful allegory from which the phrase, "Some are more equal than others" has penetrated the lexicon. As devastating as those works were to totalitarianism, we should not forget his other books and his essays. Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier define Orwell as a man deeply committed to social justice but rigorous in its definition and execution. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell writes with characteristic clarity and unforgiving truth, "A fat man eating quails while children are begging for bread is a disgusting sight." While he nominally considered himself a socialist, Orwell regarded most other socialists as what Lenin called "useful idiots" -- unwitting servants of totalitarianism. "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England." When Orwell wanted to chronicle human suffering, he gave away all of his possessions and nearly starved as he went, as the eponymous title of his book declares, Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell was the rare writer who was never, not even for a sentence, trapped by ideology or confined by the opinions of others. He was as authentic as he was honest; his guide was his conscience and its language is truth.
Orwell's lasting influence is not merely in the mighty role he played in defeating totalitarianism. He was a wonderful writer, and a wonderful writer on writing. His essay, "Politics and the English Language" shows how important words are, and how ideas (and, by easy extension, action) can be determined by their simple manipulation. The six rules that he lays out for good writing are eternal, for they call the author to clear, concise, short articulation -- making obfuscation difficult and lies hard to bury or disguise. And Rule #6 illustrates the primacy of truth in Orwell's order, over even his own rules: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."
The attraction of Orwell to those who value honesty and treasure the role of words in its articulation came through very clearly in a spirited exchange almost twenty years ago in Harper's Magazine between Norman Podhoretz and Christopher Hitchens. Podhoretz is a man of the right and Hitchens a man of the left, but both are writers who have struggled and suffered in an unwavering pursuit of the truth. They are, in the best sense of the word, Orwellian. Podhoretz claimed that Orwell would be a neoconservative if he were alive today, and Hitchens offered a rebuttal. Orwell's eclectic politics (eclectic largely because he was no party's prisoner) makes it difficult to know who is right, and easy to find truth in both cases. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that Orwell is -- as Podhoretz wrote -- "a writer worth stealing." Why is Orwell worth stealing? Why does the right and the left claim him as one of their own? Because he was the twentieth century's greatest evil's most formidable literary adversary because he sought truth with rigor, honesty and clarity that was rare and remarkable. He was a man who revered words, stood in awe at their power and deployed them with unparalleled effectiveness against the right enemy. As the man whose pen showed the way around through totalitarianism and to freedom, and whose respect for politics (broadly defined) and the English language remains a proper inspiration to serious writers today, George Orwell is the most influential writer of the twentieth century.
Honorable mentions (In alphabetical order by author selected):
Samuel Beckett, by Joshua Kovacs, Herricks Senior High School, NY.
What makes a writer influential? It's not the complexity of the words that are written but the connection to the audience. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot examines the nature of humanity while at the same time establishes a connection to the audience. Beckett makes a profound effort to touch each reader and attempts to answer the unanswerable questions of human life and that is why he is the most influential writer of the twentieth century.
In some cases in literature, an idea can only be conveyed properly if those on the receiving end of the idea are able to experience the feelings that a character is experiencing. In order for a reader to relate to Vladimir and Estragon and feel as though they do while they wait, it is essential for that reader to either understand or experience the same feelings that they are experiencing. Vladimir and Estragon are waiting; waiting for Godot, to be exact; and Beckett wants the reader to feel as if he or she was also waiting. Along with the feeling of waiting, the reader may also understand how Vladimir and Estragon feel at times; unsure, not very anxious to move on, and constantly having to wait. A feeling of timelessness is even evoked, allowing almost anyone from nearly any time to understand Vladimir and Estragon's predicament.
The purpose of human life is an unanswerable question. It seems impossible to find an answer because we don't know where to begin looking or whom to ask. Existence seems to be something imposed upon us by an unknown force. There is no apparent meaning to it, and yet we suffer as a result of it. These are the thoughts echoed by millions of people everyday as they "pass the time" that is their life. Waiting for Godot is a play that captures these feelings and view of the world, and characterizes it with archetypes that symbolize humanity and its behavior.
Waiting For Godot exemplifies the human condition. Two primary forces influence all human beings. The first is fear and the second is hope. Everyday we go through life with the fear of pain, misery, and the unexpected. Those who embrace this force are destined for failure and suffering yet we all embrace fear at one time or another. The one "silver lining" in all of this is hope. Hope is the most powerful force in the universe. It is what causes action. The only reason human beings do what they do is for the hope of something better.
Vladimir: We've nothing more to do here.
Estragon: Nor anywhere else.
Vladimir: Ah Gogo, don't go like that. To-morrow everything will be better.
Estragon: How do you make that out?
Vladimir: Did you not hear what the child said?
Vladimir: He said that Godot was sure to come to-morrow.
We live in an utterly chaotic world filled with misery and sorrow. The force that gets people out of bed in the morning is the hope of a better tomorrow.
Estragon: I can't go one like this.
Vladimir: We'll hang ourselves to-morrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes.
Estragon: And if he comes?
Vladimir: We'll be saved.
The only escape is death and our only savior is hope.
Waiting for Godot makes the reader question his or her own humanity. It places the reader outside of his or her own life and sets them in front of a looking glass. The reader now has the ability for the first time to view themselves as an individual with different forces acting upon them. Beckett not only gives readers a different view on life but also makes them question their lives. Waiting for Godot is unique in the fact that it is not trying to tell a story but is attempting to simplify the human condition so that the average person can comprehend it. With this comprehension comes the ability to change life.
Literature is more than a just a story to be told. Why does Beckett deserve the honor of being the most influential writer of the twentieth century over authors such as Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Faulkner, or Fitzgerald? The answer is quite simple. Beckett examines the human condition and helps to answer the unanswerable question of the purpose of human life. Hope is the key to all of this. Beckett allows the reader to understand that life is filled with agony and torment but just as powerful as that is hope. The hope of salvation is enough to get people through life.
Anne Frank by April Anderson, St. Nicholas School of the Arts, IA.
IN THE WORLD COURT OF PUBLIC OPINION
The Deprecators, Plaintiffs, vs. Anne Frank, a/k/a The Twentieth Century's Most Influential Writer, defendant
Today the court hears a matter of grave importance. Is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank the most influential piece of the twentieth century? Representing the world is Mr. Pessime. Ms. Optime will plead the defense. You may begin.
Optime: Your Honor,
There is no lugubrious ghetto tale, no compilation of horrors. . . Anne Frank's diary simply bubbles with amusement, love, discovery. It has its share of disgust, its moments of hatred, but it is so wondrously alive, so near, that one feels overwhelmingly the univeralities of human nature. . . through her diary Anne goes on living.
Pessime: It is true, your Honor that many are influenced by this work but it is one of many moving pieces. Therefore Anne Frank has no claim to the title: Most Influential Writer of the Twentieth Century. It has never been proven conclusively that this alleged diary was more than a propaganda piece. Finally, I fail to find anything that speaks of its literary value.
We begin with the arguments concerning the first question raised: Is the diary influential/does Anne Frank have a just claim to the title?
Optime: Anne Frank's influence is evident worldwide. John F. Kennedy wrote: "Of the multitude who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of great suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank." Its public impact, says "Nazi hunter" Simon Wiesenthal, is "more important than the Nuremberg trials."
"The content of Anne Frank's legacy is still very much alive and it can address us in our own time when the map of the world is changing and dark passions are awakening within people," said Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia and onetime political prisoner.
Anne Frank's diary has influenced many around the world: citizens and political leaders alike. It seems that her voice and influence are not in a state of regression but continue to make an impression. Her voice from a diary causes humanity to remember, to relate, and to act...
Pessime: I commend my opponent on her depth of research. Just because some have spoken openly about the impact, the diary has made on them, that is not conclusive proof it influences everyone exposed. I have no further comment, your Honor.
Thank-you both, proceeding to article number two brought forth by Mr. Pessime: Is the work fraudulent, merely propaganda?
Optime: Objection, your Honor. Reminding the court and worthy opponent that despite the fact, I can provide evidence of her authorship; the question is that of her influence.
Objection sustained. Proceeding to the last point of inquiry: does the diary have literary significance?
Optime: Along with everything else she came to represent, Anne Frank symbolized the power of a book. The reason for her immortality was basically literary. She was an extraordinarily good writer, for any age, and the quality of her work seemed the direct result of a ruthlessly honest disposition.
Finally, if the court consults the List of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century compiled by Free Republic and a Panel of Experts, the following will be found in evidence: 20. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank. Helprin: "An innocent's account of the greatest evil imaginable. The most powerful book of the century. Others may not agree. No matter, I cast my lot with this child." Caldwell: "If one didn't know her fate, one might read it as the reflections of any girl. That one does know her fate makes this as close to a holy book as the century produced."
I rest my case, Your Honor.
Pessime: There's nothing more (grumble, grumble), your Honor.
It is the Court's Opinion that Ms. Optime sufficiently demonstrated the worldwide influence of the words of a young girl and has shown us that her voice resounds in the literary world as well.
Her legacy is best summed up in the clarity of her own words:
"It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet, I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."
It is our firm opinion that these words contained in the most influential work of the twentieth century will continue to resonate a message of hope.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Sigmund Freud, by Jennifer Chiu, Hunter College High School, NY.
Why Freud is Important Today
Though many have marked the course of events throughout history, few have impacted our collective consciousness more than Sigmund Freud has. His ideas have revolutionized the way we now view the human mind, and his writings are classics. Besides producing an important mass of literature, Freud has a status as a psychologist that is arguably second to none.
Through many decades of work, Freud produced a number of books that contain concepts we recognize and find highly relevant today. His case studies of mental disorders are effective in describing many of the afflictions we can so accurately diagnose today. Moreover, many of the ideas we have of the psyche of an individual and the dynamic between people originated from him. We often speak of the conflict between societal norms and primal desires, characterized most succinctly as the angel and devil aboard either shoulder of a cartoon protagonist. Freud discussed this relationship in terms of id, ego, and superego. In his books, he describes a certain power structure between males and females, and within a family, which drive human actions. Furthermore, terms such as "Oedipus complex," which he modeled on Shakespeare's play Hamlet, have found their way into our vocabulary.
Perhaps the greatest connection between Freud and the literary world exists in his usage of the symbol. Freud believed that certain objects or words contain hidden meanings, which reflect the true state of their user within what he calls the unconscious. By mistakenly substituting one word for another, a speaker may commit a "Freudian slip" and reveal his or her true intentions. Or, since he focused specifically on issues of desire, certain inanimate objects used in literature and other settings would always contain a sexual meaning. To Freud, every little detail might contain a hidden meaning. Symbolism was foremost in his mind.
His theories were prompted by direct observation of his patients, who were mostly women who suffered from emotional disturbances. Indeed, his influence on the field of psychology is profound. Freud invented psychoanalysis, and besides spurring on other psychologists to continue his work, he used clinical techniques that are fundamental to the widespread practice of psychoanalysis today. Millions have benefited from the applications of his theories. Unfortunately, his impact on popular psychology has been equally large, and volumes containing quack theories abound on the self-help shelves of bookstores everywhere. In addition, many of Freud's ideas remain controversial and have been attacked on the grounds that they are sexist or just plain wrong.
Regardless of whether his theories were correct, it is difficult to argue that Freud has not changed the way we see the world and ourselves. From the most abstruse notions within philosophy to the vacuous recesses of popular culture, Freud's ideas have implications for us all. Because his impact on the world hits so close to home, he is indisputably not just one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, but also one of its most influential figures as well.
Ernest Hemingway, by Hyon Jae Lee, Clarkstown High School North, NY.
Nowhere are life experiences recorded with such frankness and clarity as in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, the most influential writer of the twentieth century, made a lasting impact on American literature through his stark, vivid style and his singular approach to the role of man in the world. In a time when America popularized the distorted form of the American Dream, in a time when nihilism was shocking American society, Hemingway presented the true dream, the true meaning of life, cushioning America's fall into nihilism. He offered profound insight into the role of man in a vast and indifferent universe, brought out the grace of man struggling against the forces of nature, and was able to capture the truth about life.
Everything about Hemingway's prose was fresh and novel, his aesthetic evaluation of life differing from the writings of other American writers at the time. The style of his writing was new and clean, and Hemingway utilized vivid, realistic images to bring out the textures of his novels and to draw the reader into the lives of his characters. His approach to literature was different from that of other writers, and his ultimate aspiration was to capture the truth and to convey to the reader the truth with complete accuracy. His writing was the haven for a disillusioned society that was suffering the effects of the world wide depression of the 1930's. While America increasingly sensed the impotence and helplessness of man in the vast world, Hemingway assured the world that it was during this seemingly futile struggle against an impassive universe that life gains meaning, man asserts his dignity, and truth is discovered. His views on death and dying also parallels his version of man's role in the role. Hemingway described death as always present in life, but man's response to death, and his manner of accepting death determines his nobility. Unlike other authors who embellished and romanticized the definition of heroism, Hemingway defined heroism as the ability for man to face the world alone, with only his own powers and resources. This definition of the true hero had virtually disappeared from fiction until Hemingway presented the world with his insight. The heroes of novels during that time were either "bewildered, frustrated victims" or "unsuccessful, broken rebels." Contrastingly, Hemingway's heroes were winners who gained nothing from their triumph, who often had lost a lesser battle against impassive forces to gain their own victory. Their victories are gained through their own limited means, alone in a situation of their own choosing. The writers of Hemingway's time had denied or ignored the significance and nobility of man's struggle for existence, during which the nobility of the soul is often and most frequently seen. Hemingway's belief was that the ultimate goal of man is to find himself, to find meaning in his life, and in the process, to transcend the circumstances of the world to gain a type of spiritual, inner triumph. His conviction was that living inevitably meant to struggle with "all that is not himself." This recurring theme is seen in Hemingway's renowned novels. A Farewell to Arms portrays a man recovering and mending himself after being broken in a savage encounter with the world. The Old Man and the Sea features Santiago, a lonely old fisherman who faces an impassive world alone and is defeated by forces beyond his control. His grace and nobility is accentuated by his response to the forces he must confront, his actions amidst grueling struggles, and his acceptance of defeat through which he gains a higher, more admirable triumph.
Hemingway also had a gift for directly involving the reader in the action of his stories. Instead of merely dictating to the reader descriptions of sensations, Hemingway is able to stimulate sensations in the reader and enable his readers to see, hear, feel, and smell the events in his novels. Because his works are largely about his own experiences, Hemingway writes with great intensity and description, concentrating on action and provoking emotions and active responses in his readers. And although thematically simple, Hemingway's works lent profound insight into life. Whether it was bulls, fish, nature, soldiers, battlegrounds, or even the past, Hemingway always retained a deep respect for and humility before the elements he struggled against. This is reflected in his writing, and changed America's view on the meaning of life, the definition of nobility, and the significance of man in the world.
John Irving, by Marnie Kaplan, Clarkstown High School North, NY.
"I wish I could write like that," ran through my head over and over again. As I read A Widow for One Year, by John Irving I was consumed with the desire to write as well he does; to be able to dedicate an entire chapter to a red and blue mattress; to be able to weave a novel inside a novel and make four main characters writers with disparately different styles; to be able to thoroughly create colorful characters whose faults outweigh their positives yet still evoke sympathy in the reader. As I closed the book with tears in my eyes and a quenched feeling of rebirth reminiscent to the feeling that overcame me when I saw the Mona Lisa up close for the first time, I was overcome by Irving's elaborate images and ability to turn every word into a morsel of art. With the scenes of his latest five hundred page novel still imprinted in my mind, I craved five hundred more pages.
Irving is the Dickens of the modern world. Like Dickens he has his fans and his enemies. Like Dickens, his novels require an acquired taste. Like Dickens, his language goes to extremes and appeals to the reader's emotions and not their intellect. Irving admits that his intention is to move his readers "to laughter and to tears." We live in a modern world where we are ashamed of our tears. And yet as Dickens stated in Great Expectations, "Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts." Both Irving and Dickens are unafraid of evoking sentiment. Most modern critics deem Irving a sentimentalist with an accusing tone; they see it as a fault. And yet is it not the same sentimentalism that made Dickens a great figure in literature?
Irving is a writer of the 19th century. He is reminiscent of Dickens and Hardy. Unlike modern writers he believes in utilizing patterns and symmetry. As the Austin American-Statesman stated: "Irving is a 19th-century novelist working here at the edge of the 21st." Irving tells old-fashioned stories and reminds the reader that writing is an art, a performance, a skill. His novels include multiple plot lines, lengthy digressions and stories within stories, as did the novels of Hardy. Hardy insisted that a novel had to be a better story than something one could find in the newspaper. Hardy meant that a novel needed to be more complex, more connected and symmetrical. Nineteenth century writers believed that good literature needed patterns and structure hence the usage of the three unities. Modern writers believe that novels are a representation of life and hence shouldn't follow a pattern. They believe that novels can be without plot because real life is without such. Irving doesn't fit into this class. He is an architect, someone who closely follows models and works endlessly over maintaining structure. Even in A Widow for One Year, a complex novel that portrays a sprawling intricate family history that spans thirty-seven years he maintains a balanced rhythm and ends with the exact quote that jumpstarted the story.
Not only has Irving mastered writing fresh novels in an exhausted age where the classics seem so far away, but he has also adapted some of his best works to the screen. The Cider House Rules was won the Oscar Winner for best-adapted screen play in 2000. He transformed Dr. Larch and Homer Wells into characters that vibrantly played out on the screen and won the hearts of viewers and critics alike.
John Irving is a masterful writer who paints within the minds of his readers. He doesn't simply tell a story, he weaves stories together in a moving film that is personalized within each reader's mind. To immerse oneself in John Irving's writing is to immerse oneself in a warm bath. It is soothing, relaxing, and fun. Irving utilizes comedy and classical techniques. "John Irving is a writer whose keenest sensibilities have always fallen somewhere between Dickensian verbosity and Mad magazine mischief" (Rocky Mountain News). He has been proclaimed "the American Balzac," and "a twentieth century Dickens" (The Nation). In my mind he is also the most influential writer of the twentieth century.
James Joyce, by Brendan Carty, Fordham Preparatory School, NY.
James Joyce changed the structure and meaning of the novel. The depth of his work is unparalleled, for he took straight prose and turned it into something rich and more importantly, revolutionary. His poetic prose was a revelation in the world of literature, for never had there been a wordsmith like him, who commanded the language and twisted it around and round, wrapping the reader in the grips of his world, screaming off the page. His insights into human tendencies and the essence of the human soul are matched only by Shakespeare. One of his greatest strengths was his brilliance for description, both physical and sociological. It was once said that if the city of Dublin were ever torn down, it could be completely rebuilt, preserving every glorious and insidious custom, based solely on his work. He was the poet of a race, yet he tore them down piece by piece with every piercing syllable. His works were not just well written stories with a theme, like earlier writers Dickens and Voltaire. His work was multi-dimensional.
On one hand, it could be read as an engaging literary achievement, but on the other, scholars could analyze it for years across the globe, all trying to break its nearly impenetrable artistic mysteries. His incomparable use of language created kaleidoscope images that peered into the collective soul of humanity. From the "epiphanies" of his early works to the colorful cadence of his last, he did more to revolutionize the potency of written human thought than any modern writer. James Joyce said it himself. "I can do anything I like with words."
Joyce's primary literary innovation was the stream of consciousness style of writing. This style was the trademark of all three of his most popular novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. Stream of consciousness writing is a style in which the narrator, whether it be first person of third person omniscient, spews out thought after thought while explaining any given physical or psychological experience. This format is intended to recreate the natural function of the mind, in which the subconscious takes a sense experience and connects it with a past experience, to form a completely new chain of thought. Therefore, the subconscious, or as Joyce would refer to it, the soul, becomes the source for all mysterious intertwining connections that constitute a literary and psychological masterpiece. Joyce first came across the style in 1902, when he read Les Lauriers Sont Coupes by the Italian novelist Edouard Dujardin. Dujardin may have originally utilized the stream of consciousness technique, but Joyce later adopted it as his own, and perfected it through a crisp, balanced use of symbols, and thus changed the style of writing dramatically. Joyce made people realize that the act of writing stream of conscious is the most natural and genuine expression of the human soul. His words and images that dove into the subconscious revealed the soul for all to see.
There was no one before Joyce who approached his use of symbols and allegorical language to convey meaning. T.S. Eliot once remarked, "Joyce does not need to search for symbols. The world was created for his personal use." Joyce used descriptions and paradoxes from nature to convey a deeper message. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the prefect of studies, who unfairly punishes Stephen Dedalus for idleness, is described as having "colorless" eyes. The lack of color in his eyes accentuates his cold nature and represents the lack of compassion and compromise in his soul. His symbolic references to classical literature brought not only his work, but also the mythical images of the past, to life. From the name of his alter ego, Dedalus, who was the Greek model for knowledge and artistic wisdom, to the title of his greatest labor and subsequent achievement, Ulysses, who traveled the Mediterranean for seven years after the Trojan War, Joyce breathed life into the roots of scholarship. In many ways, he was the English language's equivalent to Homer and Virgil.
Joyce also took bold steps when he undertook his most ambitious experiment with language, in Finnegans Wake. Joyce dissected words, splitting apart soft sounds and inserting harsh, cacophonous sounds to create a whole new Joycean term. His constant weaving and unweaving, like Penelope waiting for Ulysses' return, resulted in a whole new language, one that reached even further into the previously unexplored realms of the subconscious.
In the end, Joyce was more than just a literary pioneer. He was a martyr for the dedication to art. He abandoned his homeland, only to reconstruct it and tear in down again with his words. He exiled himself to search for truth and liberation for the soul. Along the way, he produced the greatest works of twentieth century literature, including Ulysses, which epitomized the modernist literary movement. He produced serious, allegorical fiction, written with the artistic beauty of poetry in perfectly balanced prose. Later, he uncovered the realms of the subconscious; the abode of the soul. No one before him, save Shakespeare, approached his command of the language and the emotional depth that it could convey.
One cannot mention twentieth century literature without beginning with his name, which ironically is an example of cadence itself. James Joyce forever.
James Joyce, by Grace You, Clarkstown High School North, NY.
James Joyce was the ultimate rebel. The embodiment of non-serviam. Forget those crazy French peasants, forget the Bolsheviks, forget Elvis. "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can
I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave
I will take the risk (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)." Joyce exiled himself from his homeland Ireland and denied the Catholic faith, for their repressive forces opposed his creative artistic spirit. "I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can." And this Joyce did with brilliance that struck the world and changed the face of modern literature forever.
From the very beginning, he was the artist; his devotion to art was unrivalled by any other passion, and greater than all other loves, even his family and homeland. Joyce aspired to create art that captured the essence of life, art that replayed the human experience purely, honestly, wholly. And for that purpose, Joyce was ready; if he had to take more risks, and utter further denials, he was willing. Just as he freed himself of the oppressive forces of Ireland, he freed himself of the conventional rules and standards of the literature of his time. So with his vision aflame -- his vision to write and capture the human experience -- Joyce took literature to new and unknown levels.
With no reservation, Joyce tore down and rebuilt literature. He did it brilliantly, consummately, masterfully. Employing radical styles and techniques of prose, he twisted, turned, molded, and shaped language into life. For example, Joyce employed a technique called stream-of-consciousness, which allowed him to reveal thoughts and ideas without inhibition or logical sequence, just as they came to the mind. In the realms of this technique, undoubtedly, his masterpiece Ulysses still remains the ultimate and definitive classic. With his first work, Dubliners, Joyce established himself as a master of the short story, and with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, an equal master of the novel. However, it took some time for such recognition, for Joyce's work was indeed truly new and revolutionary.
None in his time had attempted a purpose such as his with such great vigor. As painting captures a scene, as music captures a mood, with his language, Joyce desired to do it all; Joyce desired to capture the very essence of the human experience. He needed to depict every moment of life, from the shockingly "obscene" to the brutally honest to the heartbreakingly tragic to the sweetly mundane, and if he paid a price for the "obscene," so be it. He dared not compromise his art. He dared not compromise his purpose, his passion.
Thus, a brilliant genius merged with an unswerving commitment to the purpose of art, produced James Joyce, a writer that captured life in a way more real and beautiful and true than any other writer of his time and thereafter. The breathing soul, the moving mind, and the inevitable complexities of human experience -- he depicted with the exquisite perfection of an Artist. And so that real life, in the elaborate and intricate way we experience it, becomes more; expressed through the art of Joyce, it becomes extraordinary, and clothed in beauty that we could otherwise have overlooked. Our universal human struggles, pains, triumphs, and joys -- all the "reality of experience," he confirms and beautifies through language, through the written word.
And by this, he offers us a tremendous gift -- by celebrating the human experience, he ignites in us a passion to continue the experience, a passion to live.
"Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)."
Joyce with his innovation, passion, and brilliance, has influenced the literature of this modern age more than any other writer of the twentieth century. T.S. Eliot once remarked that James Joyce was the greatest master of the English language since Milton. The least I may confess is that he was the most influential writer of the twentieth century.
Tim O'Brien, by Amanda Tavel, Trevor Day School, NY.
In my fifteen years I haven't had time to read all the greatest writers of the past century. But based on my exposure to literature, Tim O'Brien's war stories have been more influential to me then any other works I have read. O'Brien writes about life and death. What could be more significant?
I remember a girl in my nursery class. Her name was Nancy. Before reading the last chapter of The Things They Carried, this classmate of mine had escaped from all my memories. I didn't know her well. I just remember her round, bald head glowing underneath the classroom lights. This amazed everyone. We didn't understand its meaning. We didn't understand that she had cancer in her lymph nodes. Nancy told us that she took some medication at night that made her lose clumps of her hair. Most of the time she wore beautiful straw hats laced with silk flowers and green sequins. She had a boyfriend, Daniel. Daniel and I had play-dates every so often. I remember sitting on the top of my bunk bed with him and hurling toy soldiers at the ground. We'd congratulate each other if one ever broke
"split" we called it. It was our version of death: the separated limbs, the lost heads. Death wasn't a concept that we could grasp. It had little meaning to either of us. It was a term as vague as religion or Republican or sex: all we knew was that it existed. But never did the meaning materialize in our lives. When Nancy stopped showing up for school it had little significance for me. In fact, I almost forgot she existed.
One afternoon when I got home from school, my mom told me that Nancy had passed away in her sleep over the weekend. I might have cried when I heard this, but for some reason I cannot remember. Maybe I blocked it out like so many other things I just couldn't make sense of. I cannot remember much about how Daniel reacted. I remember him telling me in the kitchen area at school that she didn't feel any pain when she died. But he didn't make much fuss over it.
The chapter, The Lives of the Dead, made sense of all my blurred memories, and made sense of the twist in the soldier-splitting games we played after Nancy's death. Instead of leaving the separated body parts all over my floor, we gave a sort of life to them. We made them ghost-weapons. We made them drift through the open sky of my room and gave them the power to hit other soldiers and knock them to the floor. Thinking about it now, it was our mourning. It was our remedy for dealing with such a complex idea. It was our way of avoiding what death really meant.
By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was. By our language, which was both hard and wistful, we transformed the bodies into piles of waste. Thus, when someone got killed, as Curt Lemon did, his body was not really a body, but rather one small bit of waste in the midst of a much wider wastage. I learned that words make a difference. It's easier to cope with a kicked bucket than a corpse; if it isn't human, it doesn't matter much if it's dead. (page 238 of The Things They Carried)
O'Brien hits the spot with this explanation. It is so true: people have to disguise the severity of death so it isn't as hard to endure. In Vietnam, death was so frequent that it became unreal. The soldiers had to pretend corpses were simply waste so it wasn't as painful to toss them into a truck. The game Daniel and I played was our way of making sense of death. Death wasn't the end of everything.
Although Tim O'Brien is not as well known as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, he has been the most meaningful writer of my life because he has taught me that life can be obliterated any second and there is no telling how or even why. The combination of dealing with life and enlightening a reader is an awe-inspiring ability that deserves more than praise. Tim O'Brien, Daniel, and I all devised the same strategy for weakening the force of death in order to cope with reality; we diminished it.
Ezra Pound, by Christopher R. Donohue, Gonzaga College High School, MD.
Into the Vortex: The Poetics of Ezra Pound
Even in the year 2001, the figure of Ezra Pound still remains an enigmatic, amalgamation of opposites. Perhaps one of the most brilliant poets in the human experience, Pound's work is still colored and shaped by his fascist leanings during World War II as well as periods of insanity in later life. To date, there has been little truly objective criticism of Pound's work. Arguably, no poet was more ambitious in what he believed his writing could communicate. Just as controversial is the assertion that Pound was one of the most influential poets ever to exist. Both the influence and brilliance of any poet are difficult to prove, but there is a great deal of evidence to support the conclusion that Ezra Pound was the most influential writer of the 20th century.
Foremost is Pound's attempt to reinvigorate the epic tradition, to produce a work equal or greater to those of Homer or Robert Browning, the author of Sordello, whom Pound believed to be the last author writing in the "epic" tradition. Pound's efforts to continue the Homeric tradition were brought to fruition in his most difficult work, The Cantos. This work embodies also another concept equally important, the focus on the image as the poetic vehicle. The image or series of images, which form the body of the work, also take on other attributes as the narration proceeds. Pound himself perhaps describes these additional attributes in the simplest fashion, stating, "The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster
a vortex from which and into which ideas are constantly moving."
In The Cantos, Pound attempts constantly to redefine the specific nature of the image. The text of Canto I states, "In the Cretan's phrase with the golden crown, Aphrodite,/ Cypi munimenta sortita est, mirthful, with golden/ Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids
" Pound is attempting to communicate many ideas at once, rising through a single image, Aphrodite. First, he defines Aphrodite as the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. He is also establishing Aphrodite's correlation with Persephone. The implied relationship with Persephone stems from Aphrodite's birth from blood and sea foam. The birth of Aphrodite correlates with Persephone's ascent from the Underworld at the spring fertility rite celebrated at Eleusis. Aphrodite was also the mother of Aeneas, who after the fall of Troy set out to found a city under Aphrodite's protection, much like the voyage of Odysseus, another canto motif. The figure, or image, of Aphrodite has plasticity, throughout the work she assumes an entire continuum of reference becoming a constantly reinterpreted concept.
The effects on Pound's fixation on the image and the "vortex" lead to an entire new movement in poetry, Imagism. This school of poetry created strict guidelines from concepts Pound espoused. This new school of poetry, the school of "1912", under Pound's guidance, included such authors as H.D. and James Joyce. Pound believed that three main tenants defined Imagism. First, he stated that Imagism should be concerned with, "The direct treatment of the thing, whether subjective or objective." Second, Imagism should, "use absolutely no word which does not contribute to its presentation." Third, Pound maintained that, "Regarding rhythm: to compose the sequence of the musical phrase, not the sequence of the metronome."
Pound's tendency to begin movements in poetry mirrors the effects of his personality on other poets. An essential example of this phenomenon is T.S. Eliot, another giant in 20th century poetry. Eliot, like Pound, used the image as a vehicle for poetic unity and for the elucidation of theme. For example, in The Waste Land, Eliot's seminal work, the figure of Tiresias appears as an "old man with wrinkled dugs." Furthermore, Eliot shares similar views on the image as a "vortex," for throughout the poem, Tiresias is a constantly changing figure. According to Eliot, "Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a "character," is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest." The figure of Tiresias is, in fact, the substance of what Eliot attempts to express. He is the sum of the experiences of humanity.
To close, Pound remains the most influential writer of the 20th century because he had the unique ability to create masterful works, as well as the dexterity and force of mind to change some of the basic assumptions about the role of language in poetical expression. Without Pound, there would have been no attempt to illustrate human experience as Homer did so aptly. A new definition of poetical language would not have been conceived had Pound never emerged on the scene. Most importantly, T.S. Eliot's poetry would not have achieved such depth and fervor without Pound's influence. Poetry, because of the efforts of Ezra Pound, remains a vibrant and fluid artistic medium.
Jean-Paul Sartre, by Talia Brooks, Amityville Memorial High School, NY.
Before we can answer the question of who is the most influential writer of the twentieth century, one is faced with the perplexing dilemma of determining what makes a writer influential. Is this individual merely someone who's been on best-seller lists for record-breaking periods of time or, perhaps, someone who has popularity at home and abroad? Maybe an influential writer is someone whose words have touched the lives of individuals and the public as a collective. A writer whose audience surpasses that of the pleasure reader, but consisting of literary contemporaries as well. Could an influential writer be someone who has even inspired strains of philosophical thought? If the aforementioned are considered qualifying criteria, then they most accurately epitomize the literary excellence of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Though Sartre's father died when he was a young boy, this did not inhibit him from being held in the high esteem of many as the "father of existentialism;" existentialism is a philosophical movement emphasizing individual existence, freedom, and choice. Sartre's atheistic beliefs coupled by his existentialist views serve as the basis for the unifying existentialist theme that existence precedes essence. He believed that human beings are abandoned in this world and one's essence is created through actions and choices, as there is no God to pre-conceive one's nature. Because man exists as a work-in-progress of his own design, man is burdened by such freedom for it brings responsibility. In life, man is surrounded by choices even when it appears that none exist; the refusal to make a choice is still nevertheless a choice.
One of the most fundamental concepts of Sartrean philosophy is of man being in the world and participating in this very being, not assuming the role of an idle bystander who views the world from a spectator vantage point. The very notion of consciousness is integral in existentialist thought because of the belief that through a sense of consciousness man makes choices that charter the course of his destiny. Man strives to make what he perceives to be the well-informed and right choice, but there may not be an apparent right one and man will have to face the consequences of his action.
Sartre's work served as a vehicle for the propulsion of existentialism to the level of capturing the attention and awareness of an international audience. The existentialist themes that have prevailed in his philosophical writings, novels, and plays have permeated the realms of literature, psychology, and political action. The central principle of Sartrean existentialism is that man is simply not "what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing -- as he wills to be after that leap towards existence." Its applicability to various life situations is one of the reasons as to why existentialism has endured and will continue to be endured over the years. The above captioned principle quite easily becomes themes of literature as presented by authors as diverse as Norman Mailer, John Barth, and Arthur Miller as well as a foundation for existential psychoanalysis emphasizing the assumption of a pro-active role in changing one's life. In addition, it has become a call for political action as one works towards reforms instead of waiting for them.
His profound impact on modern culture has been recognized by presenters of the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1964 "for his work, rich in ideas, and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, which has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age." However, being a man of his principles, Sartre declined this prestigious award because he believed that it would compromise his ability to live up to the expectations of his audience and fulfill the responsibilities he had to his readers. After all, one of the focal points of existentialism is assuming responsibility for the choices one makes, consciously or otherwise, in creating one's essence.
Bob Dylan, by Jordan Rost, Clarkstown High School North, NY.
(Special 11th Honorable mention for a well-defended and unusual selection!)
Bob Dylan is not your conventional writer, but who says greatness is limited to convention. Dylan was an avant-garde singer-songwriter who first hit the scene in the 1960's, a time marked by the expression of social angst. Through his music and his lyrics, Dylan led the movement that questioned society and broke away from the commercially successful formula designed to sell records that was commonplace at the time. Instead, he wrote music to express.
The Sixties saw a revolution among youth -- not just concentrating in small pockets or classes, but a revolution in a whole way of thinking. Dylan was at the forefront of this movement. His new approach to musical expression mirrored the changing times. Dylan attempted to convey his criticism of society and what needed changing. What better way to express his thoughts and feelings than through song? Thus, Dylan began his long career as a singer-songwriter, pioneering a new genre that he would front, leading to the success of artists like Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
Dylan wrote, sang and spoke out against all that he felt was wrong with the world. The song Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues, for example, was about the Communist Red Scare, one of the great issues of the time. Dylan opposed censorship, yet it reigned supreme when he was prohibited from performing this song on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1963. Many viewed his lyrics as heresy against the government and societal beliefs. Dylan was even tracked by the FBI at points during his career.
Yet, Dylan did not only use music to get his message across to the people. Dylan also composed poetry was very well accepted by the literary world. The poet laureate of Britain, Andrew Motion absolutely adores Dylan and his poetry. "He's one of the great artists of the century," Motion said. He feels that Dylan's poetic lyrics stand alone, and even without musical accompaniment retain the power and influence of musical versions. Dylan wrote from the heart and crafted both lyrics and poetry that were honest and moving. Another great fan of Dylan and his work was the Beatles. Arguably the most popular band of all time, one that sold millions upon millions of records worldwide, the Beatles epitomized popular music during their time, but they never forgot their debt to Dylan. Drummer Ringo Starr said, "Bob was our hero." Paul McCartney said, "Vocally and poetically Dylan was a huge influence. Lyrically he is still one of the best. Some of the long rambling poems he set to music are still some of my favorite pieces of work."
The saying, "Imitation is the highest form of flattery" is proven in the fact that groups ranging from Guns and Roses to The Grateful Dead have paid homage to his greatness by covering hundreds of Dylan's songs; to this day, millions of fans scream every time the Dave Matthews Band plays their rendition of Dylan's All Along the Watchtower.
Dylan represented the generation from which his music sprouted. Yet, unlike many of the "one-hit wonders," Bob Dylan is here to stay. Dylan's music has not fallen on deaf ears, and its message has remained equally strong over the years. His Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1997 for his Time out of Mind album came some 18 years after his first award for Gotta Serve Somebody. Dylan's epic, Hurricane, regained popularity in the late 90's, many years after its original release on his album Desire in 1976. Additionally, numerous tribute albums have been released during his long career, signifying how truly great his impression on the music world was, is and will continue to be.
The Modern Word Essay Contest is sponsored by The Great Books Foundation and Gotham Writers' Workshop. Cooperating Co-sponsors include Channel Thirteen/WNET New York, Bookreporter.com, Teenreads.com, the Center for Educational Innovation, and the College of the Humanities and Sciences.
Great Books Foundation -- The homepage of the Great Books Foundation. Contains links to their student programs.
Gotham Writers' Workshop -- Their homepage contains a wealth of useful links for writers.
-- Thirteen/WNET New York. The homepage of Channel Thirteen, New York City's PBS station, offers a host of services for teachers, administrators, parents, and adult educators.
Teenreads.com -- The Bookreporter.com's homepage for students and teenagers.
Humanities and Sciences Academy -- Official homepage of the Humanities and Sciences Academy and Institute.