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  • Writer's pictureWyatt Underwood

When Authors Lived, Died, and Published Their Most Famous Book

Books aren’t written in a vacuum: The history of literature is not divorced from history as a whole. They intersect and influence each other, as we’ve mapped out in this American literature timeline. Using the 100 most popular books from the Great American Read list, a survey that asked thousands of Americans what their favorite books were, we’ve created an author timeline highlighting each of these 100 major works of literature. The timeline of writers also shows when each author lived and died as well as what eras they lived through, including the tumultuous events of the 19th and 20th centuries. This list contextualizes the lives of some of the most beloved American and British authors.

The timeline is also a good way of showcasing different periods of literature, like post-modernism and modernism, and how world events influence the history of American literature. A timeline of famous authors also shows us who were contemporaries. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were roughly the same age and knew each other well. Another contemporary of theirs was E.B. White, who was famous among literature authors for The Elements of Style and famous among children for Charlotte’s Web. All three of them were modernist writers of the “Lost Generation” who were extremely influential and lived through both world wars. While examining the early American authors on the timeline by era, one can also see how major events like wars or economic issues influenced their works.

Of course, looking only at a historical timeline of world literature might not tell you everything about the when and why of different kinds of literary movements. There are exceptions. For instance, Zadie Smith, who wrote White Teeth, and Chinua Achebe, who wrote Things Fall Apart, were not contemporaries in the generational sense, but both novels were post-colonialist works.

Our English writers timeline represents not the complete canon of literary works but America’s favorite books and their most popular authors; it’s not limited to American literature specifically but rather what America considers to be literature. The timeline can help us keep authors’ lives and the greater context of their world in view, and this American authors list can be a great study guide for those looking for historical context. Then again, you could always disregard this context entirely, an approach known as the death of the author; either way, these works are well worth reading.

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