50 Major Milestones in Literature?

Don’t we all just love lists? This one is from early in 2013 and might, as it’s author suggests, generate a bit of controversy. All the items are written in English so don’t look for Flaubert or Balzac on the list. For some reason the Russians have also gone underground and even the great Spanish writers have to keep their adventures to themselves. Who knew literature was an English thing?

What follows in a self-revealed highly partisan and impressionistic catalogue of the fifty major milestones in literature, or at least in literature from the English speaking world. Published in The Guardian in Robert McCrum’s Blog “On Books,” it makes no claim to be comprehensive. Rather, it aims to stimulate a discussion about the turning-points in the world of books and letters from the King James Bible to the present day.

  1. The death of Christopher Marlowe (1593)
  2. William Shakespeare: The Sonnets (1609)
  3. The King James Bible (1611)
  4. William Shakespeare: The First Folio (1623)
  5. John Milton: Areopagitica (1644)
  6. Samuel Pepys: The Diaries (1660-69)
  7. John Bunyan: Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
  8. John Locke: Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)
  9. William Congreve: The Way of the World (1700)
  10. Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
  11. Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels (1727)
  12. Samuel Johnson: A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
  13. Thomas Jefferson: The American Declaration of Independence (1776)
  14. James Boswell: Life of Johnson (1791)
  15. Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography (1793)
  16. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)
  17. William Wordsworth: “The Prelude” (1805)
  18. Jane Austen: Pride & Prejudice (1813)
  19. Lord Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812)
  20. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Shakespearean Criticism (1818)
  21. Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The American Scholar” (1837)
  22. Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution (1837)
  23. The uniform Penny Post (1840)
  24. Thomas Hood: “The Song of the Shirt” (1843)
  25. Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights (1847)
  26. Charles Dickens: David Copperfield (1849)
  27. Herman Melville: Moby Dick (1851)
  28. Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South (1855)
  29. Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species (1859)
  30. Henry Thoreau: Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854)
  31. Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
  32. Lewis Carroll: Alice In Wonderland (1865)
  33. Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (1868)
  34. First commercially successful typewriter, USA. (1878)
  35. George Eliot: Middlemarch (1871)
  36. Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
  37. Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
  38. Thomas Hardy: Poems (c.1900)
  39. JM Barrie: Peter Pan (1904)
  40. James Joyce: Ulysses (1922)
  41. TS Eliot: The Waste Land (1922)
  42. F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (1925)
  43. George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
  44. Ian Fleming: Casino Royale (1953)
  45. Jack Kerouac: On The Road (1957)
  46. Maurice Sendak: Where The Wild Things Are (1963)
  47. Truman Capote: In Cold Blood (1966)
  48. WG Sebald: Vertigo (1990)
  49. The launch of Amazon.com (1994)
  50. JK Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
  51. Plus a bonus book – Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters (1998)

I might consider Virginia Woolf’s writing as well as her involvement in the Hogarth Press to be significant and wonder why two of the greatest examples of English literature were overlooked: Tristram Shandy and The Anatomy of Melancholy. But, as I hinted, it’s a particularly insulting form of literary hubris to assume or suggest that the fifty greatest events in the last 500 years were all in English and all from England or her (at one time) colonies. Besides, everyone knows that most great English literature is actually Irish.

One interesting note on this list: the first typewriter gets an entry but the last typewriter does not. I guess the computer wasn’t significant in the creation, publishing, or distributing of literature around the world. Or do you think the computer is just a passing fad and the Luddites are going to take over the world?

The computer may be a marvel but with today’s network I can sit at my desk in Florida, order a digital book from a bookseller in London, and start reading seconds later.

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