The Authors That Tower Over the Western Lit. Canon

There are a number of artists whose work withstands the test of time and continues to inspire and define the world of literature and art today. Through their words, generations of readers have found a deeper understanding of human nature and a window into another time period. Works of this caliber continue to elicit questions, inspiration and comparisons years after their creation.

Though there are many authors worthy of exploration, this guide will provide a cursory overview on a few and highlight how their works continue to define the canon today.

Shakespeare
Few artists of any kind are as revered as Shakespeare. His works are studied by people around the world, and his impact on the English language has never faded.

Born in 1564 in England, many consider him the greatest dramatist of all time, with a level of brilliance never to be fully rivaled. “Other writers have applied their keenness of mind… but Shakespeare is astonishingly clever with words and images, so that his mental energy, when applied to intelligible human situations, finds full and memorable expression, convincing and imaginatively stimulating,” from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

His most famous works include The Tempest, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. He was a prolific artist in his lifetime, and a comprehensive list of his titles can be explored here.

The Academy of American Poets has a comprehensive guide to the life and works of Shakespeare; and the Folger Shakespeare Library has the largest collection of written works and authoritative articles on the great Will.

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf is regarded as one of the foremost modernist authors of the 21st century, according to the European Graduate School. Born in London in 1882, Woolf was plagued by depression including her first nervous breakdown at the age of 13, after the death of her mother. Ultimately depression cost her her life – Woolf committed suicide in 1941 at the age of 59.

Woolf was known for being outspoken on issues of women’s access to career opportunities; her work also examined the impact of war on society and vice versa. Her most famous works include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), her feminist essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) and The Waves (1931).

Mrs. Dalloway was named one of the 100 best novels written in the last 100 years by Time magazine, and was loosely adapted for film by Michael Cunningham in a film titled The Hours, which was Woolf’s original title for Mrs Dalloway.

The Modernism Lab at Yale University features an in-depth Woolf biography and essays on her works.

James Joyce
Joyce was born in Ireland in 1882 as the oldest surviving child of 10. Joyce published a number of works that continue to be revered today. The Random House list of 100 best modern novels features two of Joyce’s novels in the top five.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was Joyce’s first novel, published in 1914. Also published in 1914, Dubliners is a collection of vignettes, or short stories, about life in Dublin at the end of the 19th Century.

Banned in America until the 1930s for its pornographic nature, Ulysses is perhaps Joyce’s best known work, and is celebrated by fans around the world. Every June 16th his most dedicated fans celebrate “Bloomsday,” which is the day that the action of the book takes place.

Finnegans Wake was published in 1939 in a dream form that tells the story of a family and the history of Ireland. The book has earned itself an “undeserved reputation for being incomprehensible and unreadable,” according to the James Joyce Centre, which encourages readers to unfold the beauty of this challenging work.

The James Joyce Centre is an excellent resource for biographical information of Joyce’s life and his works, Joyce events and reading guides.

William Faulkner
William Faulkner was an American writer born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1897 whose works are beloved to this day. A poet, novelist and screenplay writer, Faulkner won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949.

Faulkner built upon each of his stories and novels to construct a greater picture of the imaginary county of Yoknapatawpha. His pieces followed the theme of a decaying old South and often revolved around the impact of racial prejudices.

Some of his works include The Sound and the Fury (1929), the novel Sanctuary (1931), its sequel Requiem For A Nun (1951) and Intruder In the Dust (1948).

The William Faulkner Foundation has in-depth analysis and information about the author. The University of Virginia houses a unique collection of papers and manuscripts bequeathed by Faulkner himself.

T.S. Eliot
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot is regarded as one of the most daring of 20th century poets, according to the Nobel Prize Foundation, which awarded Eliot in 1948. Eventually settling in England, Eliot became a British citizen and worked there for much of his life.

Eliot believed that poetry should represent the complexities of modern civilization in its language, which made his poetry sometimes difficult to understand, according to the Nobel Prize Foundation.

His most notable works include Prufrock (1917), the Four Quartets (1943), The Waste Land (1922), Ash Wednesday(1930) and Definition of Culture (1948). His poems often describe the disillusionment of a younger post-World-War-I generation with the values and conventions of the Victorian era, according to the Academy of American Poets.

The University of Illinois features a comprehensive resource for Eliot information on its Modern American Poetry site.

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