Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Who's Harold Pinter?"

The back story:
While on campus as an RA for the Kenyon Review's Young Writer program for high school age students, the alumni magazine began photo shoots for various 'Kenyon legends'. One of them was the rumor that the Great Hall was runner-up for filming the Harry Potter movies (a very fitting rumor for today, too). They needed eight models, and there just happened to be eight RA's for Young Writers -- and we're all English majors -- perfect! They dressed us up and we had to do different poses at every table in the Great Hall, which will later be photoshopped together into an amazing picture of Hogwarts-at-Kenyon (read your next alumni magazine). Anyway, I decided to channel a different author at each table for my poses. Towards the end, I announced to my very literary comrades that at this table, I was Harold Pinter. In reply, the most hipster-literary one turns to me and asks "Who's Harold Pinter?"

My question to you, bloggers, is how can an American college English major not know who Pinter is, but a British anything-major can name his three most famous works?

Okay, I'm not a Harold Pinter fan. Why am I defending the man? Because I respect how he changed not only theater, but literature. Yes, he's British. Of course the Brits know more about him. But the man won the Nobel Prize recently and also died in the past year with a big hullabaloo from the press. I hadn't realized that it was possible for a Kenyon student to have not heard of him. Can we claim to be a literary college if people are graduating without hearing the name of Harold Pinter once? It's high-time those reading list windows in Peirce got updated.

I don't mean to be presumptuous about this, but if Kenyon students haven't heard of Pinter... what does that say about the rest of America? Are we out of touch? Perhaps the British are just infinitely more cultured than us. Although, fascinatingly, there are major American authors their unviersity students have never heard of either ("Who's Kurt Vonnegut?"). But at least their American Lit classes include Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. And most of them have heard of Edward Albee. That still leaves out other American landmarks like August Wilson -- but hey, most Americans haven't heard of him yet.

There's talk that the only reason we have "classic" American authors now is because someone wrote a book and said that Hawthorne and Melville were geniuses and we should read them. One person reached into two hundred years of early-American writing and picked out a handful of people to call quintessentially American. Today, we have a jumble of consistently-mediocre authors and one-hit wonders. Is it time for another shortlist of American Lit for the people to read?


Here's my shortlist of 5 American playwrights (I won't even get into the British). Who's on yours?

Edward Albee
Arthur Miller
Thornton Wilder
August Wilson
Tony Kushner
--- honorary mention: Suzan-Lori Parks, Tracy Letts

And, just for kicks, 10 American authors I love:

Edgar Allan Poe
Richard Wright
Kurt Vonnegut
T.S. Eliot
Carl Sandburg
Robert Penn Warren
Mark Twain
Shel Silverstein
Tim O'Brien
James Baldwin


  1. The fact that a trendy Kenyon literary person didn't know who Pinter was is saddening to me. You know someone is defining when their name is used to describe things that are like it. I can't really think of any other playwright whose name can be put before "-esque" on a regular basis. He redefined the concept of a pause in modern theater.

    Favorite playwrights (I chose not to restrict myself to Americans, as this would mean leaving off McDonagh.)

    Martin McDonagh
    Christopher Durang
    Nicky Silver
    Paul Rudnick
    Alan Ayckbourn

    Martin McDonagh
    David Mamet
    Harold Pinter
    Tony Kushner
    Eugene O'Neill

  2. I'm frequently surprised when people don't know authors. It's funny that you mention Pinter - next time you see me ask me why. Personally, I love Pinter.