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English literature's 50 key moments from Marlowe to JK Rowling


What have been the hinge points in the evolution of Anglo-American literature? Here's a provisional, partisan list

BBC Radio Three is currently broadcasting a fascinating series on the "50 key works" of classical music. This is a spin-off from Howard Goodall's BBC2 television series and its tie-in book, The Story of Music (Chatto), and it crystallises – for the amateur listener – the turning points in the evolution of the classical tradition in the most enthralling way. Did you, for instance, know that Procul Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale contains a harmonic line that is pure Bach?

So much for music. Following Radio 3, I've found myself speculating about the 50 key moments in the Anglo-American literary tradition. Arguably, Goodall's very good idea works almost as well for the history of the printed page.

Note: what follows is not merely a book list, but an attempt to identify some of the hinge moments in our literature – a composite of significant events, notable poems, plays, and novels, plus influential deaths, starting with the violent death of Shakespeare's one serious rival …

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: 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)

Plus a bonus book - Ted Hughes: Birthday Letters (1998)

This catalogue, in conclusion, is highly partisan and impressionistic. It makes no claim to be comprehensive (how could it?). 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.

Over to you.

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