The United States of Writers – Which State is King of the Union?

Gabe Habash -- July 27th, 2011

Ever wondered what U.S. states have the strongest literary tradition? Well, we’ve broken down the country into all 50 states, highlighting one singular writer to carry the flag for each. The results are surprising: the Midwest and the Northeast have the highest concentration of well-known writers, and a few states one might believe would have a strong history of pumping out writers are actually not all you’d think. Which state is the worst? The best? Find out below!

1. Alabama – Harper Lee. She put her home state on the literary map with one book.

2. Alaska – John Haines. One of the weakest states for writers…we even had to cheat to pick Haines, who, despite teaching at Alaska Fairbanks and serving as poet laureate of Alaska, was born in Virginia. You can do better, Alaska.

3. Arizona – Jeannette Walls. Another weak state for writers.

4. Arkansas – John Grisham. One of America’s most successful writers comes from a state you wouldn’t expect.

5. California – John Steinbeck. California has a good number of writers, but can’t compete with New York.

6. Colorado – Ken Kesey. The One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author got his start as a champion wrestler in high school in Colorado.

7. Connecticut – Annie Proulx. A strong leader for an otherwise light state.

8. Delaware – Howard Pyle. The legendary children’s author and illustrator is another strong choice in a state with little else to offer.

9. Florida – Carl Hiaasen. One of the weakest states relative to size and population. Without Hemingway propping up the state with his Key West home, would have very little to write home about.

10. Georgia – Flannery O’Connor. No writer better represents her home state.

11. Hawaii - Lois Lowry. Like Grisham, the children’s author comes from an unlikely place.

12. Idaho – Ezra Pound. Idaho holds its own simply because of Pound’s presence. Also home of Marilynne Robinson.

13. Illinois – Ernest Hemingway. The leader of a very strong state.

14. Indiana – Kurt Vonnegut. Another strong showing from the Midwest.

15. Iowa – Wallace Stegner. The Pulitzer winner leads another strong Midwestern state.

16. Kansas – William Inge. The Pulitzer Prize winner carries his home state.

17. Kentucky – Robert Penn Warren. An unlikely leader for a strong writer state.

18. Louisiana – Elmore Leonard. A state with a very strong literary tradition.

19. Maine – Stephen King. The surprise state of the list. Also home to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and many transplant writers.

20. Maryland – Edgar Allen Poe. The leader of the second strongest state in the mid-East Coast, behind Virginia.

21. Massachusetts – Emily Dickinson. One of the Northeast’s stronger states.

22. Michigan – Theodore Roethke. Along with Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio, Michigan anchors the Midwest.

23. Minnesota – F. Scott Fitzgerald. A titan from an unlikely place.

24. Mississippi – William Faulkner. Duh.

25. Missouri – Mark Twain. Be honest. You didn’t know Mark Twain was born in Florida, Missouri.

26. Montana – Maile Meloy. One of the weakest states in the country.

27. Nebraska – Tie: L. Ron Hubbard and Nicholas Sparks. Let’s just stop and appreciate the fact that L. Ron Hubbard and Nicholas Sparks both come from Nebraska.

28. Nevada – Walter Van Tilburg Clark. More cheating: Clark was born in Maine but grew up in Reno. He’s most famous for The Ox-Box Incident.

29. New Hampshire – John Irving. A solid literary state.

30. New Jersey – Philip Roth. Who is more inextricably bound to his respective home state: Roth or Faulkner?

31. New Mexico – Angelico Chavez. New Mexico is one of the least writer-rich states in the country, and though Chavez is best known as a priest and activist, he also wrote prolifically in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

32. New York – Tie: Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. New York is the unchallenged king of the U.S. when it comes to pumping out writers.

33. North Carolina – O. Henry. Much stronger than the other Carolina.

34. North Dakota – William H. Gass. One of the least-populated states in the country is home to the winner of 3 National Book Critics Circle Awards.

35. Ohio – Tie: Toni Morrison and James Thurber. A very strong state.

36. Oklahoma – Ralph Ellison. A big writing figure for a not-so-big literary state.

37. Oregon – Raymond Carver. The father of the modern short story carries the Northwest.

38. Pennsylvania – John Updike. A state surprisingly light on literary sons and daughters.

39. Rhode Island – Cormac McCarthy. Though he now lives in New Mexico (which boosts that state’s literary stature), he was born in Providence.

40. South Carolina – Dorothy Allison. Carries an otherwise weak state.

41. South Dakota – No one of note. The closest South Dakota has to literary tradition is that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s itinerant childhood stopped through Dakota territory in 1880.

42. Tennessee – James Agee. The Pulitzer Prize winner tops a respectable literary state.

43. Texas – Katherine Anne Porter. Along with Pennsylvania, Texas is the most surprisingly barren writer state. Who knew?

44. Utah – Thomas Savage. The western writer was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner and received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

45. Vermont – Dan Chiasson. Chiasson has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry, as well as a Pushcart Prize. If it weren’t for him, Vermont would have little to offer, especially in comparison to neighbor New Hampshire, which is even the home to famous literary rocks.

46. Virginia – Willa Cather. The strongest state in the mid-coast; also home to William Styron.

47. Washington – Chuck Palahniuk. A decently literary state; also home to Orson Scott Card.

48. West Virginia – Pearl S. Buck. Another surprise state. In addition to the Pulitzer winner, West Virginia is also the home state of Breece D’J Pancake, a writer who made a name for himself on only one story collection before his suicide.

49. Wisconsin – Laura Ingalls Wilder. Props up both South Dakota and Wisconsin.

50. Wyoming – C.J. Box. A bottom-of-the-barrel state for writers.

Agree? Disagree? Which state is underrated by this list? Which is overrated? Let us know!

20 thoughts on “The United States of Writers – Which State is King of the Union?

  1. Sarah

    Two things are a bit surprising and with which respectful disagreement must be taken. Why is the South not considered the richest literary area of the country? The literary heritage of Mississippi alone is extraordinary: not just Faulkner, but Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Willie Morris, Richard Wright, Richard Ford, John Grisham (born in Arkansas, as listed, but raised in Mississippi and very much considers himself a Mississippi writer), and this list just touches the surface of Mississippi and the South.

  2. Melissa Pilakowski

    Nicholas Sparks as Nebraska’s representative? Willa Cather seems the far more obvious choice than either Sparks or Hubbard. Or if you’d like someone more contemporary, Dan Chaon. Both Cather’s and Chaon’s writing represents Nebraskan culture and sense of place far better than Sparks. I’m not a fan of Hubbard’s, but at least he has an argument for being mentioned.

  3. Ruth Seeley

    Does one have to be a dead writer to get onto this list? (Oh no, I see Chuckie’s been included.) Richard Ford was born in Mississippi (although he lives in Montana now), Jane Smiley in California (although she grew up in Missouri) and Ann Beattie was born in Washington, DC. Fun list but how about a contemporary ‘putting states on the map’ list?

  4. Eric

    Though Hemingway was born in Oak Park and spent a considerable portion of his life in Chicago, I think he can be equally claimed by Paris and Key West. Hemingway is a proud part of IL’s literary history, but I think there are writers who better represent the texture of the state — Saul Bellow, David Foster Wallace, and Carl Sandburg jump to mind.

    And as for Arkansas, I think Charles Portis deserves the nod more than Grisham.

  5. Pingback: Great writers, by state « Southern California Writers' Conference

  6. Susan

    Have to mention just another few from NH, such as: JD Salinger,
    ee.cummings, born in MA but considered NH “home”, Charlene Billings, Dan Brown, from Exeter, Robert Frost, Joan Blos, Willa Cather, Dr. Seuss, graduated Dartmouth, Robert Hatch, American History, Jean Harlow, kids books….and the list goes on and on……..

  7. Jessie

    What does it matter if a person was born there? I was born in NM, but haven’t returned since I left at the tender age of 2. Having spent the last 12 years of my life in Wyoming, I consider myself a Wyomingite, through and through.

    PS: I applaud CJ Box for making the list, even if ya’ll don’t treat our state with the respect it deserves. Mary O’Hara Alsop spent 16 years in SE WY.

    1. Robert Champ

      I agree. Thomas Wolfe is a writer of great consequence, and should have been chosen to represent North Carolina. O’Henry is a fine writer, but not particularly an important one.

  8. Gladys

    Marilynne Robinson is from Sandpoint, Idaho (like Sarah Palin) and Housekeeping, her greatest, if not Pulitzer-winning, novel, is set in that state.

  9. Claire Kirch

    “F. Scott Fitzgerald. A Titan from an unlikely place.” Are you even kidding me? Minnesota is *crawling* with creative types, I find nothing unlikely about F. Scott being from this great state. The Midwest shaped him and his art. Where to begin, where to begin… writers from Minny… Charles Baxter. Garrison Keillor. Sinclair Lewis. Meridel Le Sueur. Robert Bly. Louise Erdrich. I could go on and on. This is a state with a longstanding and proud literary tradition. By the way, did you know Bob Dylan was born in Duluth? Not a writer, but another creative type whose homeland shaped him and his art.

  10. Jim

    “Connecticut – Annie Proulx. A strong leader for an otherwise light state.” Really? Mark Twain? Harriet Beecher Stowe? Nothing light about Connecticut’s literary tradition.

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