The Big Canon of Nonfiction Writers

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Nonfiction writer Gay Talese recently caused controversy by struggling to name which female writers have most inspired him. On Friday, New York’s Ann Friedman responded by listing “one good piece of nonfiction by a different woman writer published in every year since 1960, the year Esquire first published Talese.” Her list includes three Atlantic pieces:

  • Martha Gellhorn’s “The Arabs of Palestine” from our October 1961 issue. (Several more of her Atlantic stories are compiled here.)

  • Elizabeth Vorenberg’s “The Biggest Pimp of All” from our January 1977 issue. (The byline was shared with her husband, James.)

  • Penny Wolfson’s “Moonrise” from our December 2001 issue.

Friedman’s list also includes essays by Susan Orlean (“Figures in a Mall”), Samantha Power (“Dying in Darfur”), and Hanna Rosin (“The Madness of Speaker Newt”), all of whom have contributed to The Atlantic as well. For our May 2003 issue, Orlean wrote “Carbonaro and Primavera,” a travel piece about Cuba. For our September 2001 issue, Power wrote “Bystanders to Genocide,” based on a series of interviews about the Rwandan massacres, which begin 22 years ago last week. Rosin, our long-time national correspondent, has written dozens of articles for The Atlantic, most recently our December 2015 cover story, “The Silicon Valley Suicides.”

Friedman’s list started in 1960, so we thought we’d take a look at our deep archive for some notable nonfiction works by women:

  • Charlotte Forten (Wikimedia)

    Charlotte Forten’s “Life on the Sea IslandsA young black woman describes her experience teaching freed slaves (May 1864)

  • Eudora Clark’s “Hospital Memories I & IIMemories from a war-time hospital (Aug and Sep 1867)  

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The True Story of Lady Byron’s Life” ‘She has not spoken at all; her story has never been told’ (Sep 1869)

  • Ida M. Tarbell’s “A Little Look at the People” (May 1917)

  • Pearl S. Buck’s “In China, TooReflections on the social and cultural changes transforming China’s young people (Jan 1923)

  • Helen Keller’s “Put Your Husband in the Kitchen” (Aug 1932)

  • Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part IExploring the Balkans to see for herself why the fate of the Continent and of England has so often been threatened by the Powderkeg of Europe. (Jan 1941)

  • Helen Hill Miller’s “Science: Careers for WomenSome of the work being done in science both by single women and by those who successfully combine marriage and a career (Oct 1957)

Most of our writings before 1960 have yet to be digitized, but thanks to Sage Stossel—our cartoonist, contributing editor, and general keeper of Atlantic archival knowledge—we know about many other early contributors of nonfiction, including food writer M.F.K Fisher, playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, aviator and Gift from the Sea author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, second-wave feminist pioneer Germaine Greer, and the choreographer and dancer Agnes de Mille (whom we recently noted for International Women’s Day).

As Friedman says for her list, ours is just a start. So in the coming weeks, we’re planning to dig into our post-1960 archive to surface and digitize some of our best nonfiction writing by female writers and take a closer look at its diversity or lack thereof. If you’re a long-time Atlantic reader and have any favorite pieces that left a big impression on you, please let us know: