June 18, 2001

Writers Who Had the Greatest Influence on Me

This is a work in progress, like most of what's available on my web page. My focus here is strictly personal, a teasing out of what influenced me.

Several philosophers helped me develop my particular stance toward religion and ethics: Walter Kaufmann, Bertrand Russell, William James, Leo Tolstoy, Lin Yutang, Kai Nielsen, and W. W. Bartley, III. Of these, Russell and Kaufmann are the most important atheists, towering over the rest. Tolstoy and William James helped me to appreciate the possibilities of religion.

Henry Thoreau stands apart from these philosophers, stimulating a more general attitude of "I'm OK." Probably a more important influence than any of the above, but I think in more subtle ways that are harder to characterize.

Feminist writers were generally persuasive in their field, but not otherwise, particularly: Gloria Steinem, Sonja Johnson, and Ingrid Bengis.

Several writers and speakers affected me politically, directing me into populism in politics and economics, including: John Holt, Noam Chomsky, Holly Sklar, Helen Caldicott, Ralph Nader, Jerry Brown, Jim Hightower, and Molly Ivins.

A number of writers helped me to appreciate beauty in language, and stimulated me to write poetry: Edmund Rostand, Edward Fitzgerald (through the Rubaiyat), and most especially, William Shakespeare.

Two writers in particular nourished the budding writer within me, to the extent that for many years I thought my true calling was to be a novelist: Jack Woodford and John Gardner. Also helpful was Dorothea Brande (spelling?).

A couple of writers in particular helped me develop my ideal image of man as I was growing up (i.e., in my teens especially): A. E. van Vogt and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Probably also influential were Leslie Charteris, Mickey Spillane, and Ian Fleming, all spy/crime/adventure writers.

Comments on Specific Writers

To a degree, these are arranged chronologically:

A. E. van Vogt--encouraged my aspirations to intellectual competence, got me interested in General Semantics, which helped me develop some habits of clearer thought

Edgar Rice Burroughs--provided role models of "good men" through characterization of Tarzan, John Carter, and others

Walter Kaufmann--very helpful in my development and maturation as an atheist and philosophical thinker

Bertrand Russell--gave me an entry point into philosophy; Conquest of Happiness seems particularly important

Leo Tolstoy--gave voice to my own concerns re greatness/futility; provided an inspiring example of a man's struggle with the profound questions

Frederick S. "Fritz" Perls--an important influence, I think mostly through his attitude and autobiographical works rather than by my superficial understanding of his psychological theories

Kai Nielsen--A minor influence, his writings on atheism filled in some chinks in my rationalization of atheism

Lin Yutang--The Importance of Living is delightful and reinforced my rejection of Christianity (not that this needed reinforcing) by ridiculing it, as well as giving me an increased appreciation of Chinese culture and literature

John Holt--His Freedom and Beyond was perhaps my first, and certainly my most important early, exposure to populism in social justice and economics; his How Children Fail, more than any other one book, showed me what is wrong with teaching as we know it

William James--His Varieties of Religious Experience showed me a middle ground between scientism and religiosity, approximately my present stance on this conflict

Jonathan Kozol--Influenced me towards liberalism and populism in politics, encouraged questioning of school policies and practices, and provided a corrective to some of Holt's excessively liberal theories of education

Henry Thoreau--An important influence; Walden encouraged me to think outside the boundaries of our culture and popular lifestyles

Daniel Dennett--A minor influence; his Consciousness Explained has been important in my understanding of the mind

Eleanor Porter--Her Pollyanna provided a vision of happiness and how to achieve it, sort of

Ludwig Wittgenstein--His On Certainty and quotes from his work in Nielsen's books encouraged me to see the groundlessness of our beliefs

Ingrid Bengis--Combat in the Erogenous Zone helped me to empathize with women in a man's world

Edmund Rostand--His character of Cyrano de Bergerac, heroic and brazen, became a role model for me to the extent that I adopted Cyrano as a handle on computer chat boards

William Shakespeare--An appreciation of his plays encouraged me to seek out other classics and provided role models of moral courage

To be explained:

Martin Gardner

Roger Tory Peterson

Neil Postman

Alan Watts

Omar Khayyam (Edward Fitzgerald)

Albert Camus

Thomas Nagel

Karl Popper

Thomas Hardy

George Eliot

Jane Austen