Is there a common method to adscribe a writer/painter/person as belonging to a certain century?

As in "Herman Melville was a 19th century writer who...". Is it only used in such clear cases as someone born and dead inside the same century? Is it a matter of active years?

Doris Lessing (1919 - 2013) only wrote 3 or 4 books in the 21st century and lived most of her life in the 20th century. Margaret Atwood, born in 1939 has written more than a dozen books in the 21st century, J.K. Rowling lived for 35 years in the 20th century yet the majority of her work has been, and will be, created in the 21st. Cervantes wrote Quijote I in 1605 and II in 1615, his first novel dates back to 1585, and he only lived 16 years in the 17th century.

I understand that there are also chronological periods/eras to focus on (Shakespeare belonged to Elizabethan and Jacobean eras) and also artistic ones, but my question regards only centuries. I understand that the case may be that it is not advisable to refer by centuries to writers whose life/career spans 2 centuries.

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    What's the context? A classification system like the Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress Classification may require something like this. Actually, I can see that it is relevant to LC: PS991-(3390), for example, is for American authors from the 19th century. If you're not using a well-known standard, you can do what you want. Personally, I'd think you would want your descriptions to best support whatever point you're making. Is Lessing more like Edith Wharton (won a Pulitzer in 1921) or Louise Erdich (won in 2021)? Does it even make sense to ask that question?
    – Juhasz
    Aug 17, 2022 at 21:17
  • You are right, I hadn't thought that classifying according to centuries could be important in something like libraries. My concern is more with descriptions (i.e: "Melville. 19th century novelist and poet") and I am more interested in whether there is a "standard practice", (i.e.: If a person lived in the 20th century more than half of her life... if a writer published their most recognized/awarded book in a certain century we tend to assign them...) Aug 18, 2022 at 7:51
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    If you’re seeking a standard practice then I guess it would depend on in what domain; maybe there is some organization that had to decide on a protocol, but of course then it would only apply to that organization. In general referring to an author by their century isn’t an absolute judgment, just a subjective way of describing them. I’m sure people say “20th to early 21st century” sometimes. Oct 2, 2022 at 11:42
  • People pick the century in which they did most of their writing, at least in the relevant genre or form, if they have to specify a century. But also if someone was strongly associated with a particular time period or literary movement. But there are many alternative chronological specifiers e.g. Romantic, Georgian, Modernist, Qing dynasty, Showa, post-independence, pre-revolutionary... In the absence of universal rules (which appear not to exist), the question seems a bit too general: if you have a specific author or a specific classification system in mind, that might help.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 4, 2022 at 10:26

1 Answer 1


The Library of Congress system is generally to place people in the year range of their first publication, so J. K. Rowling is cataloged under PR6068.O93 (for British Authors 1961-2000, last name starting with R, the second part being the cutter number that uniquely distinguishes her from contemporaries with last names starting with R).

Cervantes, is catalogued under Spanish literature, individual authors and works to 1700 so the century problem is resolved moot for him (older authors of some notoriety also get more expansive selections of call numbers with Cervantes being granted the whole range from PQ6322–PQ6361 while many other Spanish authors before 1700 will live in e.g., PQ6365.C2 for Valentín Antonio de Céspedes.

For less formal systems, a lot depends on context. Usually an author will be connected with the period in which their most notable work was written, so Shakespeare usually belongs to 16th century literature while Ben Jonson goes in the 17th century bucket, although edge cases can be exploited for the benefit of the person doing the categorization. There’s no reason that one couldn’t teach George Bernard Shaw in both a 19th century drama course and a 20th century drama course, for example, and T. S. Eliot and Henry James can find homes in anthologies of both British and American literature.

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