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JULY 25, 2014
a u s t
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If you write a lot, sometimes you publish
a sentence that is so silly you just have to
walk away from it and not look back.
Take this parenthesis I wrote last year:
“(And hey: Henry Miller, Willa Cather, and
Mark Twain are the only American novel-
ists certain to outlast the era of America’s
All right, that night I was temporarily
Not until I saw the sentence in print did I
blanch at its flip grandiosity. But slowly,
almost reluctantly, I’ve decided that I agree
with myself.
The very term “American literature” is
propaganda for the primacy of the United
States. There are 35 sovereign nations in
the Americas and only one calls itself
“America,” and only “Americans” think
that’s OK. (When Simón Bolívar said
“America” he meant all the Americas, not
just one country.)
Well, it’s too ingrained: I’m an American,
not a UnitedStatesian. There’s American
literature and Latin American literature.
(Canadian writers get left all by their lone-
some.) But my attitude will one day be a
historical oddity.
For the last century, no matter your
nationality, to think clearly about your
nation you had to know about the United
States, because the USA had a long reach
and exercised its grip with muscular,
uncaring skill. The USA could make you or
break you.
Now our great power is on the skids,
and everybody knows it. No neocon’s
bluster can slow that slide. When a great
power falters, every aspect of its culture
loses the charisma to attract attention
past its borders.
While the sun never set on the British
Empire, everyone anywhere who claimed to
be literate had a working knowledge of
British literature. Now who pays attention?
(Name your five favorite living British nov-
elists. Name your three.) The UK continues
to birth great novelists – Anthony Powell,
and colonials Lawrence Durrell (India) and
Doris Lessing (Zimbabwe/Rhodesia) – but
only intellectuals noticed. Since 1945,
George Orwell alone spanned the world.
As the American Century dims in memo-
ry, will Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott
Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner be read
when comprehending the American charac-
ter is merely an intellectual interest rather
than a cultural and political necessity?
Already the pain that permeates
The Sun Also Rises
reads like
self-pitying clinical depression if you don’t
know how World War I shattered a civiliza-
tion’s zeitgeist. Even if you do, now we’ve
seen shattered zeitgeist after shattered zeit-
geist, a carny parade of zeitgeists gone to
pieces, so big deal, Hemingway, you had to
eat your zeitgeist, what’s new?
The brilliance of Hemingway’s style is
always there for all who love American
English, but, for longevity, content counts
more than style.
Fitzgerald’s prose is a joy, and, in his
way, he’s fearless, but his passion was for a
tony white America at the peak of its self-
importance. The world is sick of that
America. Again: To reach the pantheon of
world literature is a matter, not of style, but
of content.
Faulkner is a genius of form whose moral
failure was to use his genius to ennoble the
immorality of Southern white culture. With
Gone With the Wind
hypocrisy, Faulkner’s
backdrop is always the Old South mystique
of the Confederacy, without which he is
incomprehensible. (In contrast, Flannery
O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston have no
use for that mystique.)
To gauge the hypocrisies of Faulkner
and of the Confederacy’s white descen-
dants, read
All God’s Dangers: The Life of
Nate Shaw
, the spoken autobiography of a
brilliant, illiterate black sharecropper.
Shaw’s dates are 1885-1973. Faulkner’s,
1897-1962. They write/speak of a shared era,
Shaw in Alabama, Faulkner in
All God’s Dangers
a volume that can’t date,
because, as Jesus put it, the
poor are always with us,
and Shaw speaks of how
a poor man, a spurned
man with no resource
but integrity, may face
the world on his own
terms (though it cost
him 12 years in prison).
Enter Toni Morrison,
who did something she
may or may not have been
interested in: She made an hon-
est woman of our vaunted canon –
because that canon was a preposterous pose
while it lacked a great novel written by an
African-American about American slavery.
is that novel.
But can
be felt without the pres-
ence of American slavery still in the air (for,
oh, it is still in the air)?
may not
resonate beyond our borders and our era,
but Morrison’s
is deeply
just is.
stands in
her isness and defies. For
, a country
called America never existed and never
could exist as anything but a lie. No, not a
lie: a fantasy. In
’s light, most American
writers have babbled about a fantasy that
history will find laughable.
As to my parenthetical canon:
Henry Miller can be read with profit any-
where and any when. He didn’t give a fuck
about any nation and wrote novels that he
knew, without doubt, would be outlawed in
his own – as was true for many years. Miller
was after big game: “The labyrinth is my
happy hunting ground.” Every culture has
that labyrinth and the need to befriend and/
or slay its Minotaur. There’s no better or
happier guide than Miller, but be careful:
He doesn’t mind if the reader’s fondest
hopes get killed on this page or that.
Willa Cather wrote wonderfully about
Nebraska, New York City, and the
Southwest, but her themes transcend
national identity. Her body of work asks
two classical questions. How does capital-B
Beauty function in real life? And: If you’re
rare enough to be truly individual, how do
you survive?
Ah, Mark Twain – the many who praise
Huck Finn as the quintessential American
character really do not get the point:
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
ends with
Huck’s utter and unequivocal rejection of
his America. He even rejects money. He’s
headed for the “territories.” Twain gave us
Huck in the context of an America that jus-
tified the enslavement of human beings.
Huck’s liberty and Jim’s slavery jam
against each other and demand a choice.
No novel has expressed America’s paradox
more vividly or rejected its options with
such finality.
Why will Huck be valuable and immortal
as an archetype? Because Huck is the most
American of Americans, yet he rejects
America. Huck dares to be utterly himself,
apart from the society that formed him.
Hamlet, Odysseus, Don Quixote, Anna
Karenina, David Copperfield,
Bigger Thomas, Nick Adams,
Jay Gatsby, Jean Valjean,
Hester Prynne, Aureliano
Buendía – they don’t do
that. No great archetype
of world literature that I
can think of (perhaps
you can correct me?)
makes that move. Huck
embodies, but rejects –
without an ounce of angst.
To judge greatness by
longevity is intellectually
sloppy. Something great may
merely flash and disappear, yet
still be great. I’m only wondering how
American literature will fare without
America – that is, without an America the
world must heed.
We no longer live in an America that has
a literature. We writers, I mean. Ours is the
nation that used to be America, and we’re
just writers in it.
But Thomas Wolfe’s
Look Homeward,
… James Jones’
FromHere to Eternity
… Jack London, William Carlos Williams,
Emily Dickinson … the diaries of Anaïs Nin
… the essays of James Baldwin … I love
them too much to believe they’ll fade, but,
alas, that’s just love talking. (And hey:
Think how cutely antique our term “post-
modern” will sound in, oh, 125 years.)
In a thousand years it will all be incom-
prehensible, but for one uneducated
Brooklynite who set his own type, printed
his own book, and hawked it door to door.
People will read Walt Whitman as long as
people read, and, because of him, they will
think we Americans were a lucky, reckless,
splendid people, and they’ll pine for the
days of the barbaric yawp.
j a s o n s t o u t
So big Deal, Hemingway