Friday, May 14, 2010

American giants

Big and expansive are adjectival qualities that seem to fit with America and its literature, a number of novels swaggering forth like playground bullies, the moral force and message of the authors straining the society about them as though it were a pair of used denims at a thrift shop.

Gatsby is all over hell and gone, its visions tart, unsympathetic, sometimes bordering on anti-Semetic, but when all is said and done and Nick Caraway has us oars against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past, it is not so much Nick's romanticism we feel as it is Fitzgerald's own sense of feeling betrayed.

Huck Finn, meant as a boy's adventure by an author just turned fifty,at the two-thirds mark of his life, and wanting boyhood again, could not help himself; he let so much of the artist in him slip free of his wife and friends for a rip-snorting venture that he captured lightning in a bottle and nearly kept it all there until his conscience somehow caught up with him and he tacked that dreadful reemergence of Tom Sawyer into it at the end. Still, there was a sassiness about him when he lit out for the territory ahead, and his accounts of the Grangeford-Shepherdson feud and his fun with European nobility, and the way he was willing to risk going to hell for his realization that neither the runaway slave, Jim, nor any person should be reduced to a state of mere chattel. There were all these moments to counterbalance the weights sewn into his cuffs by his conscience and the society he tried so hard to please.

There was the absolute perfection of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, standing so proud and illustrative of the small lives of small persons that it radiated outward in stature. Like Twain, he, too, should have remained west, where his instrument was forged, whence he came and brought with him the voices and sensitivities of his origins.

These are merely three: Willa Cather, Jack London, Ring Lardner, and for all he wrote clunkily, Theodore Dreiser, not to forget Grace Paley, all of them grabbing large hunks and moulding them into persons who sounded and yearned like us. They had in common the ability to find the giant amid the undistinguished, making large of the small, igniting a force that lit up and warmed the imagination of those who followed and read.

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