Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An Immodest Proposal

What is American literary identity?
Is it another metaphor for immigrants funneling their way through Ellis Island, having their names and heritages anglicized by first-generation editors, happy to have decent jobs? Or equally to the point, maybe it was an earlier, melting-pot breed of teachers, pushing copies of Middlemarch, The Brothers Karamazov, and Madam Bovary into our hands, telling us to shut up, watch our accents, and start reading these.
Henry James. T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound lit out for Europe as though it were the territory ahead, through their writing becoming the “them” of Europe, leaving the “us” of America to fend for ourselves.
When an iconoclastic, working-class Englishman “went West” by coming to New Mexico, then took our literary pulse nearly a hundred years ago in Studies in Classic American Literature, he observed how we were literally running to flab in our desire to please rather than impress Europeans. We were, D.H. Lawrence observed, turning our collective back on the search for our own identity.
Using D.H. Lawrence’s 1923 work as the inspiration and springboard for Volume Two, I argue that we have not only found our identity, we have begun, as is our wont, to export it. When the principals of the prestigious Mann-Booker literary awards debated in 2008 the wisdom of including American authors in the prize pool, UK writers were largely appalled by their suspicions which I tracked in the Letters to the Editor of the London Times Literary Supplement that including American authors would be tilting the playing field to an unfair advantage.
In what follows, I will—as D. H. Lawrence did in his Volume One—set forth “The Spirit of Place,” including a touch of zeitgeist as a nod to the spirits of Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck. From there I will set forth—as Lawrence set forth with a cast of eight particular voices—offer my own list of fourteen case studies to broach the twenty-first century in our letters. To date, ten of these worthies are still on their game. Some are a bit shaky; I would not vouch for their cholesterol numbers or the complete lack of sclerosis in their prose. There is the occasional dog that comes forth from them, but they surely and with evident heart help to define us.
1. Leslie Fiedler—a significant and cogent critic of the American literary scene, Fiedler is often brushed aside—too lightly, I think—for his politics. His stunning essay, “Come back to the raft again, Huck, Honey,” shoved issues of race, sexuality, and identity beyond the literary gatekeepers and into our awareness.
2. Ring Lardner—America can take credit for four art forms: baseball, jazz, bourbon, and the short story. Lardner was on intimate terms with all four.
3. Sarah Orne Jewett—a regionalist who was so spot-on, pitch perfect regional that she often fell through the cracks, but not without having a serious influence on generations of writers to come.
4. Louise Erdrich—her vast portrait of an area is in its way a Bayeaux Tapestry of the Midwest, its Native American inhabitants and its immigrant Diaspora from Europe.
5. Junot Diaz—Can a collection of powerful short stories and a novel about corruption in The Dominican Republic be on their way to becoming icons? Rhetorical question. Diaz, you see, takes his readers on a carnival go-cart ride through the funhouses of American reality.
6. Jim Harrison. Mark Twain incarnate, a master of the short novel, a writer with a stash of peppermint schnapps cached away in every story.
7. Jane Smiley—Not content merely to dramatize our mores, she jumps in the battle of describing the techniques and issues in the way we think and write.
8. Joan Didion—Not only does she in her fiction and essays “get’ us, capture us as though she were a street photographer and we a group of tourists, she has single-handedly put the face of grief up where we can get a sense of what to do with it when it comes our way.
9. Sherman Alexie—Just when you thought you knew about so-called Indians from reading Erdrich and Harrison, this hip, empathetic dude of a writer shows you a secret stash.
10. Deborah Eisenberg—just when you thought you understood the limitless scope of the short story, Deborah Eisenberg reminds you—forces you to see that you’d missed considerable dimension.
11. Richard Russo—your tour guide to the northeast and to the college novel. Of course, you’ll say, “I knew all that,” but you didn’t until you read him.
12. Ray Douglas Bradbury—No matter what you tell them or they tell you, at heart he is your favorite writer.
13. Luis Urrea—He can do more with myth and imagination that a roadside taco truck can accomplish with a meal.
14. Francine Prose—Doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or a treatise on what to look for in what you read, she transforms the concept of magical realism into realistic magic.
15. You thought there wouldn’t be an annotated reading list? Come on; with Smiley, Fiedler, and Prose in this group, there has to be an annotated list. Besides, the writer of this volume once ran a publishing venture that turned out annotated bibliography.

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