Sunday, December 23, 2012

Some Notes (and Some Hubris) on Volume Two

What is American literary identity?

Perhaps that question, with all its apparent simplicity, ignores the large elephant in the living room.  The elephant becomes metaphor for immigrants funneling their way through Ellis Island on the east and such ports of entry on the west as Seattle and San Francisco.  Their names and heritage were anglicized by first-generations equivalents of editors, earnest individuals, schooled in the melting-pot philosophy.  At every opportunity, they told us to shut up, watch our accents, and start reading from the Western Canon.

The likes of Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound lit out for Europe, as though Europe were the territory ahead, through their reading, writing, and friendships, becoming the "them" of Europe, leaving the "us" of America to fend for ourselves.

At that time, an iconoclastic, working-class Englishman did the unthinkable of going West--to New Mexico--where he took our literary pulse in Studies in Classic American Literature, observing 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 American back on the search for our own identity.

Using D.H. Lawrence's 1923 work as the inspiration for a necessary volume two of Studies in Classic American Literature, you became convinced that the America of today has not only found its identity, modern America has, as is its wont, begun exporting it.  Some of the earliest exports came just a tad after the tall tale when Europe, intrigued by stories of crimes,their causes and solutions, began to tire of murders in the mansion, wanting instead those American precursors of noir, the hardboiled mystery.

When the principals of the prestigious Mann-Booker literary awards for United Kingdom writers debated in 2008 the wisdom of including American authors in the prize pool, UK authors were appalled by their suspicions, which you were amused to track in the Letters to the Editor of The London Times Literary Supplement.  The sentiments in large measure expressed the belief that including Americans among the candidates for awards would be tilting the playing field to an unfair advantage.

In a sense, not so much Look out for the Yanks, rather, the Yanks have already arrived.

Time then for you to begin Volume Two of Lawrence's work, setting forth as Lawrence did, "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, you will set forth with a cast of fourteen case studies to broach the twenty-first century in our letters.  Some of your choices may be shaky, but there is little question that they have the heart and words to define us.

You'll thus begin with:

1.  Dashiell Hammett--a major player in democratizing murder and violence, allowing us to see the consequences at all levels, showing us the reality and universality of the darker side of humanity.

2.  Dorothy B. Hughes--like Hammett, but with a special flair for bringing politics and women's issues to light without seeming to propagandize or moralize.  She also put together a believable strand of details that made her mysteries seem several plateaus above the puzzle mystery.

3.  Leslie Fiedler--a significant and cogent critic of the American literary corpus, Fiedler is often brushed aside--too lightly, you think--for his Marx-influenced politics.  His disturbing essay, "Come back to the raft again, Huck, Honey," shoved issues of race, sexuality, and identity beyond the literary gatekeepers and into our awareness.

4.  Ring Lardner--Americans can take credit for four art forms:  baseball, jazz, bourbon, and the short story.  Lardner was on intimate terms with all four.

5.  Louise Erdrich--her vast portrait of an imaginary area in North Dakota is in its way a Bayeaux Tapestry of the Midwest, its Native American inhabitants, and its immigrant Diaspora from Europe.

6.  Jim Harrison--Mark Twain incarnate, a master of the novella, a writer with a stash of peppermint schnapps cached away somewhere in every story.

7.  Jane Smiley--not content to dramatize our mores, she jumps into the battle of describing the techniques and issues of the ways we think and write.

8.  Joan Didion--not only does she "get" us in her essays and fiction, capture us as though she were a street photographer and we a group of tourists, she has single-handed put the face of grief up on the bulletin board where we can get a sense of what to do with it when it comes our way.

9.  Sherman Alexie--just when you think you've got a handle on Native Americans from reading Erdrich and Harrison, this, hip, empathetic dude of a writer reaches for a secret stash to share with you.

10.  Deborah Eisenberg--you may think you understand the limitless scope of the short story, and even have some support to your belief, but Deborah Eisenberg reminds you--forces you to see--that you'd missed considerable dimensions.

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--not until you read him.

12.  Ray 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 than a roadside taco truck can do with a meal.

14. Francine Prose--doesn't matter if it's fiction or a treatise on what to look for in your reading; 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 the group, there has to be an annotated list.  Besides, the compiler of this volume was once editor in chief of a publishing venture that specialized in annotated bibliography.




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