Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Literary Equivalent of Mt. Rushmore

As a child of your generation, you dutifully and in some cases with eagerness drank in its Kool-Aid, signed up for all the tourist caravans, gawked where gawking was appropriate--the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, for example--memorized the Preamble to the constitution and all of the relatively wrong Amendments instead of the ones you should have memorized.

You read Gone with the Wind without knowing the poem from which the title came from, read The Good Earth aloud to your mother, and accepted without too much questioning that) the Great American Novel was Moby Dick, surprised when you read it that it was close to a hundred eighty degrees from what your mother told you it was.

In order to get the effect of that description in a better perspective, you needed almost as much time to have full appreciation for Moby Dick as you did for your mother.  "Moby Dick," she once told you, "was a great white whale who swam about the world doing good deeds."

While not the academic your sister was, nor the street wise interpreter of outcomes your father was, your mother nevertheless was no slouch as an interpreter of her generation and of the human condition.  She believed the metaphorical glass was half full.  Some of her best efforts were in service of keeping it at that apparent level.

Let it be said right here, you came to an early awareness that Gone with the Wind,story, to be sure, was the world as an unsophisticated audience relished in seeing it, even though you, when you first read it, were almost as unsophisticated as you could have been.  It has the quality of allowing you, on rereading it, to see with great precision, how lacking in sophistication you were and how avid you were, not only for the Kool-Aid of your own generation but for all those other generations where you have traveled as a tourist.

At about the time you began to appreciate your mother as a remarkable individual from whom you were fortunate to have come, you in similar faction began to see and appreciate some of the nuances of Moby Dick.  You also began to see, then see through the concept of Great American Novel as Great American version of The Holy Grail.

If there were one novel you'd feel comfortable nominating for that ephemeral role, no doubt of your choice, Huckleberry Finn.  But there is not a single, defining work, rather a spectrum of them, including more than a few you are quite fond of and one you have more than a nodding acquaintance with because you so value most of the work of the author.

Your equivalent of a literary Mt. Rushmore would have in addition to Mr. Twain's work, My Antonia, Of Mice and Men, The Day of the Locust, and The Great Gatsby, but only because you so admire its author.

Of all these greats, Of Mice and Men comes nearest to perfection, not only in theme and characterization but as well on account of its seamless construction and narrative presence.  My Antonia comes quite close, bringing in a poignancy through her choice of the narrative voice through whom we see and understand the generous portrait of Antonia.  

Cather gives us Jim Burden, a character from her Nebraska youth, who arrived on the scene at about the same time the character who is a stand-in for Cather arrived.  She and Burden see and are impressed with Antonia.  All three characters represent, as characters do, things other than themselves.  By leaving us with Burden's history and his view of Antonia, we see and feel Cather's love for the Prairie, for immigrants, and for the life of the essential elements of American personality.

In Gatsby, we see a similar and wildly polar vision of America, both through the novel itself and the ongoing heartbreak of it in relation to its reception during Fitzgerald's life.  

Cather gives us a splendid document, in some ways a polar opposite to Gatsby.  Good a document as Gatsby is, only in comparison with Fitzgerald's life does the full effect of story emerge, offering a vision of parallel lines, Fitzgerald's, Gatsby's, and their combined energy as a fable about the Great American Dream, about illusion, class, and cultural boundaries.

All these books you mention have had enormous effects on your life, at the least causing you to put your hand over the drinking glass when the waitress comes by with the Kool-Aid pitcher, wanting to know if you wish a refill.

No, thank you.  No.

You have seen (and read) the landmarks of your generation, reached behind you for glimpses of the past, scoured the works of Isaac Asimove, Ursula Le Guinn, and Robert Heinlein for glimpses into the future.  You are as free from these landmarks as you are able, hopeful of greater freedom yet and with the freedom, the awareness of the potential for loneliness such freedom sneaks in past the border guards.  There are ever so many other novels you have not mentioned here as well as those you have, all of which will share your own dreams and reach.



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