Thursday, June 26, 2008

Who Reads an American Book?

This is coming out of the blue, so bear with me.

Several years back in a college poetry-writing class, we got to talking about Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, and how the story has become a symbol of Spain. Someone in the class asked the professor if there were an American author whose writings have become a symbol of the United States. This professor said no -- that the nation was too young to have produced such an author.

That thought bugged me for a long time. So today, I present a few authors whose writings can be said to represent the United States:
  • Sinclair Lewis. From Babbitt through Arrowsmith to It Can't Happen Here, Lewis' writings embody two quintissential facets of the U.S. culture: Migration form the small town to the big city and the desire to make fame and fortune without really having to work for it. Both Babbitt and Arrowsmith follow characters who have great ambitions but see their dreams tripped up in their own shortcomings, specifically (for Babbitt) his desire to conform and (for Arrowsmith) his desire for something constantly out of his reach due to fear of failure.
Reading Babbitt is a profound pleasure. Anyone who says they can't see a bit of themselves in George Babbitt is, frankly, a liar.
  • John Steinbeck. No American author has better captured both the beauty and the ugliness of the American spirit. In The Pastures of Heaven and Cannery Row, he finds American character at its best, albeit flawed by the nature that makes us all human. In other works such as The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle, he identifies the side of Ameridan character that drives one to succeed at all costs, even if the costs are the lives and livelihoods of fellow human beings. Winter of Our Discontent is his most haunting novel, in which we find a character driven to despair by his pursuit of the American Dream.
I plan on adding to this list form time to time. Both of these authors, of course, paint a pretty gloomy picture of the American character. There are others who paint with different strokes and with brighter colors (James Thurber, L. Frank Baum and Mark Twain come to mind).

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