Monday, July 6, 2009

Who Reads an American Book?

Way back in my undergraduate years, one of my professors (I think it was a poetry professor, though it could have been an art professor, too; they're all kind of mashed together in my head under the rubric of female, professorial, liberal) said that the United States was "too young" to have an author who successfully captured the American essence. We were discussing, somehow, Cervantes' Don Quixote, in the context of Cervantes' work defining the essence of Spain.

Unfortunately, I wasn't as well-read then as I am now (if I may consider myself well-read now, there are certainly many books out there I have not yet read). So in one of those transport-me-back-to-the-dawnna-time moments, I'd like to go back to that day and deliver the following argument:

I can think of at least three authors who have, in their own way, captured at least some of the essence of America. I say some because I don't believe Cervantes captured all of Spain in Don Quixote.

So here are my nominees:

1) John Steinbeck. Bar none, Steinbeck is first in my defining America book. I have yet to read an author who can, with such eloquence, write about selfishness, one of the basic American essences. Right now, I'm reading Tortilla Flat, one of his books set in Monterey, California. In his characters Danny and Pilon, Steinbeck epitomizes selfishness. Danny, a World War I veteran who loved to smash windows while on drunken wanderings through town, refrains from such after he inherits two houses from his grandfather, because breaking windows takes on new perspective when one has windows of his own that could be broken. Maybe some see that as altruism, I see it as selfishness. Danny doesn't care about any other windows, especially the ones he's broken, until he has windows of his own. And Pilon, in renting Danny's other house for $15 a month -- rent which is never paid -- exhibits selfishness of his own, and the justifications that come from such bahavior. he sublets the home to another fellow for the sum of $15 a month and rationalizes that if Danny comes searching for the rent, he can say, I'll pay when the other fellow pays.

This theme, of course, is rampant throughout Steinbeck's work. So here's one American author who has caputred America's essence.

2) Sinclair Lewis. Lewis, a Steinbeck contemporary, takes on materialism and conformity just as Steinbeck takes on selfishness as defining characteristics of the American essence. From Babbitt to Arrowsmith we see these attributes played out. Even when Babbitt toys with nonconformity, he sees that society won't accept that a decent man like him won't agree to condemning the cranks and the liberals and exult when some new gewgaw or gadget is made available to the public and be the means of putting some sweet, sweet cash into the hands of the manufacturer. Growth is everything, and to grow at least in the commercial sense, one city should not be discernable from the other, lest a man be forced into nonconformity that endangers the growth. And so on. Even It Can't Happen Here is a sample of conformity running rampant, wrapped inthe patriotic fuzz of consuming in order to save us from ourselves.

3) Ray Bradbury. Bradbury, better than any other American author, defines the American essense of optimism. I toss this in not to assuage those who might accuse me of an anti-American post, but because in he fills his stories, from the spooky Something Wicked This Way Comes to Fahrenheit 451 with that thread of optimism that underlies the American essence. Yes, Montag lives in a society that bans books and seeks to burn them outright. But underneath that society lies the streak of individuals who memorize books (including Montag) in the optimistic belief that someday society will change for the better and books and the thoughts they contain will be allowed in public once again.

Only three things wrong with my plan, though:

1) Time travel is an impossibility.

2) I can't remember which prof it was, and I'm not sure I want to deliver the same message twice, though as I have three small children who never hear me on the first bounce, I ought to be used to the concept of repetition.

3) I might end up encountering the professor we secretly called Pippi Longstocking because of the green-and-white stripey socks she favored wearing. But she was a theatre major . . .

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