Reading America

Still from  After Hours,  Martin Scorsese (1985)

Still from After Hours, Martin Scorsese (1985)

World Book Day – the annual celebration of reading and publishing – falls on the 23rd April. Astutely, this is the same day that literary heavyweights, Shakespeare and Don Quixote author, Miguel de Cervantes both died. The English playwright and the Spanish novelist may not have much to do with American literature explicitly but you just have to drown in a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to experience the Shakespearean grandeur and Quixotic vision of Ahab and his story. Moby Dick, one of the Great American Novels, exemplifies why America and her literature is by far her finest cultural exports. From the meta-absurdism of Paul Auster to the quirky environmentalism of Nell Zink, the discerning reader of 20th century US fiction knows how ambitiously divergent their output can be. Alan Bennett, English writer and national treasure agrees. In a BBC Radio 4 interview in 2014, he waxed lyrical about his preference for Stateside writers. He didn’t feel like "any of the people writing in England can tell me very much.” Sometimes, even I possess the same sentiment.

As a Londoner with a conflicted city-country mentality, I revel in American literature’s vast expansiveness, epic determination, and multitudes of landscape. English novels tend to either be preoccupied with the struggling passions of inhabitants in the country (see: Hardy) or the isolated industrialization of a class- driven city (see: Dickens). Yet, my reduction of English literature may seem simplistic, there is an odd exoticism to America despite both countries possessing a common tongue. D.H. Lawrence’s often-quotes, Studies in American Literature starts off with a rather grand statement:

We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children's books. Just childishness, on our part. The old American art-speech contains an alien quality, which belongs to the American continent and to nowhere else. But, of course, so long as we insist on reading the books as children's tales, we miss all that.

Lawrence, an English modernist, goes on to defend America’s own classicists - Melville, Hawthorne, Cooper, and Poe, restoring their place within a (albeit dead, white, male) canon. Now, whales, ravens, and gables are required reading motifs through global childhoods. My own childhood reading as a somewhat precocious, bookish eleven year old, was invaded by Americans. First, I was submerged by the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, the witty colloquialism of Mark Twain, and developed a love (unabashedly) Stephen King. Then as my literary palate grew more sophisticated, I picked up books congruent to the moods of my purgatorial adolescence making Salinger’s Holden, Kerouac’s Sal, and Plath’s Esther my next of kins. But I was not alone in that. Adolescents across the world joined me in this kinship, and Catcher in the Rye, On the Road and The Bell Jar will probably never be out of print as long as there are teenagers.

However, I do fret like a parent about American literature at times, especially when thinking of Lawrence’s assertion. Did my youthful love of American fiction mean that I have only ever regarded it as immature? Do others of my generation think the same? Why doesn’t anyone read or discuss William Faulkner anymore – does the cacophony of voices of The Sound and the Fury perturb or infuriate a distracted, contemporary audience? Does America’s oeuvre even match its European and Russian counterparts with its lack of Flaubertian precision, Woolfian avant-garde control, or Dostoevskian psychological insight? Who will finally write the Great American Novel or will any academic or lettered civilian resolve the conundrum from the tomes of the past?

Or does any dear reader of American fiction, frankly give a damn?


Words: Nikki Hall