BY MATTHEW HERBERT
My plan to “read America” this year has gone off the rails. I knew it would.
The original idea was to delve into several big American themes, among them flight, democracy, presidents, slavery, war, money, race, and literary criticism.
Here is what I said, rather grandly, to myself when I came up with the plan. I was in my home on the edge of a forest in Germany, which had been my perch for 11 years:
. . . [I]n 2018 I will read only about America. The longer I live overseas the more I feel like I need to re-explain my homeland to myself. The place is always changing, and I think my distance has given me a certain perspective on what is means to be American in the swirling tides of recent history. We’re always in what I.F. Stone called a “time of torment.” He thought the phrase applied especially to the 1960s. But history never stands still, and neither does our identity.
What happened to my plan? I lost my focus. Instead of reading topically-focused books on the themes I had in mind, heavy on interdisciplinary stuff, I got sucked right in to sprawling, romantic series of American novels–great cycles of stories that tell us what it was like to be alive here at certain times.
I suppose the bug bit me a few years ago when I read Shelbey Foote’s novelistic rendition of the American Civil War, a massive, 2,700-page trilogy that Foote says was inspired by Proust. Foote felt the same devotion to mood, memory, and minute coloration of detail as the Searcher for Lost Time, and it shows.
I also took inspiration from Gore Vidal’s sly, subversive seven-book series of historical novels commonly known as the American Chronicles. It provides what Gore calls a “useful” history of our country, by which he meant a history deflated of myths. The apex of the series, Lincoln, is undoubtedly Vidal at his best. He depicts our greatest president as a human being who need not be made into a god to earn our love and respect.
Who knows–my attraction to long, literary meditations on American life possibly goes back to my fondness for Laura Ingalls Wilders’s Little House series, which I read in the fifth grade.
A paradox: a novelist can only tell large, universal truths if she reflects intimately on what she knows best–the minutiae of a highly particular, individual life. I got this much from Günter Grass, a German, and Orhan Pamuk, a Turk. They both worried that their masterpieces would flop in English translation because their stories were too parochial, too local to be understood by foreign Anglophiles.
Not so, though. When their big books came out in English, both authors did very well, and this was because they gave English speakers deeply appealing stories whose meanings were heightened, not obscured by their particularity. Grass showed what it was like to be from a Polish-German family before and after World War Two. Very conflicted, and absurdly tragic. Pamuk meditated on how today’s Turks still suffer from the cultural loss that followed the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The breakneck social engineering of Attatürk left them wondering who they are to this day.
American writers, I tend to think, come by a universalizing attitude comparatively easily. Since they hail from a big, consequential country, they assume that their stories automatically have broad appeal. Günter Grass and Orhan Pamuk had to sweat over this aspiration; American writers seem to be born with it.
And so it should come as no surprise that Americans have more than our fair share of sweeping national novels that tell our stories on large canvases, with great depth of feeling and insight. When we do things, we do them big. So if you can have sweeping national novels, why not have whole series of them–stories that go on, book after book, rendering America in ever-deeper nuance, ever-finer portraiture? It was the bounty of such series that drew me in and wrecked my plan of interdisciplinary reading. (So far. There’s always next year.)
I started my journey with Willa Cather‘s prairie trilogy, made up of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. They tell deeply personal stories about conservative but adventurous Europeans who come to a wide-open new land and watch their progeny leave off old ways and turn into entirely new kinds of people. So, the stories are bittersweet tales of immigration and alienation–what it is like to love your children as they effortlessly leave you behind to dream new dreams you can’t even understand.
But the stories are also about personal grit, determination and success, solidly “American” themes. Each novel depicts a woman who authors her own life in a way only made possible by the westward push of American frontier life. If you could make it on the 19th-century high plains, you didn’t need a man to tell you you had arrived. Two of Cather’s heroines do precisely this, raising themselves up to master both the forces of nature and the stifling social constraints of a rural patriarchy. Cather’s third heroine, the eponymous subject of My Antonia, fails to master her surroundings in any obvious way but achieves a stoic embrace of frontier life that is lyrically beautiful and affirming of the human experience.
It was the grandeur and natural innocence of Cather’s Upper Midwest settings that led me to read Sinclair Lewis. Although Lewis is not credited with an American series as such, his cycle of Midwestern morality tales–Babbit, Mainstreet, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith overlap just enough in themes and character types to think of them as a single, broad critique of the rising American middle class.
I blogged a few months ago on the enduring relevance of Lewis’s critique. His target was the unthinking ease with which WASPs presumed to dominate America’s Leitkultur between 1890 and 1930. If you want an idea of what the reactionary right wants today when it says it wants to make America great again, you can find it in Lewis’s novels. Read them, and you can see the clock turned back to the very time when America’s can-do, small-time money makers elevated their crass, mediocre ideals of conformity and commercialism to a normative idea of what it means to be a good American.
If Cather’s and Lewis’s novels take in a great sweep of Americana, John Dos Passos‘s USA trilogy captures a more punctuated, crucial juncture in our history. Its three novels–The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money–freeze-frame the societal changes that drew us into World War One and then sustained an economic boom that would set the stage for the defining events of the twentieth century–the Great Depression, World War Two, and the Cold War.
Dos Passos’s leading characters are hustlers trying to make it on a brand new economic playing field– movie actors, airplane designers, public relations specialists–wholly novel professions suddenly made possible by the war’s disruptive changes in attitudes and technology. The trilogy’s overarching story, which the characters swirl in and out of, is a morality tale about what happens when a nation on the go starts believing its own propaganda.
The disquieting message of the USA trilogy is one for which Dos Passos gets too little credit. Democracies being led to war, he indicates, must work themselves up into a nationalist lather, which is fed by widespread, self-flattering lies. Understandable enough: you can’t charge the trenches for ho-hum reasons, even if they are honest ones. To anticipate a U.S. statesman of the Cold War era, the motive reasons for war must be made “clearer than truth.” Dos Passos would have liked that.
After war ends and peace returns, though, the material beneficiaries of the big lies want to keep the profits of the hullabaloo going. (Have you checked out the price of a state-of-the-art fighter- bomber recently? You should.) And so they entrench and normalize the pro-war falsehoods. The chronic fear of “national security threats” have become part and parcel of the nation’s life. We denigrate Iran and North Korea for their trumped-up war rites and the flagrant lies they tell themselves, but we are only about a half a step behind them. Our ad men are better.
Americans’ interlocking beliefs that we are great because we are good and good because we are great are largely a product of wartime propaganda, a one-off, special circumstance that Dos Passos documents in the USA trilogy. The consequences of that special circumstance, though, have, since World War One, come to feel normal to us. The next time you are occupying a $100 seat in a sports stadium, and at the behest of a billionaire corporate sponsor, you set down your nachos to applaud the military veterans in your midst, know that you are obediently playing your part in this cheap and cynical theater.
(A mini-digression: If there is a one-word sentence to describe the purpose of my blog, it is to persuade even one other person that you are born to better things than to play your part in cheap and cynical bits of theater.)
After Dos Passos I jumped ahead in time to John Updike‘s Rabbit series, which spans the 1950s to 1990s. It includes Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest. I had long wanted to read Updike because he authored the gaudily implausible idea that “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” He came up with this quip after the Vietnam war, by the way. Anyone capable of such a one-sided view of our society must have a massive, and interesting, blindspot.
As Martin Amis, one of my favorite novelists, observed, Updike seems unable to write poorly. Good thing. For some 1,500 pages, the Rabbit series pays serious literary attention to what must be one of the most unappealing character types in our history, the complacent narcissist. (Echoes of Sinclair Lewis here.)
The long “parade of days” that Harry Angstrom’s Rabbit character unfurls certainly draws the reader in, or at least did me. There is something so blandly awful about Rabbit’s persona that one simply must witness the next wreck in his life-long melodrama of decline.
Put as briefly as possible, Rabbit sallies forth from one half-baked endeavor to another–he half-asses everything and everyone: wife, career, child, mistress–while cultivating the expectation that he deserves to be made happy by the aggregate mess. When Rabbit dies, his wife forgives him for, in effect, having raised assholishness to an existential art. During their life together, Rabbit habitually referred to her as a mut and fantasized repeatedly about bashing in her head with a decorative piece of glass.
Don’t get me wrong. Rabbit figures a few things out about his American life along the way. Having accidentally become rich, and later having been brought to the edge of ruin by a complex web of bad luck, bad parenting and stupid choices:
Rabbit realized the world was not solid and benign, it was a shabby set of temporary arrangements rigged up for the time being, all for the sake of money. You just passed through, and they milked you for what you were worth, mostly when you were young and gullible. If Kroll’s [his once-profitable Toyota dealership] could go, the courthouse could go, the banks could go. When the money stopped, they could close down God himself.
There is, despite the objectionable character of Rabbit himself, one good reason to go ahead and read Updike. Rabbit puts on full display a highly useful concept: the partially examined life. Today, with our iPhones, our robocalls, our TV addictions, and our distance-learning degrees, the partially examined life is probably as much as we will be able to muster. The fully examined life is beyond us now. Read Rabbit and behold the bonds of mediocrity you accept when you breath in the sweet intoxicants of consumerism and pop culture. You’ll still be haunted by the vague longing for a life less tawdry, as Rabbit is, but you’ll have no idea how to summon it.
Philip Roth‘s American trilogy–American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, and The Human Stain–builds up a towering counterpoint to Updike’s Rabbit. With wrath and eloquence, Roth defies the dying of the American light, insisting that the examined life is still possible even in a land given up to the shabbiest of values and the most venal of principles.
“The meaning of life is that it ends,” Roth wrote (paraphrasing Kierkegaard). Try escaping that riddle, no matter where you live or what you call your nationality. If you do not have the sense to fear the life-wasting power of your iPhone today, you will come to loath it on your deathbed. Count on it. America cannot insulate you from mortality, try as it might. Roth’s American series examines the lives of three men who believe their country should abet them in their combative quest for meaning rather than abandoning them to money fever and cheap thrills.
The second large theme running through the trilogy is the opacity of an individual human life. In each book, the assiduous novelist Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, is commissioned, in one way or another, to write a biography of the story’s hero. In each case, Zuckerman’s first impression fails him. Then his second one does, and his third. Each novel turns on the idea that humans, as the planet’s only self-creators–with strong motives for deception, deflection, braggadocio, and countless other corruptions of the truth–are impossible to know.
And in each novel, Roth gives America a special role to play as the stage on which the individual’s autopoeisic myths have the widest range to play. The Human Stain is about a light-skinned African American who, shortly after high school, begins passing himself off as white and Jewish, utterly alienating his loving mother and the rest of his family. (This is Willa Cather again. Our children leave us to dream new, unrecognizable dreams. We love them anyway.)
Late in life, the professor of The Human Stain loses his job as a college professor after he lets fly a flippant remark that is understood as a (white-on-black) act of racism. He can’t even begin to deal. The American life he created is based in a network of beliefs, myths, attitudes, delusions so complex they can never be untangled and reassembled into a moral defense of his innocent remark.
Roth opens American Pastoral, the first book in the series, with the Kierkegaardian idea that each person has an inner and outer self. Simple enough–you dig and grope through the outer, and you can get to know the inner. Roth takes this archaeology of the human to be the novelist’s main task.
By the end of The Human Stain, though, Roth has dropped Kierkegaard’s overly simplified formulation. Human selves consist in unknowabilty all the way down; and in America, “all the way down” can be a very long way. You may think you are breaking through the outer self to the inner, but in truth you are merely apprehending the next inner layer:
There is truth and then again there is truth. For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.
My next encounter will be with James Farrell’s O’Neil-O’Flaherty novels, a five-part series about growing up in turn-of-the-century Chicago. It will be about unknowlability all the way down. I know that ahead of time. But that’s okay.
The gift of American literature, like the gift of any literature, is that its gaze into the individual life turns up a thousand little things worth discovering and one big thing worth acknowledging. We all learn this thing from Macbeth in the eighth grade or so–that life is a poor player, that it lights fools the way to dusty death, and so forth–but great novels illuminate this truth in new ways and bring it to life in ways that remind us of our own selves. This kind of self-discovery is still rejuvenating, although here in America it is endangered by a general war on thought. Read our great novels while you can. Our children will dream new dreams that may make them unrecognizable.