Friday, July 5, 2013
I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets nostalgic for America’s past at this time of year. I contemplate what made America unique, and, unsurprisingly, its literature takes a prominent place in my thoughts.
I haven’t extensively studied American literature (there’s a massive Great Courses DVD study on the subject, but I don’t have it), so what I’ll be sharing now is from my limited knowledge. But I do find the subject of what makes any country’s literature different from others to be very interesting, and maybe one day I’ll know more.
American literature … although there is plenty of worthy non-fiction from people like our founding fathers, it took several decades for the new nation to produce great fictional works. I think one of the first might have been The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757, written in 1826 by James Fenimore Cooper. It’s about the French and Indian War and with that harsh yet exciting backdrop establishes something of a precedent. The greatest American literature I’ve read moves. The plot is easy to explain because the characters are always active -- the main point is that they accomplish something, or at least try to. In The Last of the Mohicans, Hawkeye and his Mohican friends try to save the Munro sisters from the Hurons. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab’s life goal is to slay the White Whale. The Scarlet Letter begins with a sinful action that psychologically and spiritually devastates the three major characters. In Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys the March sisters and their descendants lead full lives and work to accomplish their goals, and so the family bonds these books explore are vibrant. The same could be said for other Alcott books I’ve read: Eight Cousins and An Old-Fashioned Girl. Tom Sawyer is chock full of boyish adventures, and Huckleberry Finn’s adventures are on an even wider scale. The Call of the Wild and White Fang are non-stop action in a harsh environment.
But in all of these, the characters are very well-developed. The emphasis seems to be on what the characters do or are good at and how that sheds light on who they are. This matches with our American persona, doesn’t it? We’re a nation of doers and workers, people whose thinking always results in action because we’re restless and want to keep moving forward. Pioneer literature stresses this mindset, the most quintessential being the Little House on the Prairie series. (Talk about nostalgia! I never fail to think of the De Smet Fourth of July celebration when our own Fourths-of-July come around.)
So … what do you think? I know other and better analysts have written about what makes American literature special, but what I have here is from my own limited observation. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Can you add any American books to my list of “doers and movers”? Do you have a favorite?