Friday, June 30, 2006

American Literature X

So, the first college class I really got into was Multicultural American Literature. Now, I know that's a loaded name for the class, but the reason I was interested had to do with the fact that, before this one, I had taken the same English/Literature class for three years (11th Grade, 12th Grade, ENG 101 & 102). With some notable exceptions (like Twain & Hurston), I was getting awful bored of five paragraph essays about Shakespeare and overrated 'coming of age novels' by whiny people trying to figure out their place in the world. (I was just such a person, after all, and I didn't need to hear more about it.)

Multicultural American Literature was the first time I really felt like I was reading, for a consistent amount of time, books written by adults. I cannot tell you how refreshing this was.

But, I know how some of our more academic loyalist readers revere so much of the writing I consider wasted space, so my suggestion is not to 'do away with the canon.' I simply want to add to it. My suggestion is a new multicultural class: American Literature X, and I'm looking for suggestions as to what the reading list needs to be.

Parameters: I'm thinking US or North American writers from the last 50 years, whose books will have either lasting effects on American literature or thought, or that take a snapshot of a part of the tumultuous story that has been America since 1941.

My first three suggestions:

Without Remorse, by Tom Clancy
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
The Essential Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Waterson

And if you don't think Calvin & Hobbes is American Literature, then...


patsbrother said...

Given the bizarre parameters set forth, I present my list. This, despite the disconnect I suffer whenever I see the word "literature" wed to Tom Clancy. (I suppose I am one of those people whom Pat disdains: I expect more than just a 'hard-boiled' plot and zinging one-liners.) My list assumes Jazz, Song of Soloman, and a host of others are already a part of the 'new canon'.

The Known World, Edward P. Jones
Child of God, Cormac McCarthy
The Lovely Bones, Alice Slebold

Fire in a Canebrake, Laura Wexler

I know, I know. I convinced you I was going to work within pat's parameters and I most blatantly did not. But neither did pat.

Unless I am completely off and what he really meant by American Literature X was pulp. In which case I nominate Jurassic Park, Sphere, and Congo; but only because I have nothing else to offer (except the Harry Potter series, which, as children's lit, may well violate pat's need for things written by [for?] adults).

As a slow reader, I choose not to spend hours of my life wading through something when I can simply wait for the movie, get the exact same rewards I would have gotten from reading the book, and save any number of hours as part of the bargain.

But seriously: Sphere. Samuel L. was great in that one.

petallic said...


Dante said...

Pat, I think you're attempting to blaze a trail down a well-paved Interstate here. Sure 20th Century American Lit classes are dominated by the likes of Steinbeck and Hemmingway but there's plenty of good literature that came out in the last 50 years that isn't so pulpish:

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
Not pulp and he had a cameo in "Back to School." How's that for good modern American literature?

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand
Personally, I preferred The Fountainhead but while I was reading Atlas I had to hide the cover in public because I was sick of strangers coming up to me to talk about the book and how it changed their life. That's pretty profound in my opinion even though I don't see how the book could be life changing unless someone really never considered what they thought politiclly or why they thought it before.

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K Dick
This was one of the first speculative fiction novels. It was basically the aftermath of Roosevelt's worst nightmare: The US didn't get involed in WWII until it was too late and the Axis successfully invaded the US. What makes this literature and not merely pulp like a Turtledove nevel is that this is not a war novel. As far as I can remember, there is only one soldier in the whole book. It is a political commentary more than anything and it's a very well written one that even manages to challenge itself as a novel. It won Dick his only Hugo award that sadly forever banished this novel to the SciFi section of the bookstore along with crap like Star Wars novels and Ender's sequels.

If pulp is you thing then that's cool. Personally, I still read Dr Who novels and that's about as pulpish as you can get, but don't act like Puzo writes some form of higher literature because he doesn't.

Patrick Armstrong said...

I don't know, Dante, I think you may be underestimating the effect authors like Puzo and Clancy have on our society through the things that they write.

I mean, at one time, Dickens & Shakespeare could have been considered pulp as well.

Fishplate said...

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth

liberalandproud said...

A Widow For One Year - John Irving

ruby booth said...

an aside regarding Clancy:
(There always have been and will be blowhards like Clancy, but in my -- admittedly limited -- opinion writers of his ilk don't really determine or even shape public opinion so much as they craft a very good picture of particular viewpoint, and create stories which support that view. They are believers in a worldview one that is perhaps commonly held, and they are good storytellers. It's a special skill, but not, I think, a particularly profound one in the long term. As we see, when we go back to works written during the British empire that deal with the colonial machine, i think you find -- with the exception of dear Kipling who could make damn near anything palatable -- the authors who have a lasting significance are the ones addressing the tension within that system rather than those championing it.)

However, on to the actual question:
Stephen King, of course.
He is our Dickens -- like it or not.

Other than King I have a hard time off the top of my head. I don't think Grisham has that kind of stamina. Nor the newly beloved Mr. Brown. William Gibson can define and often anticipate the cultural zeitgeist, but he's not really a great writer or generator of myth, which is what i think counts in the long term. There’s always Enders Game, I suppose, but that’s really just an update on the old coming of age saga. Harry Potter will certainly join Narnia in the canon or great children’s literature, but I don’t really think either should be taught in schools.

I’ve read a lot of everything, of course, but the writers I think will last are folks like Michael Ondaatje, (Coming through Slaughter alone would put him on my list) Joan Didion, (who has managed to be both a bestseller and an oft taught writer without giving up her taut, brilliant language) or Alexandra Fuller. That might be overly conservative of me, but no how much I love Calvin I can’t help but think the messages within may become less powerful over time.

Honestly though, is it so much about what you teach rather than how you teach it? Once you have a basic amount of worth – be it in the work’s complexity or in the purity with which it addresses moral or social issues -- anything from Dickens to Puzo to Twain to Waterson can be taught in a way that makes even the most avid reader bored to death, while Beowulf, Milton or Spencer (a pretty dense reads by default) can be taught in a manner both enlightening and interesting.

hillary said...

I think you may be underestimating the effect authors like Puzo and Clancy have on our society through the things that they write.

This assumes that "impact on society" is the most important part of literature. As opposed to artistic value. I think your choices are fine for the former, but as an English department person, I care much more about the latter.