Critical reappraisal is an essential feature of our culture, as the passage of time allows us to better analyze an artist’s or genre’s merit without the fog of hype or trends. Once scorned, impressionism eventually gained recognition as one of painting’s greatest movements; jazz went from dangerous irritant to dynamic American art form. The list of creators and creations that go from disdained to celebrated -- from Moby-Dick to Chuck Close to hip-hop -- seems to have no end. And to that list, one more cries out to be added: the paperback masterwork Knight Rider #2: Trust Doesn’t Rust. Ignored in its day as a piece of spinner-rack schlock, the 1984 book, by Glen A. Larson and Roger Hill, has aged magnificently. Trust Doesn’t Rust was a novelized episode of Knight Rider, the hourlong NBC action drama that made David Hasselhoff a household name from Leipzig to Berlin. The 1980s were a golden age of such novels, from Dallas: This Cherished Land to Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Most were dubious attempts to cash in on a property’s popularity. But Trust Doesn’t Rust -- much like the indomitable Hasselhoff -- transcended its medium. For those who have somehow forgotten, Knight Rider told the story of ex-military spy Michael Knight (portrayed by Hasselhoff) and the artificially intelligent KITT (portrayed by, in Wikipedia’s words, “1982 Pontiac Trans Am”). While most of the show’s episodes focused on freeway chases and orgiastic fireballs, Trust Doesn’t Rust had more on its mind: it was a prescient cautionary tale about the dangers of technology. Trust Doesn’t Rust’s tragic villain is KARR, a Trans Am that was, like KITT, built by Knight Industries. Unlike KITT, however, KARR suffers from a programming error that makes him unstable, dangerous, and vulnerable to exploitation. When a pair of hoods activate KARR for use in a crime spree, it is up to -- who else? -- Knight and KITT to stop them. The divergent paths of KITT and KARR is the poignant story of East of Eden’s Cal and Aron, retold with muscle cars. If this sounds ludicrous, I ask: isn’t anything ludicrous when you sit down to explain it? Isn’t The Odyssey just a story about a king who escapes from an island, and there’s all these gods and things, and he’s like, “I’m gonna go do some stuff?” Isn’t The Great Gatsby essentially about a guy who meets another guy, who seems pretty cool, and the guy -- the first guy, not the pretty cool one -- wants to hang with him? Isn’t Fifty Shades Darker, when you get down to brass tacks, about boners and whatnot? It’s all in how the material is handled. And in Trust Doesn’t Rust, it’s handled with the effortless grace of Michael Knight taking a hairpin turn at 110. In Larson and Hill’s gifted hands, the story is elevated from stuck-on-the-toilet pastime to something crackling with vitality. Consider the introduction of the two thieves: Tony -- a “streetwise young tough” and Rev -- a “Skid Row winehead” — as they creep into a darkened warehouse: Two shadows drifted across the face of the sign affixed to the building wall. The sign was comparatively new: red letters on white metal. Red letters usually meant authoritative, intimidating warnings to keep out. Neither of the shadow figures were concerned with the niceties of trespassing. The first shadow flowed across the sign and was gone; the second stopped, blacking out the message. Not only do Larson and Hill establish the pair’s cravenness -- unlike most criminals who break into off-hours industrial sites, they aren’t “concerned with the niceties of trespassing” -- they educate by reminding us of the meaning of red letters, a lesson that can never be reinforced enough. And is the blacking-out of that message a metaphor for Rev’s utter disregard for authority? Is it a harbinger of doom? Was it just something they wrote to meet the word count demanded by MCA Publishing? Master’s theses have been written on less. And what of our hero, the “relaxed and jocular” Michael Knight, who was “arrogantly handsome in a rough-hewn, rip-cord way”? While the televised Knight was the Platonic ideal of an autonomous crimefighting sportscar’s driver, Trust Doesn’t Rust allows the character to breathe, adding yet more nuance to Hasselhoff’s characterization: Michael woke up inside an ambulance. A pert, blond paramedic was applying a bandage to his forehead. There were dots of blood on her tunic. Michael tried to sit up and was slammed down by pain. It felt like someone had driven a cement nail into his skull just above the left eye. “How’s Scott? He said. “The guard?” “Guarded condition,” said the paramedic… “Hold still for a few more seconds and give the Elmer’s glue a chance to set.” “I’ve always admired women in uniform,” he mumbled. In one brief, magical passage, we come to understand Knight deeply, fundamentally; like Richard Price, Larson and Hill allow pitch-perfect dialogue and pinpoint description to carry the day. We learn that Knight is tough -- he copes with the dreaded “cement nail” sensation --compassionate -- he asks after the guarded-condition guard -- and, like Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man, always able to deliver a rakish quip, no matter his predicament. He is, quite simply, a mop-topped God of Fuck. Needless to say, Trust Doesn’t Rust’s action sequences are superb. For the climactic scene -- KARR plunging headlong into the Pacific — the televised version of Trust Doesn’t Rust used footage from the film The Car, which Gene Siskel declared “The Cinematic Turkey of 1977.” Fortunately, the novel relies on Larson and Hill’s Chabonesque narrative skills: KARR smashed into the cliffside and went end over end against the craggy rocks, its armored alloy keeping it ridiculously intact. Not even the windshield broke. Then it smacked the blue surface of the water upside down, and sank like a hammer. A hammer -- an object used to build, to construct, to create -- is invoked to describe the evil auto’s demise. It is the sort of brilliant, low-key irony that Larson and Hill have threaded throughout their opus. And it is what makes Trust Doesn’t Rust an unjustly forgotten classic. So do yourself a favor: the next time you see a moldering pile of paperbacks in a Dumpster or crack-den rumpus room, dig through in search of Trust Doesn’t Rust. Immersing yourself in Larsen and Hill’s airtight prose and rousing storytelling will make you feel like one of the thieves, upon his realization that KARR could be used for ill purposes: A limitless vista of opportunity opened up inside of Tony’s head. It was composed mostly of visions of solid food, potent booze, and -- as he had said -- wild, wild women. It seemed terrific. No, Tony. It is terrific.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain We humans love to swap vocabularies. Spend a day with someone hot on quintessential and it’s likely that in the following days or weeks quintessential will crop up in your own speech or writing. Is this problematic? Not especially. Quintessential is a fantastic word. However, it’s good to be mindful of this phenomenon when you sit down to write, lest the words of other writers end up on your page. As the editor of Slush Pile Magazine and the long-time senior reader of unsolicited fiction at Harvard Review, I am consistently up to my elbows in slush pile. Here are a handful of words and phrases that I see all too often: 1. Impossibly Remember in The Princess Bride how the Sicilian keeps calling everything “inconceivable” and at some point Inigo is like, yeah, all of that stuff that you keep calling “inconceivable” is actually -- you know -- conceivable? This is the basic situation with “impossibly.” When used as an adverb, “impossibly” means absolutely nothing and in zero cases does it make the sentiment better, stronger, or more precise. Here are just a few examples from the slush pile, the Internet, and the novel of a woman sitting next to me on a plane: “Sitting at the desk is an impossibly perky woman.” “In such a short time, I’d fallen impossibly in love.” “The sun was even higher, impossibly high” “Lindsay was so impossibly fashionable, so together” “They dry themselves out on the beach, using towels that are impossibly soft.” “I used to shun migrant traditions, but now I find them impossibly moving.” But the highest frequency with which I encounter “impossibly” is in sentences like, “He was impossibly tall." Or, “His eyes were impossibly blue.” Or, “she had impossibly long legs.” None of those things are impossible. They might be remarkable, extraordinary, unfathomable, fantastic, or mind-boggling, but they are not impossible. If you catch yourself using “impossibly,” just take a moment to think about what you are trying to say and whether or not it is true that her legs were impossibly long. Were they coiled beneath her like so many yards of spaghetti pasta? No? In that case, impossibly is not the word you need. 2. Ridiculously In terms of contemporary usage, “ridiculously” is just another version of “impossibly:” “Girls from Indiana are ridiculously sexy.” “DeLorenzo’s didn’t accept reservations so I got us there ridiculously early.” However, in the case of “ridiculously” there is a caveat -- it is great to use when something is actually ridiculous: “It was over. Everyone had gotten what they wanted. Ridiculously, I felt like crying.” 3. Skitter/Skittered/Skittering skit·ter ˈskidər/ verb move lightly and quickly or hurriedly. "the girls skittered up the stairs" draw (bait) jerkily across the surface of the water as a technique in fishing. It is easy to understand how and why “skitter” gained popularity. It has a nice element of onomatopoeia, for starters. Unfortunately, all of our writing peers now put it to use any time something or someone goes scampering, scuttling, scurrying, skipping, bounding, tumbling, scooting or even blowing: “The prairie grasses swayed in the breeze and little clouds skittered across the sky.” “Another blast made Jack dive beneath the bed and the phone skittered across the floor.” “Each season the trail south would be blockaded by ice strata the mules skittered over.” “Lightning illuminated her face as it skittered across the darkening sky.” “She tried to straighten her hair as she skittered across the wide-planked floor.” As the shortlist above illustrates, while “skitter” is certainly the mot du jour, there are many other ways to capture the action. Why limit yourself? 4. Feelings Moving Like Weather Patterns Across Faces “Leon watched her face out of the corner of her eyes. It was like the sky when a gust of wind drives clouds across.” Sound familiar? This sentence was written in 1856 by Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) but this conceit has been used too many times -- probably before, and definitely since -- to count. 5. Shocks of Hair "He was a tall distinguished looking young man with a shock of red hair." “His handsome head with its shock of black hair, roughly cropped.” “The little hero of this tale has a shock of blond hair.” “I'll never forget the first time I saw him -- the wild shock of black hair.” “He was a long, loose-framed man with a shock of red hair and vivid green eyes.” “Penelope was born with eyes the color of midnight stars and a shock of black hair.” “She was an angel with midnight blue eyes and a shock of blond hair.” “To an immense shock of black hair, he united a bushy beard of the same color.” And my personal favorite: “He was tall and exceptionally attractive, with piercing eyes, and a shock of white hair.” If you Google “shock of ____ hair” and “Google books” you will find thousands more of these. 6. "...All Sharp Angles and Jutting Limbs..." Who was the first person to use "sharp angles" and "jutting limbs?" I don't know, but I defy you to find a contemporary piece of writing without at least one sharp-angled limb-jutting character. It's over, everyone -- done. Just delete, delete, delete and think of some other way to describe your graceless adolescent characters. 7. Slumping Shoulders, Furrowed Brows, & Flashing Eyes These three expressions seem to come readily to writers in need of conveying defeat, trouble, and anger. It’s like they’re always on deck and begging the coach (that’s you) to put them in cold. I got this one, coach, they whisper in your ear while you’re writing. But keep these babies benched. They need to sit out a few innings: ““What did you tell her about me?” he said, eyes flashing with suspicion.” “Cold drops of sweat stand on his furrowed brow. His hands are clenched.” “The boy's shoulders slumped and he began to groan.” “I can see it in their shoulders -- slumped and weighty.” “She bowed her head and shuffled out with her shoulders slumped.” “He found Adam leaning against the wall, his hat low over his eyes and his shoulders slumped.” That last line is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck. The novel is a particular favorite of mine. I’ve included it here to point out that these expressions (unlike “impossibly”) are not inherently useless, just common. And their commonness risks making your writing seem less than fresh. Consider, on the other hand, how delightful “slumped” is when divorced from “shoulders”: “On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the evergreens.” (Vladimir Nabokov, from Lolita) So evocative! So refreshing! 8. In Conclusion All of us are susceptible to these Trojan Word-Horses, and none of us will escape them entirely. However, for the sake of your writing -- and for the patience of editorial staffs everywhere -- keep one eye on what’s trending. If it sounds familiar, you’ve probably read it somewhere before. And, believe you me, so have we. Image Credit: Flickr/Ervins Strauhmanis.
My first image of California was the Salinas River valley, just south of Soledad, lush and green in the full peak of summer. This little grove is a rite of passage for millions of the county's eighth graders, standing on the river bank and listening to the gentle rustle of fauna in relative seclusion, as painted with John Steinbeck's brush in the opening scene of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck's strokes spread over all of California as an iconic vision, especially in the opening scene of the parabolic epic East of Eden: "From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer." But that is not California anymore, and in the 60 years since East of Eden's publication, the dense farmland has become something else. When writing about California, the land and Steinbeck hang as an overture, as family patriarch Bill Blair discovers in the opening of Ann Packer's new California epic, The Children's Crusade. He heads south, driving out of San Francisco, noting: “This king’s highway boasted car lots and supermarkets, nothing to fill Bill’s heart, but every so often a vista opened and included the sudden rise of yet more hills, some thickly forested, others the color of hay bales in autumn.” Bill, in his exhaustion as a young doctor, is searching for the last vestiges of Steinbeckian farmland, finally settling on a broad stretch in the Portola Valley with a large, lovely oak tree: He lay on the ground under the oak tree and looked up between its snaking branches at the bits of startling blue. He wanted to figure out a way to live under that sky without forgetting the other sky, halfway around the world, that for two years had seemed always gray and always to bear down on the land and sea, no matter the season and no matter the weather. From here, Packer launches her broad and pensive family epic of the Blairs: Bill and his wife, Penny, followed by their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, and James. As adults, the four Blair children are brought together again when they must decide whether or not to sell their childhood home and land, the one that their father had founded for them. By settling the Blairs in the Portola Valley, a mere 100 miles away from Soledad, the legacy of East of Eden is inescapable. East of Eden, lacking the social consciousness of Grapes of Wrath or the accessibility of Of Mice and Men, is possibly Steinbeck's most difficult work and relatively neglected -- despite the scope of its ambition and the author's own declaration of it as his magnum opus. The story follows the thinly veiled biblical tale of Adam Trask and his brother Charles, as well as Adam's sons, Caleb and Aron, as they rise and fall on their paradisiacal slice of the Salinas Valley and contend with Adam's wicked wife, Cathy. Steinbeck's work is rife with the toil of Genesis: men versus the hardscrabble, scarcely arable land, then men and women versus their temptation as women face the trials of Eve, and brothers' hands twitch over the jealousy of Cain. The inheritance of Steinbeck in Packer's multigenerational novel is strong and diffuse. The Blairs take their creation myth as seriously tied to their land, their house, and their oak tree, well before the advent of strip malls, subdivisions, and the rise of Silicon Valley mansions that narrow in their once green-and-brown landscape. In 1950, two years before East of Eden was published, farmers accounted for 12 percent of the labor force; in 2015, they only amount to one percent. With the evolution of farmland into Silicon Valley and the change from farming to an industrialized and urbanized workforce, the nature of conflict changes, too. Men no longer struggle against the land, toiling as Adam once did because of the bounty of Whole Foods down the road. For Packer's generations, the conflict has become a much more internal and introspective view of self. Packer's Blairs might find themselves much more at ease with Celeste Ng's Lees in Everything I Never Told You or Jonathan Franzen's Lamperts in The Corrections, where the percolated failings of the parents -- and the stress fractures of their marriage -- have reverberating effects throughout the lives of their children. If East of Eden represents an essential parable of American Genesis, then The Children's Crusade is the complication of that parable and its strict morality. As the land has grown, so has its people, their lives replete with a dinner table trauma of harsh words and youthful brawls and spoiled clothes that hang about their days like the scent of ozone before a storm. Bill is the kind, conflict-avoidant, and well-meaning patriarch whose axioms of "carry on" and "children deserve care" are interpreted by each of his children differently. Penny is the manic mother fraught with unassailable dreams of her own artistry. Robert is the duty-bound and approval-driven eldest son, Rebecca the thoughtful and calculating daughter, Ryan the overly loving and close-minded middle child, and James the damaged and tossed aside youngest of the family. Initially, the "crusade" of The Children's Crusade is a foolish list, made by the children, of activities that might please their mother and engender her doting love. These are certainly pithy descriptions compared to the deep, sprawling mental landscapes that each of the children explores in their joint desperation to understand the loss of their childhood home, land, and the weighty portent of their father's oak tree. The land means so much to the four of them because it’s where they have rooted their love and history, and in this singular love and necessity for the California earth, the Trasks and the Blairs are not so different. Each of the four siblings narrates a section of the novel as adults looking back, with interluding scenes from their communal upbringing. The psychological weight is heavy and palpable for each child, such as Robert, who followed in his father's footsteps as a doctor. Although Robert is well-established in his mid-40s, all of his decisions are weighed against his father's imagined approval of him and his work. Often, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan, or James try to puzzle over their distant childhood memories in an attempt to piece together how they came to where they are in their lives. For the most troubled child, James, the turmoil of growing up focuses on his dire opposition to his mother, keying on one supremely traumatic moment surrounding his favorite stuffed animal that forms his "rocklike" opposition to her and results in them not speaking for more than a decade. For the Blairs, the land has been long conquered, leaving only the rolling hills of their own hearts and minds to plow through and build upon. Throughout The Children's Crusade, Packer lets emotion do the heavy lifting, leaving the writing itself to snake a methodical trail about the characters, such as when Bill is talking to Robert. “As he spoke, his face changed around his eyes and mouth, as if love lived in particular regions of the skin, and Robert felt his own face grow warm.” Packer's terse words ride high on this ripe emotion to the point of exhaustion, feeling each moment so deeply and fully on behalf of each child to the depth of minutiae. The story itself swings like a pendulum, with wandering interstitial and omniscient scenes of a summertime party, a family dinner, or a teenage birthday, filling in the thoughts of whichever family member is closest, even latching onto significant others, with such sudden leapfrogging that at times the cacophony of thoughts becomes oppressive. Between these are the children themselves, grown and worried adults now. In these passages, Packer shows the reach of her creation in the awful nuance of the fraught and doubtful adults in the fullness of their lives: Robert with his self-imposed mantel of pater familias, Rebecca with her thoughtful and oppressive problem-solving, Ryan with his burden of endless and unconditional love, and James with his rootless wanderlust -- all of it so painfully real and confessional. In East of Eden, Cathy is an evil and selfishly depraved soul set against her righteous and caring husband, and as a parable, it’s simply a moralizing black-and-white tale baked into the beauty of the Soledad River valley. Yet in The Children's Crusade, the shift between the children's monologue and the collective memory pushes the reader into the role of investigative psychoanalyst. Packer is most certainly aware of this, having one of the children, Rebecca, become an introspective psychiatrist whose memory and its distortion is a constant tease in her life, probing what might be real and whether it matters or not. Treading through the mottled family life of the Blairs, Packer pushes you to ask these questions: What is the motivation behind each memory or action? How have these scenes built Robert or Rebecca or Ryan or James into who he or she now is? Why might they be so broken? The Children's Crusade, at times, dips into heavy-handed moments, such as having a group of children sit around and discuss their "crusade" to bring their mother back into the fold, but if anything, the emotion and intent is genuine. For all the biblical Cain and Abel navel-gazing of East of Eden, the same hunger runs through Caleb's urgent desire for his father's love and approval. For both families, the crux of it is the dire attempt to fit together, with love as both the solvent and connective glue.
The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth. So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high. We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa. We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem. Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away - but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world. Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders? If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change. The Ambassadors Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since. “Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed. But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.” Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.” At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want? Corregidora Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label. He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction. A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made. DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora. The Godfather Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America's mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood. The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who "The Godfather" is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it? Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito's failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a "hostile take over bid," Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father's capitalist-patriarchal throne. The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones' tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women's liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power. Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo's ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo's out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit. After Puzo, none of America's epic stories, Ahab's or Gatsby's, Hester Prynne's or Invisible Man's, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot's admission to the "great tradition." The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo's omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own. Invisible Man Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel. The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden. “But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.” And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere. Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues. Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us? The House of Mirth Kirk Curnutt, Troy University On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive. Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental. The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem. My only compensation? I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market Lolita Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent. But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction. In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation. Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist. Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile. Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself. The Making of Americans Priscilla Wald, Duke University When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries. Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.” The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel. Moby-Dick Hester Blum, Penn State University Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville's terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped -- and, crucially, shapers -- of parts that jostle together, join and repel. There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being "dismasted." We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a "dumb brute," rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: "he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose." There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter ("The Quarter Deck"). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a "heart-stricken moose" would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken. What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements -- a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing "inscrutable malice," or the minutia of cetology -- and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity -- to try come to know -- the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world? Image via Wikimedia Commons