“For years the old Italians have been dying/all over America.” -Lawrence Ferlinghetti
On the second floor of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, in an airy, well-lit, white-walled gallery, near a slender window overlooking a red-bricked Cambridge street, there is a display case holding three portraits on chipped wood not much bigger than post-cards. Of varying degrees of aptitude, the paintings are of a genre called “Fayum Portraits” from the region of Egypt where they’re commonly found. When the Roman ruling class established itself in this Pharaonic land during the first few centuries of the Common Era, they would mummify themselves in the Egyptian fashion while affixing Hellenistic paintings onto the faces of their preserved bodies. Across the extent of the Roman empire, from damp Britain to humid Greece, little of the more malleable painted arts survived, but in sun-baked Egypt these portraits could peer out 20 centuries later as surely as the desert dried out their mummified corpses. When people envision ancient Mediterranean art, they may think of the grand sculptures blanched a pristine white, Trajan’s Arch and the monumental head of Constantine, the colorful paint which once clung to their surfaces long since eroded away. And while the monumental marbles of classical art are what most people remember of the period, the Fayum portraits of Harvard provide an entirely more personal gaze across the millennia.
If white is the color we associate with those sculptures, then the portraits here in Cambridge are of a different hue. They are nut-brown, tanned from the noon-day sun, yellow-green, and olive. Mummy Portrait of a Woman with an Earring, painted in the second century, depicts in egg tempura on wood a dark-skinned middle-aged woman with commanding brown eyes, her black hair showing a bit of curl even as it is pulled back tightly on her scalp; a woman looking out with an assuredness that belies her anonymity over time. Mummy Portraits of a Bearded Man shows the tired look of an old man, grey beard neatly clipped and groomed, his wavy grey hair still with a hint of auburn and combed back into place. Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man represents a far younger man, cleft chinned with a few days’ black stubble over his olive skin. What’s unnerving is the eerie verisimilitude of this nameless trio.
That they look so contemporary, so normal, is part of what’s unsettling. But they also unsettle because they’re there to assist in overturning our conceptions about what Roman people, those citizens of that vast, multicultural, multilingual, multireligious empire, looked like. Our culture is comfortable with the lily-white sculptures we associate with our Roman forebearers which were then imitated in our own imperial capitals; easier to pretend that the ancient Romans had nothing to do with the people who live there now, and yet when looking at the Fayum portraits I’m always struck by how Italian everybody looks.
The old man could be tending tomatoes in a weedy plot somewhere in Trenton; the middle-aged woman wearily volunteering for a church where she’s not too keen on the new Irish priest, and the young man with the stubble looks like he just got off a shift somewhere in Bensonhurst and is texting his friends to see who wants to go into the city. I’ve never seen anyone who actually looks like the statue of Caesar Augustus of Primo Porta carved from white stone, but you’ll see plenty of people who look like the Fayum Portraits in North Boston, Federal Hill, or Bloomfield (the one either in Jersey or in Pittsburgh). When I look at the Fayum portraits, I see people I know; I see my own family.
Despite my surname vowel deficiency, I’m very much Italian-American. Mathematically, twice as much as Robert DeNiro, so I feel well equipped to offer commentary in answering the question with which I’ve titled this piece. Furthermore, as a second-generation American, I’m not that far removed from Ellis Island. My mother’s father immigrated from Abruzzo, that mountainous, bear-dwelling region that was the birthplace of Ovid, and his entire family and much of his fellow villagers were brought over to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, to work as stone masons, a trade they’d been plying since the first rock was laid in the Appian Way. My grandmother’s family was from Naples, where Virgil was born, a teeming volcanic metropolis of orange and lemon trees, a heaven populated by devils as native-son Giordano Bruno wrote in the 16th century. For me, being Italian was unconscious; it simply was a fact no more remarkable than my dark hair or brown eyes.
Being Italian meant at least seven fishes on Christmas Eve and the colored lights rather than the white ones on the tree, it meant (and still means) cooking most things with a heavy dollop of olive oil and garlic, it means at least once a week eating either veal parmesan, prosciutto and melon, calamari, spaghetti with tuna, and buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes. Being Italian meant laminated furniture in the homes of extended family, and Mary-on-the-half-shell; it meant a Catholicism more cultural than theological, with the tortured faces of saints vying alongside a certain type of pagan magic. Being Italian meant assumed good looks and a certain ethnic ambiguity; it meant uncles who made their own wine and grew tomatoes in the backyard.
Being Italian-American meant having an identity where the massive pop culture edifice that supplies representations of you implies that the part before the hyphen somehow makes the second half both more and less true. My position was much like Maria Laurino’s in Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America, where she writes that “All the pieces of my life considered to be ‘Italian’…I kept distinct from the American side, forgetting about the hyphen, about that in-between place where a new culture takes form.” What I do viscerally remember is the strange sense I had watching those corny old sword-and-sandal epics that my middle school Latin teacher used to fill up time with, a sense that those strangely Aryan Romans presented on celluloid were supposed to somehow be related to me. Actors whose chiseled all-American whiteness evoked the marbles that line museum halls. Sculptures of Caesar Augustus were once a lot more olive than white as well. That classical Greek and Roman statuary was vividly painted, only to fade over time, has been known since the 19th century, even as contemporary audiences sometimes violently react to that reality. Using modern technology, archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has been able to restore some of the most famous Greek and Roman statues to glorious color, as he details in his Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World, but as the classicist Sarah Bond writes in Forbes, “Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world.” We think of the Romans as lily white, but the Fayum portraits demonstrate that they very much weren’t. That the individuals in these pictures should appear so Italian shouldn’t be surprising—Romans are Italians after all. Or at least in the case of the Fayum portraits they’re people from a mélange of backgrounds, including not just Romans, but Greeks, Egyptians, Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians, and so on. Rome was, like our own, a hybridized civilization, and it’s marked on the faces that peer out towards us on that wall.
Last fall, at a handful of Boston-area colleges just miles from the museum, classical imagery was appropriated for very different means. Students awoke to find their academic halls papered with posters left during the night by members of one of these fascistic groups to have emerged after the 2016 presidential election, a bigotry that has been revealed as if discovering all of the fungus growing underneath a rotting tree stump that’s been kicked over. This particular group combined images of bleached classical sculpture and neo-fascist slogans to make their white supremacist arguments. The Apollo Belvedere is festooned with the declaration “Our Future Belongs to Us,” 17th-century French Neo-Classical sculptor Nicolas Coustou’s bust of Julius Caesar has “Serve your People” written beneath it, and in the most consciously Trumpy of posters, a close-up on the face of Michelangelo’s David injuncts “Let’s Become Great Again.” There’s something particularly ironic in commandeering the David in the cause of white supremacy. Perhaps they didn’t know that that exemplar of the Italian Renaissance was a depiction of a fierce Jewish king as rendered by a gay, olive-skinned artist?
Such must be the central dilemma of the confused white supremacist, for the desire to use ancient Rome in their cause has been irresistible ever since Benito Mussolini concocted his crackpot system of malice known as fascismo corporativo, but the reality is that the descendants of those very same Romans often don’t appear quite as “white” as those supremacists would be comfortable with. This is especially important when considering that the Romans “did not speak in terms of race, a discourse invented many centuries later,” as scholar Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People. Moral repugnance is a given when it comes to racist ideologies, but one should also never forget the special imbecility that comes along with arguing that you’re innately superior because you kinda, sorta, maybe physically resemble dead people who did important things. What makes the case of the posters more damning is that those who made them don’t even actually look like the people whose culture they’ve appropriated.
No doubt the father of celebrated journalist Gay Talese would be outraged by this filching. In a 1993 piece for The New York Times Book Review, he remembers his “furious and defensive father” exploding after he’d learned that the Protestant-controlled school board had rejected his petition to include Ovid and Dante in the curriculum, the elder man shouting at his son that “‘Italy was giving art to the world when those English were living in caves and painting their faces blue!’” A particular twist as the descendants of those same WASPs paper college campuses with posters of Italian sculptures that they somehow claim patrimony from. But that’s always been the predicament of the Western chauvinist, primed to take ownership over another culture as evidence of his own genius, while simultaneously having to explain his justifications for the disdain in which he holds the actual children of that culture.
Since the late 19th-century arrival of millions of immigrants from the Mezzogiorno, American racists have long contrived baroque justifications for why white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are the inheritors of Italian culture, while Italians themselves are not. Some of this logic was borrowed from Italy itself, where even today, Robert Lumley and Jonathan Morris record in The New History of the Italian South, some northerners will claim that “Europe ends at Naples. Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa.” Northern Italians, comparatively wealthier, better educated, and most importantly fairer, had been in the United States a generation before their southern cousins, and many Anglo-Americans borrowed that racialized animus against southerners which reigned (and still does) in the old country.
As Richard Gambino writes in Blood of my Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans, it was in the “twisted logic of bigotry” that these immigrants were “flagrantly ‘un-American.’ And Italians replaced all the earlier immigrant groups as targets of resentment about the competition of cheap labor.” This was the reasoning that claimed that all Italian accomplishments could be attributed to a mythic “Nordic” or “Teutonic” influence, so that any Mediterranean achievements were written away, orienting Rome towards a Europe it was only tangentially related to and away from an Africa that long had an actual influence. Notorious crank Madison Grant in his unabashedly racist 1916 The Passing of the Great Race claimed that Italians were now “storming the Nordic ramparts of the United States and mongrelizing the good old American stock,” with Gambino explaining that “In his crackpot explanation, Italians are the inferior descendants of the slaves who survived when ancient Rome died.”
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes that Grant’s book was “the most influential tract of American scientific racism” and Adolf Hitler wrote a letter to the author claiming “The book is my Bible.” A lawyer and eugenicist, Grant’s writings were influential in both the Palmer Raids, a series of unconstitutional police actions directed by the Wilson administration against immigrants suspected of harboring anarchist and communist sympathies, as well as the xenophobic nastiness of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act which made eastern and southern European immigration slow to a trickle. Incidentally, it was the Johnson-Reed Act that, had it been passed 10 years earlier, would have barred my mother’s father from entering the United States; a law that former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions lauded in a 2017 interview with Stephen Bannon, arguing that the banning of immigrants like those in my family “was good for America.”
In Chiaroscuro: Essays of Identity, Helen Barolini writes that “Italian Americans are too easily used as objects of ridicule and scorn,” and while that’s accurate, it’s a rhetoric that has deep and complicated genealogies. Italy has always occupied a strange position in the wider European consciousness. It is simultaneously the birthplace of “Western Civilization,” and an exoticized, impoverished, foreign backwater at the periphery of the continent; the people who first modeled a noxious imperialism, and the subjugated victims of later colonialism. A pithy visual reminder of Italy’s status in early modern Europe can be seen in the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors, which depicts two of the titular profession surrounded by their tools. On a shelf behind them sits a globe. Europe is differentiated from the rest of the world by being an autumnal brown-green, with the exception of two notable regions colored the same hue as Africa—Ireland and Sicily. In Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America, coedited with Salvatore Salerno, historian Jennifer Guglielmo explains that the “racial oppression of Italians had its root in the racialization of Africans,” something never more evident than in the anti-Italian slur “guinea” with its intimations of Africanness, this implication of racial ambiguity having profound effects on how Italians were understood and how they understood themselves.
In the rhetoric and thought of the era, Italy was somehow paradoxically the genesis of Europe, while also somehow not European. As such, Italians were to be simultaneously emulated and admired, while also reviled and mocked. During that English Renaissance, which was of course a sequel to the original one, books like Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, with their respective paeans to sensuality and duplicity, molded a particular view of Italianness that has long held sway in the English imagination. Consider all of the Shakespeare plays in an imagined Italy: The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentleman of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice, not to mention the occasional appearance of Romans in other plays. Shakespeare’s plays, and other icons of the English Renaissance, set a template that never really faded. A simultaneous attraction to and disgust at a people configured as overly emotional, overly sexual, overly flashy, overly corrupt, overly sensual, and with a propensity less cerebral than hormonal. And the criminality.
Long before Mario Puzo or The Sopranos, Renaissance English writers impugned Italians with a particular antisocial perfidy. Such is displayed in Thomas Nash’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton, which could credibly be called England’s first novel. In that picaresque, the eponymous character perambulates through the Europe of the early 16th century, encountering luminaries like Thomas More, Erasmus, Henry Howard, Martin Luther, and Cornelius Agrippa, and witnessing events like the horrific siege at Munster in the Low Countries. Most of Nash’s narrative, however, takes place in “the Sodom of Italy,” and an English fever dream of that country’s excess settles like a yellow fog. One Englishmen laments that the only lessons that can be learned here are “the art of atheism, the art of epicurizing, the art of whoring, the art of poisoning, the art of sodomitry.”
From Nash until today there has often been a presumption of vindictive relativist morality on the part of Italians, and it has slurred communities with an assumption of criminality. In the early 20th century sociologists claimed that the dominant Italian ethic was “familial amoralism,” whereby blood relations had precedence over all other social institutions. Nash’s nobleman is the great-grandfather to Michael Corleone in the collective imagination. Do not read this as squeamish sensitivity, I’d never argue that The Godfather, written and directed by Italians, is anything less than an unmitigated masterpiece. Both Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation are potent investigations of guilt, sin, and evil. I decided not to join the Sons of Italy after I saw how much of their concern was with stereotypes on The Sopranos, which I still regard as among the greatest television dramas of all time. I concur with Bill Tonelli, who in his introduction to The Italian American Reader snarked that “nobody loves those characters better than Italian Americans do,” and yet I recall with a cringe the evaluation of The Godfather given to me by a non-Italian, that the film was about nothing more than “spaghetti and murder.”
Representations of Italianness in popular culture aren’t just Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, there’s also the weirdly prevalent sitcom stereotype of the lovable, but dumb, hypersexual goombah. I enter into consideration Arthur “The Fonze” Fonzarelli from Happy Days, Tony Micelli from Who’s the Boss?, Vinny Barbarino of Welcome Back Kotter, and of course Friends’ Joey Tribbiani. Once I argued with my students if there was something offensive about The Jersey Shore, finally convincing them of the racialized animus in the series when I queried as to why there had never been an equivalent about badly behaving WASPs called Martha’s Vineyard?
Painter explains that “Italian Americans hovered longer on the fringes of American whiteness,” and so any understanding must take into account that until recently Italians were still inescapably exotic to many Americans. Tonelli writes that “in an era that supposedly values cultural diversity and authenticity, the portrait of Italian Americans is monotonous and observed from a safe distance.” The continued prevalence of these stereotypes is a residual holdover from the reality that Italians are among the last of “ethnics” to “become white.” Tonelli lists the “mobsters, the urban brute, the little old lady shoving a plate of rigatoni under your nose,” declaiming that “it gets to be like a minstrel show after a while.”
Consider Judge Webster Thayer who after the 1921 sham-trial of anarchists Barolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco would write that although they “may not have committed the crime” attributed to them, they are “nevertheless morally culpable” because they were both enemies of “our existing institutions… the defendant’s ideals are cognate with crime.” Privately, Thayer bragged to a Dartmouth professor, “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards the other day?” As late as 1969, another professor, this one at Yale, felt free to tell a reporter in response to a query about a potential Italian-American New York mayoral candidate that “If Italians aren’t actually an inferior race, they do the best imitation of one I’ve seen.”
But sometime in the
decades after World War II, Italians followed the Irish and Jews into the
country club of whiteness with its carefully circumscribed membership. Guglielmo
explains that initially “Virtually all Italian immigrants [that] arrived in the
United States [did so] without a consciousness about its color line.” Victims
of their birth nation’s rigid social stratification based on complexion and geography,
the new immigrants were largely ignorant of America’s racial history, and thus
were largely immune to the anti-black racism that was prevalent. These
immigrants had no compunction about working and living alongside African
Americans, and often understood themselves to occupy a similar place in
But as Guglielmo explains, by the second and third generation there was an understanding that to be “white meant having the ability to avoid many forms of violence and humiliation, and assured preferential access to citizenship, property, satisfying work, livable wages, decent housing, political power, social status, and a good education, among other privileges.” Political solidarity with black and Hispanic Americans (we forget that Italians are Latinx too) was abandoned in favor of assimilation to the mainstream. Jennifer Gillan writes in the introduction to Growing up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to be American that “American have often fought bitter battles over what it means to be American and who exactly get to qualify under the umbrella term,” and towards the end of the 20th century Italians had fought their way into that designation, but they also left many people behind. In the process, a beautiful radical tradition was forgotten, so that we traded Giuseppe Garibaldi for Frank Rizzo, Philly’s racist mayor in the 70s; so that now instead of Sacco and Vanzetti we’re saddled with Antonin Scalia and Rudy Giuliani. As Guglielmo mourns, “Italians were not always white and the loss of this memory is one of the great tragedies of racism in America.”
If there is to be any anecdote, then it must be in words; where literature allows for imaginative possibilities and the complexities of empathy. What is called for is a restitution, or rather a recognition, of an Italian-American literary canon acting as bulwark against both misrepresentations and amnesia. Talese infamously asked if there were no “Italian-American Arthur Millers and Saul Bellows, James Baldwins and Toni Morrisons, Mary McCarthys and Mary Gordons, writing about their ethnic experiences?” There’s an irony to this question, as Italians in the old country would never think to ask where their writers are, the land of Virgil and Dante secure in its literary reputation, with more recent years seeing the celebrated post-modernisms of Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Dario Fo, and Umberto Eco. In this century, the citizens of Rome, Florence, and Milan face different questions than their cousins in Newark, Hartford, or Providence. Nor do we bemoan a dearth of examples in other fields: that Italians can hit a baseball or throw a punch can be seen in Joe DiMaggio’s homeruns and Rocky Marciano’s slugging; that we can strike a note is heard in Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; that we can shoot a picture is proven by Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese.
Yet in the literary arts no equivalent names come up, at least no equivalent names that are thought of as distinctly Italian. Regina Barreca in the introduction to Don’t Tell Mama!: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing says that there is an endurance of the slur which sees Italians as “deliberately dense, badly educated, and culturally unsophisticated.” By this view the wider culture is fine with the physicality of boxers and baseballs players, the emotion and sensuality of musicians, even the Catholic visual idiom of film as opposed to the Protestant textuality of the written word, so that the “intellectual” pursuits of literature are precluded. She explains that what remains is an “idea of Italian Americans as a people who would never choose to read a book, let alone write one,” though as Baraca stridently declares this is a “set of hazardous concepts [which] cannot simply be outlived; it must be dismantled.”
I make no claims to originating the idea that we must establish an Italian-American literary canon, such has been the mainstay of Italian-American Studies since that field’s origin in the ’70s. This has been the life’s work of scholars like Gambino, Louise DeSalvo, and Fred Gardaphé, not to mention all of the anthology editors I’ve referenced. Tonelli writes that “Our time of genuine suffering at the hands of this bruising country passed more or less unchronicled, by ourselves or anyone else,” yet there are hidden examples of Italian-American voices writing about an experience that goes beyond mafia or guido stereotypes. For many of these critics, the Italian-American literary canon was something that already existed, it was merely a question of being able to recognize what exists beyond the stark black and red cover of The Godfather. Such a task involved the elevation of lost masterpieces like Pietro di Donato’s 1939 proletarian Christ in Concrete , but also a reemphasis on the vowels at the ends of names for authors who are clearly Italian, but are seldom thought of as such.
That Philip Roth is a Jewish author goes without saying, but rarely do we think of the great experimentalist Don DeLillo as an Italian-American author. A restitution of the Italian-American literary canon would ask what precisely is uniquely Italian about a DeLillo? For that matter, what are the Italian-American aesthetics of poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jay Parini, Diane Di Prima, and Gregory Corso? What can we better say about the Italianness of Gilbert Sorrentino and Richard Russo? Where do we locate the Mezzogiorno in the criticism and scholarship of A. Bartlett Giamatti, Frank Lentricchia, and Camille Paglia? Baraca writes that “Italian Americans live (and have always lived) a life not inherited, but invented,” and everything is to be regained by making a reinvention for ourselves. Furthermore, I’d suggest that the hybridized nature of what it has always meant to be Italian provides a model to avoid the noxious nationalisms that increasingly define our era.
Guglielmo writes that “Throughout the twentieth century, Italian Americans crafted a vocal, visionary, and creative oppositional culture to protest whiteness and build alliances with people of color,” and I’d argue that this empathetic imagination was born out of the pluralistic civilization of which the Italians were descendants. Contrary to pernicious myths of “racial purity,” the Romans were as diverse as Americans are today, drawing not just from Italic peoples like the Umbrians, Sabines, Apulians, and Etruscans, but also from Egyptians, Ethiopians, Berbers, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Anatolians, Gauls, Huns, Dacians, Franks, Teutons, Vandals, Visigoths, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Iberians, Jews, Arabs, and Celts, among others. A reality quite contrary to the blasphemy of those posters with their stolen Roman images.
Rome was both capital and periphery, a culture that was a circle with no circumference whose center can be everywhere. Christine Palamidessi Moore in her contribution to the Lee Gutkind and Joanna Clapps Herman anthology Our Roots are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian American Writers notes that “Italy is a fiction: a country of provinces, dialects, and regions, and historically because of its location, an incorporator of invaders, empires, and bloodlines.” Sitting amidst the Mare Nostrum of its wine-dark sea, Italy has always been at a nexus of Europe, Africa, and Asia, situated between north and south, east and west. Moore explains that the “genuineness of the ethnicity they choose becomes more obscure and questionable because of its mixed origins; however, because it is voluntary, the act of choosing sustains the identity.”
The question then is not “What was Italian America?” but rather “What can Italian America be?” In 1922 W.E.B. DuBois, the first black professor at Harvard, spoke to a group of impoverished Italian immigrants at Chicago’s Hull House. Speaking against the Johnson-Reed Act, DuBois appealed to a spirit of confraternity, arguing that there must be a multiethnic coalition against a “renewal of the Anglo-Saxon cult: the worship of the Nordic totem, the disenfranchisement of Negro, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiatic and South Sea Islander.” When DuBois spoke against the “Anglo-Saxon cult” he condemned not actual English people, but rather the fetish that believes only those of British stock can be “true Americans.” When he denounced the “Nordic totem,” he wasn’t castigating actual northern Europeans, but only that system that claims they are worthier than the rest of people. What DuBois condemned was not people, but rather a system that today we’ve taken to calling “white privilege,” and he’s just as correct a century later. The need for DuBois’s coalition has not waned.
Italian-Americans can offer the example of a culture that was always hybridized, always at the nexus of different peoples. Italians have never been all one thing or the other, and that seems to me the best way to be. It’s this liminal nature that’s so valuable, which provides answer to the idolatries of ancestry that are once again emerging in the West (with Italy no exception). DuBois offered a different vision, a coalition of many hues marshaled against the hegemony of any one. When I meet the gaze of the Fayum portraits, I see in their brown eyes an unsettling hopefulness from some 20 centuries ago, looking past my shoulder and just beyond the horizon where perhaps that world may yet exist.
“Art isn’t a footrace. No one comes in first place. Greatness is not a universally agreed-upon value. … America isn’t one story. It’s a layered and diverse array of identities, individual and collective, forged on contradictory realities that are imbued with and denied privilege and power. Our obsession with the Great American Novel is perhaps evidence of the even greater truth that it’s impossible for one to exist. As Americans, we keep looking anyway.” Cheryl Strayed and Adam Kirsch discuss the Great American Novel in this week’s New York Times Bookends. For a slightly different take, consider the 9 novels our experts chose as the Greatest American novels, from Moby-Dick to The Godfather.
At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.
The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.
Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.
Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.
This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.
What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.
I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.
When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:
“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”
“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”
(General murmurs of approval.)
“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”
“That one is amazing.”
Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.
My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.
I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.
Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.
Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.
What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.
One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.
I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.
Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.
Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.
Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.
Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.
In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.
My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.
They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:
The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!
I remember when I first started watching The Sopranos: early winter in the small town in Oklahoma where my then-girlfriend (now wife) had gone to work among the Cherokees. I was on a break from college, but my girlfriend got a grand total of something like four days off around Christmas (this notwithstanding the prominence of Christianity in the culture of Tahlequah). And so, from 7:30 in the morning until 6:00 at night, I was on my own. Believe me when I say: there is no winter like an Oklahoma winter. I’d write in the morning and then, in the afternoon, distract myself from the endless flat grayness of the country outside the living room window by reading books and watching movies.This was back in the days of VHS, and one day at the Blockbuster I picked up a tape with the first three episodes of this premium-cable-channel show I’d been hearing so much about: The Sopranos. It was love at first sight. Aside from the searing performances of the leads and a memorable character turn from a minor hero of mine, “Miami” Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band, the show offered all of the addictive pleasures of serial storytelling. This, I think, was what made The Sopranos feel so much like a novel. It was Dickens with gabbagul in place of figgy pudding. (And mightn’t Copperfield’s Barkis have recognized a kindred soul in Silvio Dante? Or Mr. Micawber tendered to Paulie Walnuts some prolix offer of friendship?)Seven and a half years later, the titular Sopranos have reached the end of their long and erratic arc, and heat and humidity are on the rise in Brooklyn. (Believe me when I say: there is no summer like a New York summer.) And the question arises: how to fill the empty place Tony & Co. have left behind? How to pass the long summer afternoons?The obvious quick fix for those suffering from Sopranos withdrawal is The Godfather, but Puzo’s dialogue might feel a bit flat after David Chase’s. So here’s a suggestion: Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God bear more than a passing resemblance to The Sopranos, and are similarly well-written and densely plotted. Given that the murderous matriarchs of these narratives are both named Livia, I wonder if Chase wasn’t inspired by Graves. Beneath the disparate Italian settings – Rome at the time of Christ and Jersey in the time of American Idol (how far we’ve come) – The Sopranos and I, Claudius are both sagas of intrigue and betrayal, of men whose ability to trust their friends and loved ones wanes as their proximity to power increases.If it’s the psychodrama of The Sopranos that appeals to you, however, I can recommend an even less likely analogue: Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. Here, trust is also at a premium. The setting is not a mob war-zone, however, but ranges from the WASPy corridors of a Fortune 500 company to the bucolic suburbs of Connecticut. Like Tony Soprano, Heller’s Bob Slocum is an upwardly mobile executive suffering from moral rot. He is as unpleasant to spend time with as Tony has been this season, and yet his intertwined rage and loneliness seem to shed some kind of bleak light on the human condition.Heller is, I think, a vastly underrated prose writer. His prefers a limited diction to the omnivorous vocabulary of fellow-travelers like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, but his syntactic subtlety yields sentences of arresting power. Check out this outburst from Slocum, worthy of Dr. Melfi’s office: “Even fancy bakeries now use a substitute for whipped cream that looks more like whipped cream than whipped cream does, keeps its color and texture longer, doesn’t spoil, and costs much less, yielding larger profits. […] It tastes like s–t. Nobody cares but me. From sea to shining sea the country is filling with slag, shale, and used-up automobile tires. The fruited plain is coated with insecticide and chemical fertilizers. Even pure horses–t is hard to come by these days. They add preservatives. You don’t find fish in lakes and rivers anymore. You have to catch them in cans. Towns die. Oil spills. Money talks. God listens. God is good, a real team player. ‘America the Beautiful’ isn’t: it was all over the day the first white man set foot on the continent to live.”It’s all here, in embryonic form: the rage, the narcissism, the depression, the nostalgia, the soured aspirations. (Not to mention the serial infidelity and a climax suspiciously reminiscent of the death of Christopher Moltisanti this season on The Sopranos.) I don’t know whether David Chase has read Something Happened, but the section headings Heller uses to structure Slocum’s 550-page monologue could just as easily describe the trajectory of seven seasons of The Sopranos: “I get the willies”; “My daughter’s unhappy”; “My little boy is having difficulties”; “There’s no getting around it”…Perhaps most significantly, Chase and Heller are both willing to take literally the Freudian constructs that postmodern discourse has reduced to the level of metaphor, or bumper sticker. Slocum and Soprano are men haunted by a small handful of dreams and traumas (e.g., by their love for and resentment of their mothers). And every interaction out in the great world is in some way a Freudian replaying of a domestic trauma. As psychology, this might not be as nuanced as what you’d get in your local therapists’ office, but it comes cheaper, and in deft hands attains the mythic resonance of art. In Something Happened, especially, we see the way that every conflict comes back to the primal fourfold of Slocum’s household: man, woman, girl, boy. Every man is father, son, and brother, and every woman is mother, wife, and sister. And, returning to The Sopranos, we find that, however baroque the FBI’s organizational charts get, it really is all about family, this thing of ours.In the thirty years since its publication,Something Happened has been obscured by the long shadow cast by Heller’s first novel, Catch-22. But I have no doubt that, on the bookshelves of the future, nestled between the DVD boxed sets, there will be a place for it… as there will be for The Sopranos. This summer, before you move on to Deadwood, or to the BBC’s miniseries version of I, Claudius, you might pick up Something Happened for your maintenance dose of literary misanthropy.