Thursday, June 2, 2011

Best American Writer of the 20th Century?

No protest against the greatness of Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allen Poe, but really, their time is past, and this thread is about this century. Kurt Vonnegut easily matches Twain , I think, Updike, at his best, surpasses Hawthorne on the same range of issues, and for Poe, virtually everyone has been influenced by him, but the best of his students have found more graceful, lyrical ways to deliver their work.  

 Simply, one may yearn for the richness of a glorious past as a kind of Heaven to be aspired to, which is fine, if that is the way one learns to cope with the uncompromising pace of the current time, but our writers, truth told, tell a fine tale or two. Literature is also about where we're going, not just where we've been.  DeLillo,Toni  Morrison, William Gaddis, William Gass, Updike, David Foster Wallace, Mark Helprin, Joyce Carol Oates, Sontag, and dozens of others whose work, in varied respects, struggles to be about something larger than memoirs put forth under the name of fiction. Not that I like all the above: rather, just to say that not every novelist these days is hung by their own confessional rope. Ultimately, hindsight is everything, and I wish I could see , who of our scribes will be discussed at the end of the next century.  

The second half of this century produced a lot of major talent who have produced or are producing respective bodies of work that require the passionate reading and argument our already named personal bests have received. Harold Bloom notwithstanding, our canon is expanding with new and achingly good writers, and one would think that the male majority so far discussed will have relinquish room on their uppermost tier.  On the point, Fitzgerald will make the cut because so few writers, then or to the current time, have managed the breathless lyricism contained in the "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender Is The Night". Some have come close, and I'm thinking of the resonating sentences from Scott Spencer's "Endless Love" or some keenly rendered pages in Updikes "Rabbit" quartet, but Fitzgerald at best gave us small masterpieces that gave an sharp view of the time.  Hemingway, I thinks, merits a permanent place on any greatest list because his style, at best, was lean, and his sentences , constructed the way they are, convey pages of buried turmoil, lost hope, small idealism, bravery to pursue another day , to shoulder one's burden honorably. 

"In Our Time" and "The Sun Also Rises" accomplish this. At his worse, though, Hemingway was a boozing sentimentalist whose writing lapsed into repetitious self-parody, as we have in "Island In The Stream" or "A Movable Feast". But I am grateful for the good work he did.  Jack London, I'm afraid, pales for me personally. He was a lot of fun for me when I was growing up, yearning for adventure in Catholic School. But later, in college, closer and more seasoned readings had him sounding rushed, awkward. The mixture of Marx and Darwin that seasoned his writings seem showed a straining idealism that was not redeemed by a modifying style.I've just re-read "John Barleycorn" , and the book is ridiculous. It seemed like so much bluster and blarney toward the end , after vividly recalls his disastrous drinking career, that armed with this new self awareness, he would drink responsibly, that he was in fact only temporarily an alcoholic. He didn't cure himself, and his prose hasn't reminded me less of  piles of smashed concrete over the decades.


  1. Phil Herbertson10:30 AM PDT

    A fancy list of impressive names, but you don't mention Thomas Wolfe, Henry James , Dawn Powell or William Carlos Williams. Williams is an interesting case, I think, because his work was substantially more than just his revolutionary poetry-- novelist, short story writer, critic, memoirist, playwright. He had a knack for all the forms. And there is no getting around the fact that Faulkner is the greatest American novelist, period.

  2. Sherwood Anderson is the best of them all, in my opinion: the trailblazer, the prophetic voice, the creative rainmaker who led straight to Hemingway as well as Thomas Wolfe and Jack Kerouac. His short stories invented magical realism and his memoirs blur the line between the subjective and objective as only a visionary can. Picking the Number One scribe is highly subjective, of course, but I know of no better 20th Century prose writer who captured the American grain more lyrically, with more innate poetry or more heart.

  3. We should make mention of Edith Wharton while we're at it; she could write social comedies with an elegance unsurpassed, and had an acute sense of the personalities of her her characters. She combined James and Jane Austen, I would assume, and chronicled the New York upper crest wonderfully. Unlike James, she didn't run away to Europe.


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