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american literatureWhen I arrived in the United States, four days before the 9-11 attacks fourteen years ago, I was woefully ignorant of American literature. I had read very little and, it must be said, had little desire to read much more. In fact, it must also be said and, yes, confessed, that I had an ingrained prejudice against anything the New World might have to offer. Mea culpa! Indeed, mea maxima culpa!

Today, having lived in the United States for so many years, I can see and appreciate American culture in a way that was not possible when I could only see it from the outside. I would add that I can now see my own country of England in a way that was not possible when I could only see her from the inside. I appreciate now what might be called a healthy cosmopolitanism, the vision that is acquired when one can see things from both within and without. This is not the jaundiced cosmopolitanism of the rootless wanderer who sees, with the eyes of Wilde’s cynic, only the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is the healthy experience of wanderers, such as Bilbo Baggins, who can truly enjoy the Shire so much the better for having seen the world beyond its borders. I appreciate the English Shire and the rolling English road, of which Chesterton wrote, so much the more for having been exiled from them. Yet, I can also see the folly of modern England’s hedonism much more clearly from the perspective of an exile observing her decadence and debauchery from abroad.

I would have to confess that I am still woefully ignorant of American literature, though not as woefully so as I had been upon my arrival in this country. The difference is that I now see my ignorance as the bitter fruit of my sins of omission. It is not something of which my proud and prejudicial heart boasts, but a deficiency in my knowledge that I hope to rectify. In the interim, I will offer a full confession of my ignorance in the scant list of authors of which I have at least some knowledge.

As a child I enjoyed reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (so I can’t say, with Kipling, that never the twain did meet!) and I seem to recall that Shane by Jack Schaefer might have been the first full-length book that I ever read. I enjoyed it immensely, as I did another western, The Longhorn Trail, though whether it was the novel of this title by Hamilton Craige or the later work of the same name by Kenneth Ulyatt, I have no idea. As a teenager, and for reasons that I can no longer fathom, I went through a mercifully brief phase of reading the novels of Arthur Hailey, whom I had always assumed was American but have just discovered was actually an Englishman who moved to Canada, California, and then the Bahamas. His novels, or at least those that I read, were set in the United States and were written in what I perceived in my teenage naiveté to be the American idiom. Even today, I can’t help but think of Hailey as an American writer, though whether my aging memory is any more reliable than my teenage naiveté is perhaps a moot point. And whilst we’re on the topic of Anglo-American mutations, I had read Eliot, of course, but I think in those days I considered him to be English! Even today I cannot make up my mind on which side of the Atlantic he belongs!

wm_rc_wm_f01c0b735f222567576bb06739347c35273a9714_1368817805Apart from a brief flirtation with the poetry and prose of Edgar Allen Poe, which I still enjoy, the aforementioned handful of titles pretty much encapsulates my reading of American literature prior to my arrival in the States. Since then, I have read more, though nothing much to write home about, or, for that matter, to write an article about. I’ve enjoyed the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, grappling with the author’s own struggles with his puritan heritage in The Scarlet Letter, and indulging with a morbid fascination in the weirdness of his short stories, particularly “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment.”

I love the poetry of Longfellow, especially Evangeline, and consider him my favourite American poet, if we choose to disqualify Eliot. Emily Dickinson leaves me cold. Sorry!

I’m a fan of Flannery O’Connor, of course, of her essays and letters as well as her stories, of which the darkly and grimly hilarious. “Good Country People” is my favourite. I’ve been reading more Walker Percy of late and intend to work my way through his corpus over the coming years.

I could say more on my plumbing of the depths with Melville and my sometimes finding myself out of my depth when doing so, or I could comment on the contemporary Catholic literature, both poetry and prose, which I’ve been reading. Space, or the lack thereof, permits any further rambling. Confessing once more my relative ignorance, I will defer to the experts who know American literature much better than I do. For my part, echoing Eliot’s words after he had written an article on Dante, “I feel that anything I can say about such a subject is trivial…there seems really nothing to do but to point…and be silent”.

This essay originally appeared in the St. Austin Review and is republished here with gracious permission.

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8 replies to this post
  1. I for one am glad you have discovered Continental literature — I think I stumbled upon your work via the Discerning Hearts podcast series you feature in.

  2. “What do they know of England, who only England know?”

    It is the same in the other direction. In my very provençal life, I have not ventured beyond the borders of the continental US. It took big doses of Kipling and Doyle and (of course) Bill the Bard and Dickens and Austin and Bronte and (George) Eliot to show me my own land.

    Had you the time, upon which I would not presume (too far, that is), I would suggest Owen Wister’s “The Virginian” as a quintessentially American book (sadly seeming clichéd inasmuch as it was the father of “Wild West” fare.) Further, (speaking of Sam Clements) either “Life on the Mississippi” or “Roughing It”. And have you had time to look at Hawthorne or O. Henry or Stephen Crane?

  3. Mr Pearce (Should that be Professor Pearce? I’m not completely sure from your bio entry, and I’ve used both prefixes for you elsewhere): having left Bilbo Baggins’s broad, sunlit uplands for America, and without saying that it’s the ‘Great American Novel’, you might be interested in “Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca”, written c.1770, which has a credible claim to being the first American novel. Very cheap at Amazon.
    btw: Can someone advise whether there any restrictions in this village when it comes to HTML codes (e.g. types of, number of, etc.) because some of my comments using them have never appeared? I’m a new arrival. Good site, all in all. God bless the Pope.

  4. If you want to explore American literature, you can’t ignore the authors from Science Fiction’s Golden Age: Heinlein, Bradbury and Asimov. (I don’t care where Isaac was born, he was an American, dammit.)

  5. I think Willa Cather is as great an American novelist as Fitzgerald, but with infinitely more interesting characters. Well worth reading. And as for great American genre fiction, my strong recommendation for mystery lovers is that they check out Rex Stout’s awesome Nero Wolfe books.

  6. Highly recommendation to you — Madison Jones — start with A Cry of Absence. He really deserves to be better known.

    For something lighthearted, try Charles Portis’s True Grit (not the movies). Consider for enjoyable “creative nonfiction” Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell.

    And for fantasy adventure, read my Christian friend Lars Walker, author of Wolf Time, Death’s Doors, etc. Troll Valley is more introspective and should speak to many who cherish traditional stories (folk tales etc.).

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