When 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!
Apart 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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