On Saturday, I posted a link to a Salon article arguing that Moby-Dick was the great American novel. I’m about a third of the way through it right now, and you’ll get my thoughts in my book log at the end of the month, but the idea of which book is the “most” American is an intriguing one to me. It’s something I’ve thought about before prompted by questions from exchange students I’ve had.
So what makes a book American – in the sense that it accurately represents an enormous and diverse nation – in the first place? It’s a fun question. Let me see what I can do with it.
It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that no book is going to get it done in every way. The country is simply too vast and too diverse. Instead, we have to find books that get closest to the good and the bad that make up America’s personality. Thus, I rule out Hawthorne whose works don’t capture the ambition of America, and Wharton, whose work sometimes seems to only capture that. There is an unassailable American-ness to Hemingway, but his work is so based in the foreign that it’s hard to really argue for him. Among those I’ve read (I’ve read very little Steinbeck and I recognize this as a failing), Dreiser is perhaps the most likely candidate among writers from before the second World War, but his writing is so pessimistic. He sees the darker side of America with stunning clarity, but he sees little else besides.
So really, I think, if there is a great American novel, it is from a modern writer. I could discuss countless writers and books that have merits and for which I could make a case, but I want to talk about two. They are two of my favorite books. The first is sometimes the answer I give when I am asked for my favorite book: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon is enormous and sprawling. It tells an immigrant’s story (such an enormous part of the American story). It showcases the ambition and the entitlement that are a part of America’s personality. And, most importantly, it provides that feeling of endless hopefulness that has defined so much of American history. But it is not, I think, the right book.
The most American book I have ever read and the book I would feel comfortable calling The Great American Novel is To Kill a Mockingbird.
TKAM is a true representation of America. The injustice and hate and all the other kinds of ugliness present in it are honest depictions of what is worst about America. We are not a fair society, no matter how much we claim to be. The role of money and family and race in the fortunes of an individual is made clear, as is our xenophobia. But there is still a picture of America at its best. Atticus is nothing if not a symbol for America on its better days. He represents us when we open our eyes and see the wrong we have done and decide to try to do something about it. America is neither perfectly good or perfectly evil.
Despite taking place in an almost vanishingly small town, TKAM somehow feels both urban and rural. And really, how is it possible to get a full picture of America without a discussion of that conflict? The townspeople are more educated, but do less of the civic work and provide none of the food. The country people are those among whom intolerance is at its highest levels.
There’s a lot to unpack in To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read it numerous times as a teacher and each time, I find something new. It’s an amazing book and I can’t imagine anything being more American.