Friday, June 30, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #34

Here's a first in this series... I'm posting not one, but two poems from a poet I've never heard of before and have little idea if many others have either... nevertheless, I came across these on another web site -- an online literary journal called The New Pantagruel -- and really, really liked them. In fact, the main reason I decided to post them here is simply that when I had read them, my knee-jerk reaction was to wish that I had written them myself! (In particular that one on marriage -- man did that take me back to the altar on my own wedding day... Song of Songs references and all... I think it's profoundly right on... it's how I would express my marriage commitment, if I had such eloquence!)

Mike Hickerson is the guilty party in question, the poet who brings some very profound and witty insights to both the cross and to the sacrament of marriage. He's taken on some seriously weighty subjects here with wisdom, humility and a sense of humor... my kind of poet! Kudos and admiration for you Mr. Hickerson, whoever you are! -- these are the real thing as far as I'm concerned.



My lapsed-Catholic English prof
laughed: “The passionfruit was Eden’s
tree – it was Adam and Eve’s passion
that God forbade!” A silly joke–
original sin and sex and all that–
and she had it wrong besides. The Jesuits
who began this rumor knew
only one passion, and it
was and is the passion of thorns, nails,
betrayal borne by the suffering
Christ, who hangs low on a tree
so that all may taste.


That day our souls were sealed, we spoke a line
Mysterious in holy power, and strong
Enough to push our naïve love along:
“I my beloved’s; my beloved mine.”

We poured ourselves together and drank deep
Of joy and suffering; we emptied our souls
Into a mutual cup that hopes to hold
All future mixtures that we’ll have to keep.

This doubled life sometimes appears far worse
Than singleness: I bear hurt, sorrow, pain
That are another’s burden, yet I gain
A doubled blessing, not a doubled curse:

When simple words do nothing, weakness needs
The strength of tied-together broken reeds.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Interesting follow-up to the last 2 posts...

I came across a short item today that I thought would be worth posting/sharing, as it relates to the last two posts on this blog... it certainly speaks to "the impact of a novel" and the effect one can have on people's thinking or even (as the case may be) a society and nation in general. In addition to that, the novel it speaks of was (and is) famous for its ability to get its readers to think about social justice issues... in this case, the conditions that poor workers sometimes are forced to endure when performing a task that no one else wants to perform, yet we all expect to be done.

The New Atlantis, an excellent journal and science, ethics and technology that I have mentioned on this site before, features the following appreciation of Upton Sinclair's most famous work, The Jungle, marking the 100th anniversary of its publication. I encourage all TST readers to check it out. It's brief, but worth the time.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Impact of a Novel

Sometimes I find myself wondering why my favorite form of literature to read, above nonfiction, biography, poetry, criticism, plays, and probably even short stories, is and always has been, at least since I've been reading seriously, the novel. I am most attracted the novel as a literary form without any question. And, the truth is, it is the one thing I desire to write the most, although it is a form whose code I have yet to crack in my writing life (I'm trying to change that, as my "journals" on this blog attest to). Early in on graduate school, I tried starting one about 11-year-old twin brothers, but the first chapters got brutalized by my classmates and I couldn't rally the confidence then to persevere. I tried to write another one for my graduate thesis, but I got 300+ pages into it and fizzled out. Later, in 2003-2004, I attempted to write a bunch of stories that would sort of coagulate into one, by some magic that I was waiting for someone other than me to employ, but that never quite happened either, or not to my satisfaction. Now, I am making another attempt, and that, too, is very hard work. If nothing else, I have learned to respect just about anyone who has ever put one together that works, whether the writing is top tier or not.

You'd think this would be frustrating as all hell, and it is. Nonetheless, I continue thinking about writing a novel of my own, as I always have, and I absolutely never waver in my love of the form as a reader. My imagination seems to respond the most to the fictional world, the one that I create in my brain when prompted by the vision of the novelist. In a recent interview I read with the novelist Stephen Wright, whose work I have pumped up here enough times and even reviewed myself, and who also was a mentor of mine in graduate school, he stated his belief that the novel was one of the highest art forms. And anyone who has ever seriously tried to even start one can do nothing but agree. Somehow, the task of creating from nothing an entire world, sometimes similar to our own, sometimes not, and making it first believable; second, consistent to the truth of life as we know it, if not necessarily to the daily substance of life (your novel could be set on Mars); and third, well written, is practically the most daunting task artistically that I can think of attempting. But there are people who can do this, and some who do it extremely well. Yet almost no one thinks of novelists as heroes anymore, capable of changing the world, one reader at a time.

And yet, they are. I was thinking about this recently when I was finishing up a novel which I am now attempting to review, called Seeing by Jose Saramago. Saramago is a Portuguese writer that I have written about on this blog before who is an atheist and a Communist, whose values seem nothing at all like my own and are not in any way consistent with the spirit or the letter of this forum. He’s also a Nobel laureate, having won the literature prize in 1998. He has almost no hope for the future of man, no respect for most of the Western world (particularly the United States), and no faith whatsoever in the Democratic system of government. But he does seem to have a passionate belief in the inherent rights of the common citizen of the world. He made the following remarkable statement in his Nobel lecture, which against all my feelings to the contrary about whether I should respect a guy like this, I could find little to disparage: “We pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.” I do not agree that some unclear ‘universal lie’ has replaced any ultimate Truth, and if I did I would not be a Christian. But it is the authoritative force and intelligence of these words and the powerful human spirit behind them that makes them admirable to me. I am saying that while I doubt if I would agree with Saramago on a lot of things, I would listen to him.

Seeing, his newest novel to be translated into English, is nothing more than a farcical, sometimes hilarious, and also chilling work of fiction. Yet I can honestly say that it has done more to make me think about the democratic system, partisan bickering, the role of governments in the lives of daily citizens of any country and the appalling callousness that some governments sometimes display in employing destructive forces against their perceived enemies than five years of newspaper columns and election stump speeches since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our country have done. In this novel, the electorate of an unnamed city decides to make a statement when 83% of them cast blank votes on Election Day. The government of the nation, democratically elected, literally panics, and enacts a series of progressively more ridiculous measures to deal with this crisis, which the eventually decide can only be the act of ruthless terrorists bent on destroying the ideals their nation was founded upon. Is this starting to sound familiar?

It did for me, and it grew into more and more uncomfortable reading the more extreme and egregious this fictional government’s efforts to deal with the crisis became. Sure, it’s hilarious when Saramago depicts the cabinet in a big room bickering and hollering at each other in futile attempts to understand what is happening. But it becomes less fun when the government starts honing in on certain citizens that it decides must be behind the ‘terrorism’ and begins to use all means necessary to bring them to some sense of highbrow ‘justice’. As the story shifts from the halls of the entrenched government to the investigations of a likeable police inspector and further on to the private lives of the citizens being targeted for reprisal, for causing events that, needless to say, they have nothing to do with, a sense of dread begins to swell up to immeasurable size, and you know a cataclysm is coming. When it does, as accomplished by Saramago with extraordinary timing and effortless novelistic proficiency at the conclusion of this excellent novel, one can only be impressed with not only his accomplishment, but with the overall power of literature.

Novels can make you think – very hard. Fiction can draw your attention into places you don’t really want it to go. True art, of which the novel certainly is a singular and beautiful form, has the power to change people. I don’t know if I have changed as a result of reading the novel Seeing, and I don’t want to embrace the writer’s overall worldview, but I do salute his excellence as an artist. And I can’t say, having finished his newest book, that I feel anything other than further confirmation that I want to somehow and in some way join in the ranks of people like him who can create these extraordinary works.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Examining the immigration question through literature

I haven't been following the great debate going on currently in this country concerning immigration too closely, but given the fact that there's something about it in newspapers and on TV news shows every day, it's sort of hard to miss. It's one of these "hot potato" topics that cuts particularly close to the American bone, so to speak, since ours is in truth a nation of immigrants and the descendents of immigrants -- it's part of who we are. And yet, leaving our borders wide open so that anyone who so desires can come and live and work here will certainly encourage, if not virtually guarantee, our enemies to come onto our soil and attack us. A few short years ago such an idea would have been laughed away... but as we all know, we live in a different world now since the Towers fell and the Pentagon burned.

Which is why a 1995 novel written by T. C. Boyle about illegal immigrants living and working in America is getting some renewed attention these days. I've had the novel, called The Tortilla Curtain, on my shelf for a while and knew something of what it was about, and with all the talk of immigration swirling around, I thought it might make for some timely reading and give me an additional perspective/input for my thinking on this sensitive issue. I was also curious to read it because I had read many T. C. Boyle stories, but never one of his novels. As Mutt's previous posts on this blog have indicated, Boyle is not very modest about his talents and gifts, and often lavishly praises his own work. We both find this to be a pretty unattractive trait in a writer, and with this novel in particular, he has gone out of his way (even recently, in the media) to trumpet its prescience, even going so far as to call his own work a "modern classic." So I was pretty curious to read it to see if it lived up to its author-generated hype.

I'm going to put aside, if I can, the significant distaste I feel at Boyle's shameless praising of his own work and try to judge the novel as objectively as I can, especially in light of the national conversation going on now about immigration. It is, in all fairness, a well-written, very readable, sensitive and provacative novel. It is well worth reading at this exact time because it raises many interesting questions about illegal immigrants in this country -- what exactly should their place be in this society? How much amnesty and grace should be extended to them? How far should we go to try and understand their plight, the situations from which they are attempting to escape? Where do we draw the line between compassion for the downtrodden and security for the country? How much of our own pool of resources should we be willing to share with them, if they are not here as legal citizens? Should we be paying for their healthcare? Their education? Their housing? The questions go on and on and on. Boyle creates a credible, fictional context within which these and many other questions can be explored.

There is, actually, a rich tradition of fiction in this country that looks at the plight and treatment of immigrants and migrant workers within the fabric of American society. I have been thinking about this while reading Curtain, and have realized that there have been many great and admirable books that have addressed some of the same issues that Boyle is addressing. The books that spring immediately to mind are John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (not so much about immigrants per se, but about the treatment of poor workers who migrate from the Dust Bowl regions in the American heartland to California -- many of the moral issues are the same, however) and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (about the poor immigrants who work in the Chicago meatpacking plants). Both are bona fide American classics (not because their authors have claimed them as such, but according to the wisdom of the populus and their successful passing of the test of time), and have much that is important to say about the way we treat (and exploit) outsiders and the way we as a society tend to isolate ourselves in communities of those who have and those who have not (and how badly the "haves" want things to stay that way).

But there have been other great works and great writers in this country who have brought these themes to our attention. The lesser-known but pioneering writer Frank Norris wrote a series of novels around the turn of the century (the last turn, I mean, not the most recent one) about immigrant workers both in California and in Chicago proper (this is before Steinbeck and Sinclair ever did), in works like The Octopus and The Pit. A Norwegian immigrant himself, O.E. Rolvaag wrote an epic of Scandanavian immigrants carving out a life for themselves in the Dakota territories called Giants in the Earth that is still in print today (though not very widely known or read). And there's also a strand of this tradition that examines the lives of poor migrant sharecroppers living and working on plantations and farms in the South, as represented by well-known works such as Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (the latter is not a novel, but still belongs in this group I think).

What's my point in all this? It's just to remind us that sometimes a good way to approach a moral/ethical issue that may be facing our society is to explore worthwhile fiction that has made an effort to examine such topics from an imaginative standpoint. We Americans tend to see fiction, as we tend to see almost everything it seems, as just another form of entertainment... and while good fiction is almost always entertaining, it can also be morally, or even spiritually, instructive. (This is obviously one of the fundamental principles informing and motivating this blog.) Dr. Leon Kass, the former Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, understood this truth very well, and he raised a lot of eyebrows, both in Washington and in academic circles, when one of the first things he did when he took over the Council was to assign certain classic works of fiction to all of the council members (such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous cautionary tale about the excesses of scientism, "The Birthmark"). But he was working from the exact same presupposition that I am speaking of here -- good fiction has something to teach us, something to say.

Does Boyle's novel belong in this long tradition of American writing about immigration and the plight of the poor? I would say it does, although I would be quick to add that Boyle's writing doesn't have either the rich wisdom or moral depth of a writer like Steinbeck, for example. That's a significant point, because these are some of the very factors (most would contend, I think) that actually make a novel a "classic," and since Boyle has repeatedly trumpeted Curtain as such, I think it's only right to judge the book by these challenging criteria. Every serious novel ought to be judged by such criteria! Will this novel continue to have something important to say to readers well into future generations, and help further the national conversation about immigration and how we ought to treat "the least of our brothers"? We'll see. I certainly think it adds to that conversation now, though, and for that it is to be commended. But there are many other challenging and provocative novels within the American canon that can also add to our understanding of these issues, and they should not be neglected "at such a time as this."

Read in order to live.
-Gustave Flaubert

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #33

Of all the great and haunting poetry ever written about war, this classic from the young British soldier Wilfred Owen has got to be considered among the most powerful single poems ever penned. Justly famous, it is a harrowing first-hand description of trench warfare during World War I, which he described as "seventh hell" in a letter to his mother. I first came across it while reading Philip Caputo's disturbing memoir about Vietnam, A Rumor of War.

The poem is bracing and chilling enough in and of itself, but even moreso when you consider the fact that less than a year after writing it, Owen was shot and killed (on Nov. 4, 1918) in the French village of Ors during what turned out to be the FINAL WEEK of WWI... his parents received notification of his death just as the bells of armistice were ringing out in their hometown on November 11, 1918.

Posting it as the POTW this week is not a political statement in any way, although I as much as anybody would like to see our soldiers come home as soon as possible (and see no more killed). Rather, it is a tribute to the courage and bravery of the men and women serving our country overseas... and a sober reminder of the horrible price that has been paid, and is continuing to be paid, for our freedom. We must continually ask ourselves whether such a steep price is worth it.

[FYI: The line dulce et decorum est pro patria mori comes from one of the odes of Horace, and is translated as "it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country."]


Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Mutt's Brief Thoughts on the 'Best of Last 25 Years' Fracas

For some reason after reading Duke's thought-provoking post, I have been having trouble figuring out how I wanted to ring in on this whole question about what's the "best" American novel of the last 25 years, what are the "best" American works, etc. I just can't seem to pick one myself, of course, it's way too difficult. I also don't know if I really see any point to the exercise, ultimately, which is the way at least some people seem to feel. Here's an interesting quote from one critic whose writing I frequently find admirable, who also sometimes writes for the New York Times, Laura Miller. Here, she explains why she did not take part in the selection process after being invited:

"An editor at the Book Review assured me that the list was really a parlor game that I should view in a more cavalier light, like something the obsessive characters in "Diner" or "High Fidelity" might indulge in. But those guys take themselves pretty seriously, and damn if the letter didn't ask for the "most distinguished" American novel of the past 25 years, which sounds pretty sober. I wasn't going to do it as a game when it was likely to be taken in earnest.

"My point in objecting was not just some namby-pamby reluctance to make any relative evaluation about literature, because that really is an important thing that critics do: declare that some books are better than others. I have no problem doing that, but I hate imposing a rigidly, atomistic structure on it. Ultimately, novels are so diverse that once they attain a certain level of quality, they really can't be meaningfully ranked against each other."

I have never seen Diner, but I did read the novel 'High Fidelity', and I like Laura Miller's point about how the guys in the book DO take their lists seriously. They sure do. And I think she is dead right in that last statement, that once a book reaches that plateau of quality, it sort of trascends the rankings: it's a damned good book, and doesn't have to be measured against any other book to make it any more so. That's kind of how I feel about some of the greatest novels I've read, especially in the last 3-4 years. I do get a kind of feeling that is something like, 'This book is just GREAT. No matter how many people read it, no matter what the guy or woman who wrote it thinks or says or what they seem to believe, they wrote a great book. Period.' I got that feeling with a book called 'Independent People' not too long ago, which isn't going to make its way onto any American lists since it's by an Icelandic writer, Halldor Laxness.

I didn't totally blow off the Times' piece, though; I did think it was interesting, and it did inspire me to read Morrison's 'Beloved', which as of this moment I am roughly 20 pages from the end of. And indicentally, I'd put it in the category I discussed above: a GREAT novel. Definitely worth reading for anyone of any race or any gender who cares about literature, and hey, an American wrote it on top of it. When you read 'Beloved', it's obvious that it is a great work of literature. Trust me on that. Or, rather, don't: anyone reading this ought to do what I didn't do for so many years, and read the book.

So anyway, I don't think I can come up with a list of the 'best' American novels, but that doesn't mean I'm knocking Duke's, because he put out there what he found to be "essential" American novels, which isn't necessarily the greatest ones. I thought his list was pretty sensible and it certainly includes 10 great works on it that most people would say represent the finest American literature. Nonetheless, if I were taken hostage and forced to make a list, I'd follow Miller's lead again. This time, she is referring to the National Book Critics' Circle, of which she is a member:

"If I had my druthers, the NBCC would stop at the list of 5 finalists."

I like the idea of coming up with 5 great choices, so the list that appears below ISN'T the 5 Best American Novels in my opinion, it's not the 5 best American novels of this year, but it does represent the TOP 5 MOST INFLUENTIAL NOVELS TO MUTT PLOUGHMAN, PERSONALLY, WRITTEN BY AMERICAN WRITERS. If you don't like that shoe-horn category, well, that's as good as you're gonna get.......

1. "The Grapes of Wrath", John Steinbeck
2. "Moby-Dick", Herman Melville
3. "Going Native", Stephen Wright
4. "On the Road", Jack Kerouac
5. "The Violent Bear it Away", Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Debate rages on over the "Great American Novel" question

It's taken us a little while to post on this, but a few weeks ago there was an article in the New York Times announcing the "Best American Novel of the past 25 years," based on the opinions of a wide range of eminent writers and critics (invited to participate by the Times' Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus). Their choice was Toni Morrison's epic novel from 1987, Beloved. Astute TST readers will have noticed from the right-hand column on this page that Mutt has been working his way through the very same novel for the past week or so (not entirely a coincidence, needless to say... although to Mutt's credit, I know that he's been planning on reading the book for a long time -- this just gave him the necessary kick in the butt!).

An announcement like this is bound to throw gasoline on the already-raging flame of debate that swirls around the question, "Is there such thing as the Great American Novel, and if so, which one would it be?" Even if you narrow down the scope to the last quarter-century, the idea of choosing one novel that somehow captures all of the hope and heartache, joy and pain of this great country within its pages is, of course, a fool's errand worthy of the venerable Man of La Mancha. But since this is America, and we do love our polls, Top 10 lists and ranking sheets... why not perpetuate our penchant for rating things, and ring in on this most challenging and interesting of futile questions???

To that end, this post is intended to express my own opinions, but even moreso, to start a conversation. I invite anyone reading this to consider the great tradition of American literature (no matter how familiar or unfamiliar with it you may be), and then to think about what books from within that great tradition have been most important to you. Who are the American writers that you would consider to be the most important, the most relevant in any age? Who are the American novelists that have touched your heart and soul with the most memorable force? What are the “great American novels” you’ve read that you know you will never forget?

If I had to choose one novel to answer the question “What is the great American novel?,” and one to answer “What is the American novel you personally consider to be the most powerful and important?,” I think my answer would be the same for both: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. To me, that is not only one of the most exciting and fascinating novels from any writer I’ve ever read (it’s easily my choice for the most memorable and perfect denouement in any novel ever written), but it also uniquely captures the American story to me somehow, as the crew of the Pequod strive alternatively for adventure, commercial gain, meaning in a relentless and brutal universe, and ultimately, spiritual redemption and the answers to life’s biggest questions.

In my opinion, based of course on my own reading experiences and what I know of their styles and impact, the five brightest stars in the American literary pantheon are Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Take away any of these writers and the entire landscape of American literary history would be permanently altered. As much as I respect other American legends, I can’t say with 100% confidence that this is true of others that might be mentioned in such company… two writers who I would say are very close to making that short list, but not quite there, are Steinbeck and Hemingway. Theirs is certainly an American literature, Steinbeck’s especially... but I don’t feel their work is quite as innovative or important as that of any of the previously mentioned five. (Yet, an argument could certainly be made for The Grapes of Wrath as the quintessential American novel… I’m not saying it is, but I can understand the inclination to nominate it.) Hemingway’s, in fact, strikes me as a tad bit overrated, although I am definitely no expert when it comes to his stuff. It’s obviously had a major impact on the writers that have followed him in this country.

Perhaps a Top 10 Most Essential American Novels of All Time list might look something like this (in no particular order):

1. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
3. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
4. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
5. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
6. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
7. Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
8. The Violent Bear it Away, Flannery O’Connor
9. Main Street, Sinclair Lewis
10. The Sketch Book, Washington Irving (contains American folk tales of enduring popularity such as ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip van Winkle’)

The other work that certainly belongs on this list in terms of its influence (indeed, I would put it on par with Moby Dick and Huck Finn in this regard), but is not here because it is not a novel, is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. No question about that.

Now of course, any time you make a list like this, you are going to end up making choices that others would consider questionable, if not outright controversial. My list is no exception to that rule, I’m sure. Of course it’s MY list, so it’s obviously going to be colored by my own personal opinions and reading experiences. For example, I know a lot of readers would probably consider me nuts to put Winesburg, Ohio on a list of Top 10 most important American novels – but from all I’ve read, it’s one of the most unique and powerful books written about heartland America and its people out there. It’s arguably the finest portrait of small-town America ever written, and the stories had a deep and profound emotional resonance with me that I’ve rarely experienced anywhere else. Even putting Flannery O’Connor on this list would shock some, but to me that’s a no-brainer – her stories and two novels are utterly unique in all of American (hell, WORLD) literature. And though perhaps a writer like Washington Irving is not as widely known and read today, the stories he created have maintained a permanent place in this country’s mythology and psyche... and he was, in fact, the first American fiction writer to achieve wide readership and renown overseas. In a very real sense, Irving put the entire category of 'American literature' on the map!

Of course, there are other great writers that immediately come to mind as American superstars, and many jaws would be open in astonishment in reading my list due to their absence from it… I’m thinking of the work of Henry James, James Fennimore Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, Booker T. Washington, T. S. Eliot, Henry David Thoreau, Willa Cather, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Theodore Dreiser, Ayn Rand, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thorton Wilder or Eugene O’Neill. And yes, it is very hard to imagine American lit without any of them… but somehow to me, these don’t seem like the pillars that, if removed, would cause the entire structure to collapse…

When considering the modern era (as the New York Times was), there are other writers that enter the conversation too, whose work certainly cannot be ignored. There are obvious choices, like Morrison, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Cormac McCarthy, Don De Lillo, Philip Roth and Thomas Pyncheon. But then there are less obvious, but equally worthy, ones, such as Thomas Wolfe, Walker Percy, Stephen Wright, or Raymond Carver. And poets ought not to be ignored either… the work of Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams and Richard Wilbur have made an indelible mark on American letters as well.

What about you? Which writers and works would be on YOUR list? Any article or event that keeps the conversation about, and the reading of, American literature going is worth noting, even celebrating. So hats off to Tanenhaus, A.O. Scott, the New York Times Book Review and its contributors for this interesting project.

May the reading never cease… and may Americans keep rising to their potential as true and unique voices of artistic freedom and integrity, in a world that is ever in need of such shining beacons to guide it along its harried and haunted voyage.