Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Twin Towers

Duke decides to join Mutt in a parallel exploration of one of America's "essential" writers

Inspired by Mutt's recent post "Which Writers Are Indispensable?," I've decided to take the challenge/opportunity inadvertently presented by my esteemed co-blogger here and embark on a sort of "parallel journey" to his upcoming (and highly anticipated) Melvillepalooza reading binge.

As Mutt knows, American literature has been a subject of increasing fascination for me in recent years. I'm very interested in exploring the ongoing evolution of a distinctly "American voice" in fiction, and to that end have gone back and explored some of the early and less-known works in the American canon - everything from Washington Irving (maybe the first identifiably "American" storyteller?) to Sarah Orne Jewett, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Booth Tarkington, Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, Jack London and Sherwood Anderson. Hell, I've even sought out obscure stuff like Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware and Norris' Epic of the Wheat trilogy - books no even knows about any more, let alone still reads (and I haven't yet either to be honest- full disclosure! Though I have the books and plan to...).

In a post going back a few years now, I proposed my own Top Ten Most Essential American Novels... this was the list I came up with at that time, and I think it holds up pretty well:

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’)

Now, I didn't say then and I can't say now that I've read every single one of these (though I have most of them now), but for my money if you had to choose only 10 to represent the finest of American fiction, this list would more than suffice. Obviously there are personal preferences embedded into it. I've long said that by my rendering, the greatest writers America has produced are Herman Melville, William Faulkner and Mark Twain, in that order. To that list I personally would also include two others: Flannery O'Connor and Nathaniel Hawthorne. A very, very close second tier would include our first Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, and finally, the writer of what is probably my favorite underappreciated American work of all time, Sherwood Anderson (of course I refer to his incredibly powerful Winesburg, Ohio).

Another criminally underappreciated writer (these days anyway) who I want to at least mention because I admire his stuff so much is Thorton Wilder.

But back to Mutt's challenge... knowing Mutt the way I do, I know that he likes to embark on these incredibly ambitious, long journeys of reading one author's works in succession, or committing to read one major work from a guy like Charles Dickens per year (his groundbreaking Dickensfest series, well documented on these pages). Normally I don't go along with him on these literary treks because I've got my own reading agenda to follow, but I have always admired and observed them from the sidelines. But this year, in tandem with his Melvillepalooza extravaganza, I have decided to try a "reading festival" of my own to also deepen my knowledge of an essential American writer... only in my case, it won't be Melville. It's going to be William Faulkner.

And in the spirit of the game here, I'm calling it Duke Altum's Faulknerama Festival 2008.

I've read some Faulkner of course, but I have always wanted to dive deeper into his work, and for some reason have not visited his canon in four years. The last book of his I read was the magnificent As I Lay Dying, but that was back in the Fall of 2004, when we were waiting for the arrival of our third son - now three and a half! So I thought, here's a chance to not only follow along with Mutt on a parallel reading series of my own, but it also gives us both a chance to circle back and compare our experiences with both writers (I've read a little more Melville than Mutt; he's read far more Faulkner) and maybe even examine the work of a writer we've compared to both (Cormac McCarthy) to see whether or not he really deserves to be mentioned as in league with America's undisputed Twin Towers.

I happen to be reading McCarthy's Blood Meridian now, and I think I can hear echoes of Faulkner's prose in his own - certainly the scope and scale of the book mirrors those of some of Faulkner's most ambitious novels, though with far more violence. But it will be very interesting to explore further the genius of Faulkner and think about whether they had any common concerns, and whether one modern writer's talents truly do match up to his predecessor's.

To me, Melville is indeed the Greatest of them all. But Faulkner seems to be a close second, and I would like to know whether any kind of line from Herman to William to Cormac can truly be drawn. The rest of 2008 will give me the chance to try and find out.

Oh, and the lineup? Here's what I plan to be reading from ol' Billy soon (in this order) - though I think I may throw in shorter, contemporary works in between, just to make sure my eyes don't glaze over and my brain shrink into a raisin from imbibing too much Faulkner:


If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem

Absalom, Absalom!

The Reivers

And by the beginning of 2009, if either Mutt or I are still standing and speaking beyond an incoherent babble, we may have the beginnings of a pretty interesting discussion indeeed on what truly defines great American literature... the Swedish Academy, which apparently thinks American writers are "too ignorant" to be considered for the Nobel Prize these days, can kiss our big ol' red white n' blue butts!!!

(Oh and one last word to the Academy that will tie up this post nicely: hey fellas, there wouldn't be no Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a guy you honored if you can think back that far, without one William Faulkner. I'm just sayin'...)


Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke kicks my butt on reading American writers. I haven't read so much of the vintage American literature that he has read. Needless to say, I praise this idea and the fantastic selection of William Faulkner. Weirdly enough, totally without pre-meditation, I have beat us BOTH to the punch, since I am evidently in the middle of my own Austerama 2008.......side note, I am also re-shuffling my on deck list to take on Dickenfest VII BEFORE Melvillepalooza, for the reason that I always intended Dickensfest to be a fall event in honor of the Charles Dickens Walking Tour I took in London in November 2000, which is where the idea for Dickensfest ultimately came from.

neal said...
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