10 Books to Better Understand America (by Author Jack Matthews)

Two years ago Matthews created  this list, writing, “Gordon Graham, founder & erstwhile editor of the periodical LOGOS in the UK asked me to list 10 books I’d recommend to educated, English-speaking foreigners to understand the US, so I happily obliged & am attaching my list, for I managed to sneak in HANGER as one of those books. (In token modesty I backed out at the last minute & substituted Michael Connelly’s THE LAST COYOTE for HANGER, thinking Connelly’s book would help balance the east-of-the-Mississippi character & old-fashioned focus of the other 9, but Gordon wanted me to keep HANGER in, so I of course agreed).”

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I’ve found this an interesting challenge, perhaps in one way more interesting than most would have found it, because I’ve personally experienced little of the greater world, leading a rather provincial existence, most of it in the wooded hills of southeastern Ohio. Obviously, I could never pass for a cosmopolite.

As for the challenge, I’ve tried to keep in mind Gordon Graham’s caution about not just listing books we love, but books that are important revelations of what it is to be “American” (the quotation marks are necessary, for the word is exasperatingly elusive, precisely as it is meaningful). Still, I’ve tried to list those that I love among those that are informative, having my cake and eating it, too – in a manner of speaking..

HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Mark Twain

An inevitable choice and a beautiful book, although a seriously flawed novel (strictly speaking, PUDD’NHEAD WILSON is better as a novel). Still, HUCKLEBERRY FINN is on just about everybody’s list of the best whatevers, and can even inspire people to such insipidities as Harold Bloom referring to one of the paragraphs as the most beautiful paragraph in the language. Unutterably silly, to be sure; but his silliness does convey something of HB’s mindless enthusiasm.

Hemingway once famously said that all American novels grew out of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, but elsewhere he said that war was the only subject worthy of a writer. Of course, he said a lot of things, and it would be curmudgeonly for us to insist too seriously upon his making sense whenever he opened his mouth.

As for HUCK FINN’s inclusion in this list, I would prefer qualifying it by listing LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI in its place – making this a dual listing and perhaps not playing the game. Still, LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI seems to me Mark Twain consistently at his very best. The book is lyrical, witty and informative. And it teems with delightful definitions (e.g., An “Alligator Pilot is a man who can smell alligators from as far away as a Christian can smell whiskey.”

 THE OPTIMIST’S DAUGHTER, Eudora Welty

In this short, complex novel, Eudora Welty has created a world that is paradoxically regional (“southern”), even clannish, and yet generically “American” – even universal.Eudora-Welty

Most of the action is in the deep south and it follows the death of old Judge McKelva (the “optimist”), and is focused upon his daughter, Laurel, who is the novel’s protagonist, as the title proclaims. After he dies, Laurel’s and Fay’s (his young 2nd wife’s) family go about revealing themselves and creating scenes of delicious comic confusion.. One of the novel’s motifs consists of birds, and as one of the women is expressing her disapproval of Fay (who is, indeed, a superlatively nasty specimen), she is interrupted: “Singing over her words, the mockingbird poured out his voice without stopping.”

Indeed, throughout the novel, the birds constitute a strange voiceless Chorus, creating a delicate thread of ironic symbolism, in which near the end of the novel, a bird is even trapped in the dead man’s house with Laurel (the trapped bird symbolizing bad luck, of course), causing her to say, “Birds fly toward light – I’m sure I’ve been told.” Just as good novels try to work their intricate ways toward the light.

This is a beautiful novel, justly celebrated; and it will not easily reveal its deeper secrets, nor will those secrets entirely fade from a reader’s mind.

 JOURNALS, Ralph Waldo Emerson

A repository of the wide-ranging thoughts of a man who was once known as “the wisest American” – a term that is not as foolish as many such superlatives. These journals, ostensibly written for himself, teem with observations that open up parts of the world, and that world is Emerson’s New England as well as . . . well, America and the World!

Consider these short samples: “Some play at chess, some at cards, some at the Stock Exchange. I prefer to play at Cause and Effect”; “Our moods do not believe in each other”; “Poets learn to relieve themselves of misery by shoveling it into poems” (exquisitely appropriate for the “confessional poets” of the 20th century), and, finally, this gem: ”Old men are drunk with time.”

The journals are available in a 10- volume edition, but the one volume edition, edited by Bliss Perry, provides a useful introduction.

 THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald

How could Fitzgerald’s magical novel not be on this list? Jay Gatsby is a symbol of how everyone in America can become a king. Maybe. Sort of. (“Maybe” and “sort of” are necessary qualifications, of course, relating to virtually all that is problematic and human.)

In a way, and for many, GATSBY can be elected to that pinnacle of “the great American novel” – which is an unfortunate label, but to the extent that it makes any kind of sense, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece would make a strong bid for the job.

 THE NICK ADAMS STORIES, Ernest Hemingway

No matter how the word is defined, Hemingway was just about as “American” as a writer could ever be, and yet most of the places celebrated in his books are European or African. In this collection of the Nick Adams stories, however – culled from his other story collections and published after his death – the American scene is a vivid and unmistakable presence, especially Michigan, where much of Hemingway’s youth was spent.

The American love of nature and the “wide open spaces” is both a distinguishing American trait and an inheritance of our British origins; in many ways, it can be said that the Brits invented the love of nature as we know it, but, of course, we have expanded and changed it in response to the unique geography of our land..

Some of the stories gathered in this volume are familiar to all who know Hemingway’s work (e.g., “The Killers”; “In Another Country”; “Big Two-Hearted River”). But there are lesser-known short pieces here worth reading, and they all to some extent savor of the land they’re in, as well as being about Nick Adams, who is of course Hemingway himself – as well as of course not.

 KITTY FOYLE, Christopher Morley

KittyFoylePOSTER-02This is perhaps the most successful novel of one of the great, and greatly neglected, American writers of the 20th century, and it is simply a delight to read. It was so popular that a movie was made from it, starring Ginger Rogers, who for her starring in it, won an Oscar as best actress. (The novel is much better than the film, of course.)

In my reading of what I consider the worthiest books, I take notes on a sheet of paper that I fold into their pages, and if I find the book especially interesting, my notes may number as many as 50 or 60; but my notes for KITTY FOYLE number 72.

To understand the book, one must first realize that it was published in 1939, near the end of the Great Depression in America. Kitty is a “working girl” in Philadelphia, and she tells her own delightful and richly thoughtful story. And her voice throughout, along with her many obiter dicta (in a manner of speaking) are wise and lovably sensitive.

Indeed, her casual observations are often exquisite; consider these two, which appear on the same page: she’s feeling her drinks and says, “I was like somebody walking in somebody else’s sleep.” And then later, on the same page, she says: “It wasn’t anybody’s fault; what is?”

 THE WORLD OVER, Edith Wharton

This collection of Edith Wharton’s stories contains her masterpiece, “Roman Fever” – whose action takes place in Rome, as its title proclaims, and yet the story is as “American” as baseball and the unassisted double play.

The story opens with two wealthy, middle-aged American ladies standing together as they enjoy the view of Rome from the terrace of a restaurant. Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley have been lifelong acquaintances, if not exactly friends, for it has simply been their destiny that has woven their lives together.

What happens in this story is too good to relate, but let it suffice to say that “Roman Fever” is a splendidly developed Contest story that the reader will not soon forget.

And, of course, the values of these two women, including the brand of snobbery that decorates the arena of their contest, are all distinctly “American”.

THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE, H. L. Mencken

H_l_menckenHere, it’s best to quote from Mencken’s Preface to the First Edition:“[This book’s] chief excuse is its human interest, for it prods deeply into national idiosyncrasies and ways of mind, and that sort of prodding is always entertaining.  I am thus neither teacher, nor prophet, nor reformer, but merely inquirer.”

Also, Mencken’s delightful HAPPY DAYS says a lot about American life as he remembered it over a century ago. But it no doubt remains much the same, although with our hypocrisies dressed in different clothing. Then, too, one should mention Mencken’s delightfully acerbic essays in his PREJUDICES series.

 AMERICAN CAESAR: DOUGLAS MACARTHUR, William Manchester.

Authoritatively and perceptively written about a truly extraordinary man, a general with an unmistakable flamboyance and histrionic flair. Manchester is often considered one of the best biographers of our time. (I also very much enjoyed his THE LAST LION, about Churchill; but of course that doesn’t belong here, in spite of WC’s American mama.)

As for AMERICAN CAESAR: it is splendidly researched, vividly written and worthy of its subject.

HANGER STOUT, AWAKE!

At the risk of disgusting those who realize that my final choice may be rooted in nothing more than vanity and ignorance, I’ll list HANGER – crossing the line of taboo and violating all the proprieties in sight. Nevertheless, the novel has been praised for its grasp of the American idiom, and so I’ll risk listing it here.

It’s a first-person narrative by Hanger Stout, an Ohio teenager in the 60s, who doesn’t know a past participle from a cephalopod, but he has a good heart and in his own way, a clear head. He works in a filling station back in the days when attendants were hired to fill customers’ gas tanks. Hanger gains his nickname by his ability to hang by his hands longer than just about anybody else (a mild spoof on America’s obsession with athletics here), which threatens to make him, well, famous. Hanger is gentle, undemanding, quasi-illiterate and something of a funny saint.

Hiram Haydn, my editor at Harcourt Brace, said that Hanger was “all of us before we ate the apple.” Eudora Welty was one of many good people who praised the novel, and William Stafford, NBA-Award poet, listed it as his only title in an ANTAEUS series on “Neglected Books Of The 20th Century”.(With luck, it might become one of the neglected books of the millennium. Dare I aim so high?)

Jack Matthews (1925-2013) is the author of philosophical fiction. He has published over 20 titles, and his next collection of short stories, Soldier Boys will be published by Personville Press in April, 2014.  In 2011   Etruscan Press published Jack Matthews’s latest novel, THE GAMBLER’S NEPHEW.

 

 

 

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