American Classics

americanclassics

I started an American Literature Book Club at school a few months ago. We’ve read an eclectic mix, from Truman Capote short stories to Little Women, with detours to take in The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. It’s been an interesting journey for me as much as it has been for my students; I’ve re-read books I first read without much thought or discernment as a teenager, and been surprised by my reaction to them as an adult. I’ve discovered writers I’ve been meaning to read for years, and found new favourites as a result. So much of what I read in the normal course of things is about the same society, the same culture, the same history, the same surroundings; the settings and the people are distinctively British and instinctively familiar. American literature is a welcome change, opening my eyes to new cultures, new histories and new places. The writing is subtly different, too, in ways I can never quite put my finger on. I never got used to the florid and rather earnest style of newspaper reportage in the US, and the language of American writers is similarly discordant with their British counterparts. It is a window into a different view of the world.

The Catcher in the Rye was my first great surprise. Many people say that it is a book for teenagers and adults tend to find its teenage protagonist self indulgent and irritating. I have had the opposite experience. I read it at 16, and was underwhelmed. I didn’t really understand Holden’s restlessness and self destructive personality; his world was too far from my own for me to relate to it. Reading it as an adult, I was overwhelmed with sadness for this lonely, lost boy whose parents have withdrawn from him in their grief for his dead brother. Unable to cope with his loss, Holden builds a barrier of indifference around himself, rebuffing the kindness of those who do try to help him because he can’t face having to reveal the pain that lies beneath that careless exterior. His relationship with his sister is powerful and touching; through his concern for Phoebe, we see his true personality. Behind the rude, destructive facade, he is a kind, caring, loving boy, longing to make meaningful connections with other people. His brother’s death has made him question life; he sees no joy, no happiness, no hope, in a world where such tragedy can strike and rip out the heart of our existence in a matter of moments. He is looking for answers, and can find none.

He will, in time, find his way, but this razor sharp portrayal of the stripping of trust in life that happens when we reach the cusp of adulthood is brilliant and demonstrates perfectly the vulnerability of the young. My students’ response proved to me that this is not, as so many say, a teenager’s novel; they could not understand Holden, and struggled to see the point of the book at all. When I told them my own thoughts, it was as if I had read a completely different story. They had not noticed the importance of that character, they had not understood why this or that had happened…the conversations we had were fascinating as I helped them to pick apart the reasoning behind Holden’s behaviour, and they discussed their changing impressions. Many said they would re-read it, with these new perspectives in mind. However, I don’t think they’ll truly appreciate it until they’ve passed that tipping point from innocence to experience. Few writers can create such compelling characters who stay with the reader so powerfully, and can continue to touch them in different ways throughout their reading lives. I  wish J D Salinger had written more.

The Great Gatsby was my second surprise. I read it as a teenager and thought it was fascinating and profound in its exploration of the hollowness of upper class life. This time around, I found it self indulgent, overwritten and cold. Fitzgerald could certainly write outstanding prose; there are many beautiful phrases throughout that took my breath away. However, there is a self conscious quality to his writing that irritates, and I couldn’t care about any of the characters, none of whom were as fascinating as Fitzgerald seemed to think they were. I couldn’t understand Gatsby’s obsession with the pampered and childish Daisy; I never saw the heart I presume she was meant to have hiding somewhere beneath her frivolous and spoiled exterior. Therefore, I never sympathised with him, and I certainly couldn’t grieve him despite the poignant loneliness of his death. I know the whole point of the novel is to show the emptiness at the core of the glittering American Dream, but considering Fitzgerald’s own relentless pursuit of this halcyon world he recreated on the pages of his novels, this message doesn’t really ring true. There is a falseness behind the words, a lack of heart, that I found insurmountable. It’s no classic for me.

Immediately after reading The Great Gatsby, I picked up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one of my absolute favourites. Instantly immersing myself into the lives of the Nolan family, whose warmth and vivacity light up the pages, I understood the main reason why I didn’t enjoy The Great Gatsby. I can’t feel involved in the lives of people who live in an alternate world of unthinking privilege, where problems can be solved with a hastily written cheque and a trip abroad. There’s no truth for the majority in this depiction.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn shows the real America; people working their way from the ground up to make a better life for their children. Most will never have riches and most will never see their dreams come true, but they have a spirit and a fire that the cool and languid characters of Fitzgerald’s world lack. They are alive, struggling, fighting, striving, pushing themselves forward and dragging their children behind them. They do not glide along carelessly in a world of ease already formed by parents and grandparents who did all the striving for them. They are society at large, reflecting the experience of the average person, revealing the true philosophy and values that underpin American life.

I have only skimmed the surface of all that America’s literature has to offer. The variety of people and experiences and histories spread across the huge mass of North America never ceases to fascinate me, and I love discovering new authors and new novels that teach me more about life on the other side of the pond. One book that certainly should be a classic of ordinary American life, but isn’t yet, is Helen Hull’s Heat Lightening, which has now been reprinted beautifully by Persephone. She is America’s Dorothy Whipple, so even those of you who hate it when I write about American literature (Darlene!) will love it. Don’t bother re-reading The Great Gatsby before the film comes out; read that instead.

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45 comments

  1. I wonder if you’ve read ‘True Grit’ by Charles Portis? It’s an American classic which fell out of favour after the film (with John Wayne) came out. I read it recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. I bet your students would like it. It’s not a boys or a girls book. The narrator, Mattie Ross, is a totally believable, tough but in some ways naive, 14 year old girl who hires Rooster Cogburn, a hard drinking US Marshall, to avenge her father’s murder.

    1. Hi Rowan, no I haven’t – I’ve heard of the film but didn’t realise it was a book. It certainly sounds like something my students would like – I shall try and track it down. Thank you for the recommendations!

  2. I’m an American who has not read any of those books since school. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a great favorite though. If you’re up for more Salinger I’d recommend the short story “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” which takes place in the UK during WWII. It can be found in the collection Nine Stories. It’s my favorite Salinger.

    1. Oh I love For Esme, With Love and Squalor! We read that for one book club meeting and the students didn’t get it at all until I explained it and then they thought it was marvellous – that’s why we read The Catcher in the Rye, because they wanted more Salinger!

  3. What, not a mention of Little Women, the book I read 25 times between ages 9 and 11? :) I get awfully bored with the classic American canon, especially its white male authors (and let’s face it: white male authors comprise practically the whole enchilada.) Give me Alcott, Stowe, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Alice Walker any day of the week.

    1. We did read it! But I already loved it so I had nothing new to say about it! I am a big fan of American women’s writing as you know and am reading Little House on the Prairie to one of my classes at the moment! I’d love to give them a Willa Cather to read but I fear that would really go over their heads!

  4. I think The Great Gatsby is better understood as an American parable of sorts than as a novel about real people and situations. Catcher I never really cared for although I admired (rather than loved) Salinger’s Nine Stories. The American writers I most admire are probably Melville (his short works), Crane’s stories like The Blue Hotel, and I wish Nathaniel West works were more widely read.

    1. Oh yes, of course – but that doesn’t excuse its lack of heart! I can’t abide a book that has no warmth to it! I think Salinger is a great writer and I like his short stories very much too. I haven’t ever read any Melville and I hadn’t even heard of Nathaniel West…so much more to discover!!

  5. What a fun idea for a book club! I find The Great Gatsby unbearable and adore A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but, for me, it has less to do with the privilege of Fitzgerald’s characters than with the shallowness with which they are presented. I like it less every time I reread it.

    As for ideas about great American authors: Mark Twain is always fun, Hemingway is fascinating (though I don’t particularly like his style), Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie was a favourite when I was a young teen, Steinbeck always makes for great group discussions, and Willa Cather captures the American West better than almost anyone. My copy of Heat Lightning is in the mail and I can’t wait to read it!

    1. Thanks! I thought so too :) We get so little exposure to non British writers in schools here that I thought an American literature club would be a good way to fill the gap. Yes – it is the shallowness and the clear sycophancy that Fitzgerald felt towards these people despite showing the pointlessness of it all quite clearly that got me. It made me lose all respect for him!

      Oh yes, I love Steinbeck and Cather…and I haven’t read Mark Twain in years. I’ve never picked up a Hemingway or a Dreiser so I need to get onto that in the near future! I am so excited for you to read Heat Lightning – I know you’ll love it!

  6. Tender is the Night will always be my favourite Fitzgerald. I also read Gatsby during my teens and reasonably enjoyed it but as I get older my memories of it pale. It’s never been a book I’ve wanted to revisit. We read a few American authors during GCSE and O Henry’s short stories were by far my favourite! I wish I’d had you as a teacher for class and extra curricula at school! You would be glorious with sixth formers! :-) Good luck with the remainder if the year!

    1. I think Tender is the Night is a beautiful, haunting novel – far better than Gatsby. I still think about it, years on – I just lent it to my sister and I’m excited to see what she makes of it. I’ve never read any O Henry stories – I always see them but never pick them up. I’ll have to get a copy next time I see one. Oh thanks – that’s very kind! :) I’m not sure my students would agree – I’m a hard task master!! ;) Thank you very much – it’s nearly over!

  7. This book club sounds like SUCH a great idea! I’ve probably said this a hundred times, but can I recommend Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? It’s not a “classic” but it’s an incredible portrait of Savannah. I have never encountered another author with such a talent for capturing the quirks and individuality of different people’s speech.

    Re: Gatsby: Aw. This bums me out. I’ve been a little afraid to reread Gatsby as an adult, because I loved it so much when I read it in high school and college. I want to keep loving it! I hate all the other American expat writers from that period (well, I like Ezra Pound sometimes, but he was a Fascist; and I like TS Eliot almost always), and I want to love Fitzgerald.

    1. Thanks Jenny! I have been meaning to read Midnight in the Garden for years – thank you for reminding me. I think it would be a bit too ‘controversial’ for school (it’s a very conservative school!) but definitely good reading material for me! You love Fitzgerald all you want – he is a good writer. He’s just a bit too sycophantic and whiny for my liking!

  8. What a great book club. It is so long since I read The Great Gatsby I have been thinking of re-reading it. I really enjoyed A tree grows in Brooklyn when I read it about six or seven years ago, but remember being unwhelmed by Catcher in the Rye – though I was only about 19 or 20 when I read it. I didn’t know about Truman Capote’s short stories but loved In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Little Women is a must isn’t it – I re-read it just before Christmas and loved it all over again.

    1. So much brilliant stuff out there to read! I really want to read In Cold Blood but I think it’s something you have to be in the right mood for. Perhaps in the winter. Oh Little Women is just a joy – I could read it forever. Perfect!

  9. I retired a few years and one of my promises to myself was that I would read all the great literature I had never gotten around to reading. I do volunteer work at the local library and on one of my days I work in the bookstore where we sell donated books to raise money. Often books that I have already read come in and I find myself buying them. I just finished Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and had the same reaction. I also found the book rather confusing when first read. Now I quite enjoyed it. I suggest that you try his “Nine Short Stories”. And I am rereading several other books from earlier years. Time and age give one a very different perspective from which to view things.

    Good Reading
    L

    P. S. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” has always been his best work I think.

    1. How wonderful! I so wish I had all day to read! Thanks for the recommendations – I definitely want to read more Salinger so I shall pick those up!

  10. That’s a nice idea for a book club. In terms of recommendations, I’m a big fan of short stories with my students because of the smaller reading committment. I like them myself because I always have a good stopping point before bed.

    1. Sally Benson (author of Meet Me in St. Louis) wrote many short stories for The New Yorker, publishing 12 of them as a collection called Junior Miss. They’re all about an awkward, chubby, fanciful girl named Judy Graves. It’s the early 1940s and she lives with her parents and older sister in an apartment in New York City. Most of the stories are pretty funny, but one made me tear up. They’re very short, with great dialogue. Sort of like Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it shows that being a young girl in a previous time is much the same as it is today. It’s good to contrast with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn- Judy’s is middle class and in an emotionally healthy family, but her life isn’t perfect. Incidentally, Peggy Ann Garner from the movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn plays Judy in the film version.

    2. Jessamyn West’s The Friendly Persuasion is an assortment of short stories about a Quaker farmer and family in 1860s Indiana. Like Junior Miss, there is a lot of humor. One of those rare books that has religious characters but manages not to be preachy or seem outdated. Also, it’s a good movie with Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and a young Anthony Perkins in his second film.

    3. Dragonwyck by Anya Seton is a good example of American Gothic not being exclusively Southern Gothic (Don’t know if you are familiar with Southern Gothic literature, but your students might also like the short story “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner). A country farmer’s daughter goes to live with her wealthy and powerful distant relations who own a large estate called Dragonwyck on the Hudson River. The girl falls in love with the lavish lifestyle and eventually with her mysterious distant cousin, who is said to be cursed. Average American citizens are beginning to revolt against the tenant farmer system employed by the upper class to keep the poor in poverty, putting Dragonwyck and its people in danger.

    I’ve reviewed Junior Miss, Dragonwyck, and others on my blog, Reel Old Reads.

    Another reviewer recommended Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith. I read it as a teen and I just wanted to gag the whole time. It’s a cheesy love story about the ups and downs of being poor newlyweds on a college campus. In my memory, it is more like Nicholas Sparks. But I know people who like it perfectly well, and perhaps you will like it too.

    Good luck, and keep us posted on what your club is reading and what they think.

    1. I adore Sally Benson! Have probably not thought of her in many years … you have brought a smile to my face and I am hurrying over to the New Yorker website to see if I can download some of her stories.

    2. Thanks so much for all of these wonderful recommendations! I love the sound of Junior Miss – I am off to amazon right now! I certainly will keep you posted on what we’re reading – it’s a lovely project to be a part of and I am especially keen to go off the beaten path so I’m grateful for any pointers as my knowledge of American literature is quite limited!

  11. I’ve always been a fan of Salinger too, especially the stories concerning the Glass family. Not so much The Catcher, although I appreciated it when I was 17.

    Have you read Margaret Salinger’s memoir of her father, The Dream Catcher? So much of his take on young people comes to light although it’s not comfortable reading.

    How I wish we had had reading clubs and groups at my school. I was born too soon, I think!

    1. No I haven’t read the memoir, Chrissy -thank you for the recommendation. I shall pop it into my wishlist. I wish I’d had a reading club at school, too – the curriculum is so restricted these days that it’s wonderful to have a chance to expand the kids’ horizons a little!

  12. Wish you’d been my teacher at school, Rachel! This isn’t a suggestion for your book group, but I’m sure you’d love Mr/Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell, if you haven’t read it already. America’s first desperate housewife!
    But I wonder if your pupils might like They Came Like Swallows. William Maxwell, Amewrican writing at its best!

    1. Thanks Mary! :) I have read Mrs Bridge – I bought a tattered copy years ago at a university book sale and found it mesmerising. I haven’t ever read Mr Bridge though – I need to track that down. Oh my goodness, yes – I must give them that to read. Thank you! I will make that my next choice. Maxwell is outstanding!

  13. Do you have any recommendations for people like me who have ignored American literature so far? Two or three good books to start with? I’ve read Little Women, but that’s about as far as my knowledge of American literature goes.

    1. Oh Elke, where to begin! You have to read Steinbeck, so start with Of Mice and Men. Then Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is wonderful. I also love Willa Cather – Lucy Gayheart is probably my favourite. Oh and Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is amazing too. And anything by William Maxwell. If you want a real ‘classic’, you should definitely read The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington – it’s not widely read these days but is a brilliant snapshot of America at the start of the 20th century. Enjoy discovering such brilliance!

  14. For crying out loud, Rachel! One look at the title of your post on my blogroll and I was all for letting it slide into oblivion. Then I thought…let’s see what she’s banging on about now…no doubt I couldn’t care less. Naturally I was right but then I see you’ve outed me! You know me too well. By the way, found an Ann Bridge but it’s set in Portugal (picture the church lady on Little Britain spewing all over the place due to anything other than ‘pure English’) if you’re interested I can send it to you! Glad you’re enjoying your book club and don’t mind me.

    1. Hahaha I thought ‘will Darlene even see this?’ when I wrote it – I’m glad you were tempted enough to click through you naughty thing! Oooh an Ann Bridge? I’d love it! Thank you! I have something knocking around that I can send you in return! :)

  15. So glad to have found your blog, I love reading and have been searching for such a blog. Also I blogged today about Persephone Books, I have fallen in love with this imprint and am planning visit to their shop. I like the sound of Heat Lightening and also want to read some Dorothy Whipple. Sighs happily. blighty

    1. Hello! So glad you have found me! It’s always lovely to have a new reader! I’m delighted that you’ve discovered Persephone – aren’t they marvellous? I am sure you’ll love both Dorothy and Heat Lightening – you need to read Dorothy first though. Order Someone at a Distance and Greenbanks and you’ll never look back! Oh and try Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – you’ll cry and cry!

  16. Three good (if unrelated) American books I can recommend:

    MIldred Walker – Winter Wheat. A young woman grows up in the wheatlands of the Montana during the early 1940s.

    Willa Cather – Shadows on the Rock. French settlers in 1697 Quebec, life seen through the eyes of a young girl, as she experiences a harsh life far from home. A little known Cather book but should be read more.

    The Trees – Conrad Richter. After the Revolutionary War, the Luckett family pushes westward from Pennsylvania into the (at that time) completely untouched Midwest (the Ohio country). Eldest daughter Sayward is a leading character in this and in the two books that follow, The Fields and The Town.

    Also, have you read Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald? Since you liked Tender is the Night, this might appeal. It is her only novel and has some light to shed on her life and personality.

    1. Thanks so much for these Gina – I haven’t read any of them, though I have read most of Willa Cather and do have Shadows on the Rock on my shelf. You have reminded me that I need to read it, thank you!

  17. If you want truly American authors with truly American themes, may I recommend Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”. It is about a period of our history that is often overlooked and I am afraid that the book has fallen into obscurity over the years. Whether we
    are comfortable with the theme or not, the subject matter is relative.

    My father was a college English professor and suggested I read it when I was 13. “The Great Gatsby” seemed like drivel. “The Jungle” made a lasting impression on me, especially when we studied anti-trust early 20th century history

    Might I suggest Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Pearl Buck, Edith Wharton, Jack London, Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe are certainly American authors who should be given their full due and offer insights into our history or ourselves.

  18. Sorry, “The Great Gatsby” was drivel after reading “The Jungle”. I had already read ” The Great Gatsby” before reading ” The Jungle”. I thought the characters were shallow and vapid.

  19. just in case you fancy a visual to go with your American reading – we happened to be in back in Manhattan this week and took some photographs as the Plaza of their Great Gatsby objets.

    love your blog.

    must visit you more often!

    *wavingfrom(sadlyeconomy* en route back to LA

  20. Hi :)
    I’m not sure I liked the Great Gatsby either, and I really disliked Daisy. She seems, as you say, pampered and childish, and cowardly (or careless) besides (I simply couldn’t understand her letting Gatsby take the blame for the accident without a word). I also couldn’t identify with any of the characters. There is almost no real warmth in the book…

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