A NY Times Book Editor starts to wake up from a narrow view of literature
Please read this and let's discuss.
First, let's discuss what is missing in Ms. Schuessler's earnest, but ultimately defensive essay. Ms. Schuessler never mentions the name Sinclair Lewis, who remains the quintessential American writer who wrote many (mostly) books about work, starting with "Our Mr. Wrenn" (1914) and "The Job" (1917) (about women in the work place!) before "Main Street" (1920), "Babbitt" (1922), "Arrowsmith" (1925), "Dodsworth" (1929) and "A Work of Art" (1934), not to mention "Ann Vickers" (1931), "Gideon Planish" (1943) (about the non-profit "business" world; a must read which is also the one time one realizes Lewis does not like his character he has created, unlike Babbitt, who he really loves contrary to the usual assumption that is made)...As I continue to say, Lewis was our Dickens, yet we sadly neglect him in our high schools and colleges. Lewis, more than any single writer, defined the modern American character and gave novelistic insight to America as a business civilization, and, nearly a hundred years later, his prose remains vibrant in its sharpness, brevity and wit.
Second, give Schuessler some credit for mentioning Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," though I have a deep concern she never read more than the Cliff Notes of that novel. Still, she missed Sinclair's strongest novel, an amazing ode to the wildcat oil business, "Oil!" (not the ridiculous film adaptation, the real deal book). The funny thing to me about "Oil" is that the main character, the son of the wildcatter oil man, is played for the fool and the solid, wise and ultimately heroic character is the father wildcatter. What I loved is that Sinclair was willing to subordinate his own political biases in favor of socialists to give a strong nod of glory to the capitalist. It was also far more readable (even though longer) than "The Jungle."
Third, Ms. Schuessler deserves kudos for favorably mentioning William Dean Howells, a most neglected writer who wrote beautifully about the rising American business civilization--not merely "The Rise of Silas Lapham," but also the knock-out "A Hazard of New Fortunes" (here is a witty article on its continued relevance) and "The Landlord at Lion's Head," with my review here.
Fourth, Schuessler is starting to realize, but does not confront the bias of two or three generations of literature professors who de-legitimized the "Big Idea" novel as constituting more sociology than "literature." She makes a still too kind reference to Murray Kempton's cynical attack on "proletarian" novels, which keeps her from fully understanding the destructiveness of the bias of the literature academy against novels with larger ideas than one's sex life. But let's stay with Kempton for a moment. Yes, we all love the late departed Murray Kempton (his defense of Lenny Bruce and I.F. Stone is well noted), but he was long a jerk on the issue of so-called "proletarian" novels. Kempton's famous book on the Thirties/Forties era Communists is that the Communist writers in Hollywood and elsewhere during that time were--shudder!--sentimental. In his book, Kempton is talking about Communist screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo, who wrote films such as "A Guy Named Joe" and novelists like Michael Gold, who wrote "Jews without Money." Kempton was defending Trumbo, Gold and others from the far more serious accusation, i.e. that somehow they were indoctrinating Americans to believe in Communism and were somehow treasonous. Nonetheless, Kempton was actually making a more sly attack on the cultural legitimacy of these writers. He was accusing them of being sentimental, a horrible cultural "crime" both in the 1950s and especially since then.
Kempton's attack is really a proto-modernist attack on anything that smacks of sentiment. Stated another way, anything in art is only considered "real" if it is violent, mean or anti-social (Think of the Hollywood crowd's crowning of "Crash" as the best film a few years ago). The attack on sentiment or sympathy, combined with college literature departments telling young writers to "write what you know" led to the fetish of novels becoming "personal"--you know, the homosexual Pakistani young man who moves to New York, and writes about a young homosexual Paksitani male who moves to New York. Navel gazing is what I call it.
Still, as Schuessler defensively recognizes, it is all art or literature. The debate, she implies more than says, should be whether something is good or bad literature, not to attack a genre of literature as being illegitimate (Perhaps if she says that too loudly, she may fear for her career among the literati, I suppose). Yes, some "proletarian" novels may not be very good. But the attack on the entire genre of the "business" novel or "proletarian" novel has caused most literature departments and intellectuals to miss "The Great Midland" by Alexander Saxton, which deals brilliantly with the lives of black and white labor organizers, and most amazingly for a male writer, female workers as more than love objects. It's caused Sinclair Lewis to be read out of the academy, particularly his long forgotten novel from 1934, "A Work of Art", which counterposes, through the story of two brothers, the "business" of writing and screenwriting and the "art" of developing a business (in the novel, the hotel/motel business).
It is a shame, for example, that even among black studies departments, you can go through most such departments and not find anyone who has read "Black No More" (1931) by George Schulyer (or his even racier, but not quite as brilliant "Black Empire" (1938)) or Sinclair Lewis' "Kingsblood Royal" (1947) (When, oh when will we stop hearing that Lewis wrote nothing of note after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930?). Yes, I harp on these issues in this blog from time to time. But it remains vital to harp on this because our cultural elite continues its destructive ways--and not quite in the way right wingers attack our nation's cultural elite. Gore Vidal and I were both appalled 20 years ago by the "Western Civ has got to go" chants for a different reason than the chauvinists who consistently put down any study of women, blacks, Latinos, homosexuals, etc. in history. Vidal and I never understood why someone living in the "West" (Europe and America) could not find something compelling in Pliny the Younger or Dickens that speaks to that person's life, even if he or she just fell off a boat or plane into America from say, Nigeria.
There remains something compelling in Thomas Hardy, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene and others (yes, even Booth Tarkington and Pearl Buck, who I adore!), and even further back to Montaigne and into antiquity. None of these writers should be lost to the proliferation of information in a digital age or the corrosive belief that only new writers can tell us what's going on with our lives. And just as importantly, we must stop delegitimizing the role of sentiment and sympathy in a society. Norman Rockwell did paint "reality" as much as if not more than a Quentin Tarantino film, yet Tarantio receives nearly universal applause (while, in my worst moods, I think he should be waterboarded so he might understand how destructive his cartoonish love of violence is). Yes, Rockwell's art may be incomplete in its perspective, but so is any one artist's capturing of any moment. It's like the attack on Spike Lee's "Do the right thing" where people said, "Where is the drug dealer on the corner?" as if Lee had to put that into his already crowded film. We need to realize there is much to learn from our past, which would do more to enrich our present, and give us a common language to face our future.