(This paper was given at the Wheatland Conference on Literature in Washington, D.C., April 1987.)

“Rien ne vous tue un homme comme d’être obligé de représenter un pays.”

—Jacques Vaché, in a letter to André Breton, quoted as the
frontis-piece by Julio Cortázar in Hopscotch

Imaginative literature does not have a long history in the United States. It is not even as old as the country itself—this strange world always ferociously impatient to reach the twentieth century, bored with the notion of a peasantry, ready from Plymouth Rock for the Model-T, without an ivied ruin in its landscape. And proud enough to be young—its youth, as Oscar Wilde observed in his velvet wanderings to the mining camps, being its oldest tradition.

It was not until the nineteenth century that our fertile surroundings produced our handful of reassuring genius in the art of literature. Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Poe, Emily Dickinson, each his own patron you might say, starting anew, giving a special visionary aspect to Ben Franklin’s assurance that God helps those who help themselves.

Had we not had the good fortune to bring the English language to the northern woods, there amid the tiresome Wampanoag, and the great American Indian King Philip to be drawn and quartered, dispatched in the diction and rhythms of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, our classics might today be greeted with the glazed condescension so familiar to the recessive languages of the world and to their masterpieces. It is just as well that the feudal-minded Dutch patroons, with their land grants on the Hudson River, for the most part mismanaged, that they did not, in this case, have the “business sense,” the aboriginal maize necessary to prevail. On the other hand, the spirit of Erasmus might have thawed the chilblains of Increase Mather. Everything indeed was, as we say, a tossup.

But here we are, speaking and writing English, feeling both the last born and yet the overburdened, self-appointed patriarch of the world family. To be a young patriarch is troublesome. It is to be a schoolmaster and to face much recalcitrance in the dormitories of an evening. It is ever burdensome and frustrating, also bankrupting, and offers little except the gratifying self-pity of the dutiful.

Here we are under the celestial protection of two oceans. This protection is one of those matter-of-fact realities scarcely worth noting. The oceans might be as pleasing and impractical as the Rocky Mountains after the wagon trains pushed through. But the oceans are deeply rooted in the American unconscious. Only a savage amount of nudging, shouting, and alarming can make the often exhorted American People feel threatened by insidious microbes and ideological poisons winging in from little islands and destitute countries to the south of us, to be carried on the vapors to Florida and on, on to California. No doubt the fear is cant. What we have is better called annoyance when the microbes are studied under the microscope of military science or contemplated as a sting and rash we could do without.

We are also to be evermindful of the ocean-spanning detonations crossing each other on the two-way street from here to Eastern Europe. Unless intercepted in the heavens, God’s last frontier. The newfound land is not altogether at ease and happy, but other than that…fine.

The interesting thing is that we are where we are. We are living in the United States, in our mostly temperate and potentially self-sufficient large land mass. Our placement in the scheme of things is more real, more to the point, than our indefinable national character. America is more concrete than American. In spite of the most insistent drumming, we are not a folk. That lump of a word is an elusive signification, but it does appear to have some meaning when one thinks of, for instance, the peoples of Europe.

Even our early settlers are still to be described and accounted for, filled in like characters in a novel, with their accents from the Thames valley and the Outer Hebrides, their frieze coats, worsted stockings, and faces pitted with smallpox. The Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn has written recently about the “peopling of British North America” in the late eighteenth century, before our revolution, in preindustrial America. At that time the press for immigration from the British Isles became so intense and politically embarrassing that serious thinkers considered it should be put under a government ban—in the manner of one of the great powers of the present day. Some were convicts, but many were dispossessed peasants and unemployed artisans who, needing to pay debts incurred by the often thieving brokers of the sea passage, allowed themselves to become indentured servants, to be sold on arrival, and committed to service for five years. These transatlantic crossings, removal from the pastures and cemeteries of one’s ancestors, from the worn cobbles of London, represented the greatest population movement in early modern history. From the very first the American imagination was faced with the promise of the land and the cultural instability of its uprooted people.


Englishmen, involuntary slaves from Africa, families from the whole span of Europe, Asia, and the present, the 1980s, high birthrate of the new Spanish-speaking arrivals, are all somehow to be translated, perhaps transmogrified, into Americanness. We were never quite settled and perhaps are never to be. Migrations continue, surge, in stealth or otherwise, by land and water, ditch, over every porous border:

The dreadful sundry of this world,
The Cuban, Polodowsky,
The Mexican women,
The Negro undertaker
Killing the time between corpses
fishing for crayfish.
—Wallace Stevens

“The dreadful sundry” is in reality to be thought of as a group of lottery winners, all of us. To be living here, and not in what we mostly believe is the insupportable there, elsewhere, is to be assimilated into a powerful abstraction, the abstraction of never-ending possibility. The American situation is not so much to overthrow the past as to overthrow the future before it arrives as a stasis; thus in our architecture the destruction of the new in favor of the newer. The country is concrete in its parts: this town, this group, this couple, this family, this western or eastern or southern landscape. But to be an American is to try to make a rock out of a waterfall.

In our fiction it has always been difficult to find the parts that would somehow stand for the whole. Just as our metropolis, Manhattan, for all its dominance as a vision of the twentieth century, does not have the wholeness of London, Paris, or Rome, is not quite the measure of national destiny, so the country is not a whole, despite its being a genuine union and not a spurious union of conquered nationalities.

America does not easily lend itself to metaphorical representation. Perhaps Ahab, in Moby-Dick, in malevolent pursuit of the white whale, the source of injury, pursuit unto death, is a symbolic temptation of power and obsession in battle with the vastness. And we might offer The Golden Bowl, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Leaves of Grass, all powerfully resonant, somehow going beyond their creative terms and representing an intuition of national character and fate.

As a large and modern destiny, the country is resistant, forever in transition. When Kafka sat down to write Amerika, a place he had never seen, he said he came to the creation by way of Benjamin Franklin, “the first American dummy,” as D. H. Lawrence called him. But somehow Amerika is the least “modern” of Kafka’s works. He, who lived his short life under the shadows of the ancient city of Prague, could not find in his imagination a symbolic center for the wanderings of the cheerful, bewildered Karl Rossmann in the “boundless theatre” of the space, with a sign saying “Everyone Is Welcome.”

The episodic Amerika bears a resemblance, or a counterresemblance, to Melville’s The Confidence-Man, usually considered a failure and certainly a failure at its birth. This bitter litany of crookedness and dissemblance is bereft of anything resembling a sympathetic character; it is a curiosity of moral chagrin, or worse, moral revulsion, first published in 1857. Melville gathers his unseemly crowd on a steamboat going from St. Louis to New Orleans, down the Mississippi. The crowd displays the phantom physiognomy of the American:

Natives of all sorts, and foreigners; men of business and men of pleasure; parlor men and backwoodsmen; farm-hunters and fame-hunters; heiress-hunters, gold-hunters, buffalo-hunters, bee-hunters, happiness-hunters, truth-hunters, and still keener hunters after all these hunters.

Hunters, on the trail, wary and seeking whatever may be off guard.

On and on Melville goes with his listing: Quakers, soldiers, slaves, Creoles, old-fashioned French Jews, Mormons and Papists, Sioux chiefs, hard-shell Baptists and clay eaters….

In Amerika Karl Rossmann’s journey, meeting after meeting, incident after incident, that sort of inchoate journey, is held together by the naive hope and the bounding, naive energy of a young immigrant. A folly of misunderstandings in a world so ready with offerings and disappearances it defeats the imagination. “I greet you in the name of the Theatre of Oklahoma.” The biggest theater in the world, “almost no limits to it.” All of this at the end of the novel which remained unfinished. The actual last words Kafka wrote are interesting. Karl is on the train to Oklahoma, going across America:

Broad mountain streams appeared, rolling in great waves down on to the foothills and drawing with them a thousand foaming wavelets, plunging underneath the bridges over which the train rushed; and they were so near that the breath of coldness rising from them chilled the skin of one’s face.

Perhaps in some insomniac revery Kafka imagined himself taking off for America. It would be strange if it were otherwise for a Jew in Central Europe, if the thought did not appear from time to time. But of course the actual transformation was unimaginable, that is if he were to remain himself and not the altogether other, the innocent Karl Rossmann.


In The Confidence-Man, the swindler on shipboard takes on every disguise, one after another; he is the solemn, posing widower, “the man with the weed,” the black crepe of mourning; he is a beggar posing now as a deaf-mute and then as a Negro cripple. Melville calls his book a masquerade and the mutual corruption of the swindler and the swindled would seem to leave none free from dishonesty, false piety, presumption of charity at the moment of deceit. It’s a dark vision, somewhat tedious and overwrought, just as Amerika, another vision of the country as ephemeral, is perhaps tedious in its more cheerful tendency to disorient.

The American sections of Martin Chuzzlewit open with what is now called the media. “Here’s the morning’s New York Sewer!” From there it proceeds to boastfulness, hyperbole on behalf of the glories of the nation, chicanery and fraud in the Eden Land Corporation. And much else, streaming to the target with a thud like tobacco in the spitoon. Satiric asperity indeed, not quite on the classical model, here broad and there on the mark. America in comic place, but not humorous, too big and imposing and self-loving for that.

There you are, young, just out of the Harvard Business School, and you enter a Wall Street firm with all the chilly, serpentine slithering of the old commercial barons. As Mark Twain wrote, “Yesterday I didn’t have a nickel, and now I owe you a million dollars.” And nowadays all accomplished quickly and gracefully by one in fine shape from the squash courts and the jogging track. The leaps, the disgust with sequential development here—just roll, roll, roll with it. What was the use of it when the young man was already making a million a year? Mere legalism, old fictional habits in the question. Straight ahead and why not?

Henry Adams wrote an essay about Jay Gould and Jim Fisk and the Great Gold Conspiracy of 1869, which brought about an investigation of “the causes that led to the unusual and extraordinary fluctuations of gold in the City of New York.” The richness of Adams’s historical imagination composed a stock-market story, dramatic, and just now with the pertinence of a pistol shot. “One of the earliest acts of the new rulers [Gould and Fisk] was precisely such as Balzac or Dumas might have predicted and delighted in. They established themselves in a palace.” Inside they built an opera house and a “suite of apartments was then furnished by themselves, as representing the corporation…in a style which, though called vulgar, is certainly not more vulgar than that of the President’s official residence.” An opera troupe was engaged for the transplanted Vermont Yankee, Mr. Fisk, with a “permanent harem.”

Charles Francis Adams in the same historical series described Cornelius Vanderbilt who began as a near illiterate as becoming an American figure on the heroic scale:

a dictator in modern civilization, moving forward to this end step by step with a sort of pitiless energy which has seemed to have in it an element of fate…. He has combined the natural power of the individual with the factitious power of the corporation.

An impudent line from Flannery O’Connor’s stories: “You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car.”

D. H. Lawrence: “Where is this new bird called the true American?… Go on, show us him.”

Well, where is he in our fiction? We note the intricate, small-muscled talent for self-destruction in our presidents, the almost bejeweled talent, glittering with faceted opportunity. Sometimes it appears that way, so densely structured are the details of folly. And then again it appears to be just the gross stumbling and trampling and lumbering of some inexplicable maladaptation. The extraordinary plasticity of these wonderfully visible public characters; the relentless deformation of the person, or the personality, we had been assured to have knowledge of in the long, encyclopedic presentation of the public self. The imperturbable, glassy wonders; the absence of traditional motivation, the violent exhaustion of cause and effect as it used to be assumed in fiction. In New York City the schemes of the well-named Bureau of Parking Violations might have come from the swarm of scams on the boat cruising down the Mississippi in The Confidence-Man.

From day to day it is not always easy to tell whether spectacular national happenings are to be thought of as comedy or tragedy. So many are likely to be a marbleized mixture of both. Our lighter, windblown disruptions may bring to mind Restoration Comedy, in which we are, symbolically, hiding behind the screen, putting on the servant girl’s dress when the cuckolded husband appears. The great Macaulay maintained that these comedies were not a fixed aesthetic formulation but bore a true relation to contemporary experience and character. The fops, the seducers, the Sir this and Sir that were to be seen everywhere in London, bowing with perfect civility, getting out of carriages, carrying on business. It is not a dishonor to a nation to have produced Restoration Comedy. And there is no doubt that, just now, a rich, comic inadvertence attends many of our national pieties.

It is not the possibility or the purpose of fiction to keep up, be on time. Literalism, in any case, would be dangerous since the landscape is under the domination of rapid obsolescence. Cavaliers and Roundheads change position without a bow to the previous state of mind. Still, the substitution of image for self at the top, the idea of creating an impression of control at just the moment one is displaying confusion, bewilderment, and distraction must be a part of all of us. And not in the sense that this is a natural way of getting through life, but rather the continuing and genuine distance between announced and emblematic virtue and the orneriness of last night. The imposture, the masquerade, the banality of the most admired. And the language of spin control, management style, freedom fighters, hostile takeover, Praise The Lord amusement parks.

In much of the American fiction of the last few years there has been a curious backward revolution, to use the contradiction as it reigns in our politics. The number of well-received stories that have a “down-home” landscape, as if all were waiting to be documented in the Dakotas, in New Hampshire, or one of the southern states. Family novels, often with a bit of World War II, rather perfunctory and peripheral, but intended for spaciousness of conception. In the long run these are individual stories of hometown blight and failure well in the line of Sherwood Anderson.

For the telling, the novels will make use of a first-person narrator in no way imaginable as the author of a long fiction; an illusory voice, stretching credulity as it remembers and shapes experience. The result is to narrow the circle of illumination to the possible language and reflection of the presumptive teller. When the substitution of the more or less unlettered voice becomes a harness, as it will, the novelist often just slips the traces without preparation, and dots the manuscript with bits of poetry and jarring sophistications—and no aesthetic embarrassment. Something like the galloping indiscretions of free verse. In any case, this writing is a relief from contemporary America and has in its fervent confidence something akin to the nostalgic, if troubled, chauvinism of popular politics.

And there are city stories too, of course: youth, cocaine, divorce, child custody. One more disappointment in the fictive arrangements set up and one much like another—the fate of the spirit of documentation.

The peculiar instability of the democratic vistas which face the American author and in which his imagination is rooted does not seem to offer a world view or a view of America in the world. America is very much in the world but when we write a love story we are merely in our own bed, or one of us is in the wrong bed, the bed of trouble, which will provide the beloved illicit and the pornographic pages and scenes and the mess to follow thereupon. But it must be said that government, the national destiny, the deficit, Star Wars, a little Gilbert and Sullivan excursion in Grenada, are of less relevance than a cockroach in the sink. This is freedom and the consequent literature.

On the other hand, what is admirable, aesthetically thrilling, significant, and deeply honoring to the profession of literature as it comes to us from dissident authors in overrun countries is the oppressive government in the bedroom. In this fiction, laughter, too much of it, is like the opening of the gates of a prison. The bureaucrat, the interrogation is as homely as cabbage in the soup. By enormous talent, heroic preservation of sanity, the second half of the twentieth century receives its requiem in this fiction.

The spaciousness of Latin America, single soverign states tottering as if waiting to be born, flamboyant dictators of vast presumption, the sense that a novel may be the history of the country by the patient, imaginative flow of family history—this too extends the beauty and purpose of literature.

Still, stories and poems are written by men and women and not by “conditions” of states, whether open or suffocating in imposed noxious gases. Genius created the great novel by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, El Recurso del Método, in 1974, the work for some reason entitled in English Reasons of State, the substitution not more “catching to the eye” than Descartes. This cosmopolitan novel of such sumptuous learning, wit, and such a cascade of brilliant language makes of the plump, old voluptuary, the Head of State, a truly larger-than-life creation:

When the Head of State appeared on the balcony of honour, he was greeted with acclamations which sent a great cloud of pigeons over the roofs and terraces that chequered the valley with red and white, between thirty-two more or less aspiring belfries. After the cheering had died down, the President…began to make a clearly articulated speech…though embellished, so thought some, with too many expressions like “nomadic,” “myrobalantic,” “rocambolesque,” “eristic,” “apodeictic”; before this he had already elevated the tone by a glittering mobilization of “acting against the grain,” “swords of Damocles,” “crossing the Rubicon,” trumpets of Jericho, Cyranos, Tatarins and Clavilenos, all mixed up together with lofty palm-trees, solitary condors and white pelicans; he then set about reproaching the “janissaries of nepotism,” the “imitative demagogues,” the “condottieri of fastidiousness.”

In our recent American fiction, sensibility, flickering nuance, in the service of accurate recording are most often the destinations of talent. A large intention, an intellectual structure making its demands upon language, ideas, originality, all the marks of a high vocation, are increasingly rare, as if impractical, which perhaps they are. The inspirations of an almost pietistic waywardness, a singularity of vision and possibility when the vast span of world literature is alive in the mind, the qualities so formidable in such writers as Borges and, in his way, Calvino: who indeed would wish to claim a stubbornness of such peculiar shape, have the confidence, the vanity to perserve and to insist? Both smallness and idiosyncracy, as well as large ambition, are more or less signals of a threatening futility of effort. Our knights of faith who practice literature rather than mere publication as a goal are something of an embarrassment as they puff along at the tail end of the marathon.

For the most part, the shadowy scenery of domestic drama, interesting and valuable according to the execution, is quite enough of a challenge in itself. Contemporary manners shift and squirm with a careless speed depressing to the artist. Deciding to be a homosexual, a personal and social engagement of some consequence, falls like the last crab apple in autumn on the crowded, yellowing fruits at the base of the tree. Going to the summer house, packing up after the collapse of an affair; tired, exhausted, dead marriage; the daily round is resolutely local in both setting and imagination; parochial, the fiction of what one knows, experience with a turn here and there, if intolerably redundant. Again and again the documentation of one corner much like another, highway literature, and the last can of beer with its trade name, interior “décor” obsessively significant in a “classless” society. There are many pleasures in this writing. The pleasure of recognition, the pleasure to the ear when the spoken speech hits it just right in rhythm, pacing, and in the fluency with which a small vocabulary grows by the twists and turns, the jumble of inventiveness. Playing by ear; such is the mastery, such is the limitation.

By television, film, clothes, stars, Dallas, music, military power we circle the earth like PanAm on its daily journey—New York, Frankfurt, Rome, Tokyo, Bahrain. The Vietnam War occasioned fictions inevitably a reflection of the immense cultural, political, and, in this instance, military infiltration of the American presence as fact and idea. Most were moving to the mind and to the emotions; only a few were moving to the spirit as literature.

If commercial life, our fabulous maneuverings with dollars and cents so often ghostlike in their immateriality, do not have much potency in our fiction, the commercial world is vivid indeed in the life of the writer. The literary world appears to be obsolescent, but the publishing world is as plump and colorful as a new hybrid peach from California and no matter the mealiness inside. The news of publishing is more gripping than the news of what is written. The charms of publication, the escalation of the discovery that almost anyone can be a writer, have been accompanied by a devaluation of the product required. In any case, to admit that the book is a commodity like any other is to face reality, above all the reality that there is a general fatigue with “literature” as opposed to the mere book.

For established writers, even writers of great eminence, there is—to use Gertrude Stein’s phrase—a way of winning by having been winning. Perhaps there’s equity in this: the high career always there to be drawn upon, collateral for the first and second mortgage. For the celebrated there is little possibility of failure, unless it lives on in the soul of the writer or painter like some nagging, lowlying fever. Ready marketability, with a few points up and down, but no matter. The freshest of literary occasions is not an experiment in style or structure, but rather the book auction of first serial rights or paperback with its attendant publicity.

There is a dedication to production, a shadow of the great productivity that marked all except a few of the glorious fiction writers of the past. Yet it seems clear that the high dedication of the artist in the prime of his powers, dedication to art, has become something of an embarrassment as a “posture.” The exalted effort is not necessary to preeminence, preeminence continuing as a public perception, and staring it in the face could well become a crisis in productivity.

Lonely aspiration, lifelong labor, Cézanne’s doubts, Kafka’s withholdings, exile and cunning, consciousness of the race….

Thomas Mann in California, his residence there a tragic jest of history, did not prefigure anything in the Olympian gesture of his great career, up to the last, the final masterpiece, Doctor Faustus. And the curiosity of another exile, Vladimir Nabokov. After his masterpiece, Lolita, one of the greatest books about America, after the seductiveness of it became a worldwide best seller, lovely American term, despite the complexity of language and conception—“I am thinking of aurochs and angels,” the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita”—the last words; after this Nabokov seems not to have understood. We might say, in American idiom, that he made a “bad career move.” He wrote the most unseductive of masterpieces, Pale Fire, a novel, among other things, about the fate of a long poem in couplets. Few of our esteemed authors would be likely to wander so far from the newly found, rich pasturage, especially had he spent a lifetime of creative grandeur without much more compensation than a bookkeeper.

The reader who is not a mere consumer can scarcely fail to notice the sweat of calculation, market calculation, on the pages of so many of our best fictions; the acceptance of the indulgence the commodity world offers to the famous high and low. Such creative dilemmas that may exist for the author are to be overwhelmed by assertiveness of one kind or another. Assertiveness of reputation, of championship. This has its power over criticism. It bullies into being a timorous, benign, and forgiving accommodation, which cannot be thought of as condescension since it is itself, the criticism, a part of the tradings in pasts and futures.

The literary scene seems to ask quite bluntly: how important is high literature anyway? There’s quite enough of it in the library to serve the need. The news that literature used to bring about how people lived in Wessex, in St. Petersburg, lived as a prince of a father foully murdered, married, in a virtuous action, a sterile pedant—it might be wondered, as others have observed, if those of us living in the United States have need of such news. It is not possible to overvalue the aesthetic interest of the surf of information, gossip, tragedy, crime, miscalculation, good nature, good luck and bad, the dramas of real life beating on the shores of our knowledge and imagination every day by way of the press. A tall Dane in Rhode Island, not quite a prince, this one, with his American heiress-princess oversleeping, as it were….

It may be impertinent to question the American scene and to glide on silver skates over a surface that is, in truth, filled with bumps and lumps and sudden, unexpected views from the pond. What is offered here is a personal view of the literary situation in the gross, and the gross will usually be a libel on the particular. Or at least that is the hope.

This Issue

June 25, 1987