Let me take the unseemly step of commencing a review of another author’s work by offering several paragraphs from my own book Cannibals and Christians, published in 1965.
The people who were most American by birth, and who had the most to do with managing America, gave themselves a literature which had the least to say about the real phenomena of American life, most particularly the accelerated rate, the awful rate, of growth and anomaly through all of society. That sort of literature and that sort of attempt to explain America was left to the sons of immigrants who, if they were vigorous enough, and fortunate enough to be educated, now had the opportunity to see that America was a phenomenon never before described, indeed, never before visible in the record of history. There was something going on in American life which was either grand or horrible or both, but it was going on—at a dizzy rate—and the future glory or doom of the world was not necessarily divorced from it…
No American writer succeeded, however, in doing the single great work that would clarify a nation’s vision of itself as Tolstoy had done perhaps with War and Peace or with Anna Karenina and Stendhal with The Red and the Black, no one novel came along which was grand and daring and comprehensive and detailed, able to give sustenance to the adventurer and merriment to the rich, leave compassion in the icechambers of the upper class and energy as alms for the poor. Dreiser came as close as any, and never got close at all, for he could not capture the moment, and no country in history has lived perhaps so much for the moment as America. After his heroic failure, American literature was isolated—it was necessary to give courses in American literature to Americans. [Otherwise] it was not quite vital to them. It did not save their lives, make them more ambitious, more moral, more tormented, more audacious, more ready for love, more ready for war, for charity, or for invention. No, it tended to puzzle them…. The American novel gave up any desire to be a creation equal to the phenomenon of the country itself. It settled for being a metaphor. Which is to say that each separate author made a separate peace. He would no longer try to capture America, he would merely try to give life to some microcosm of American life, some metaphor. The vision would be partial, determinedly so. One must not try to save. Not souls, and not the nation. The country be damned. Let it take care of itself.
And of course the country did. Just that. It grew by itself. Like a weed and a monster and a beauty and a pig. And the task of explaining America was taken over by Luce magazines.
Now, I have no…
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