The "Great" "American" "Novel": Reading "on National Themes" in an Election Month

In college, I was charmed into a Russian Studies double-major in part by the way all the great Russian novels seemed to be so overtly interested in the question of Russianness—there was a muddy-profound conversation, something as unstuck in time as in genre, between the readings for separate courses on nineteenth-century literature and twentieth-century history. What does it mean to be Russian, every text seemed to be frantically asking (and/or grandly answering). Who are we; what is this place. And are we sure??

 At the time I found this not only fascinating but endearingly new to me, something not present in American literature, because I was a younger and less observant reader and also so of America—and just one region of it, at that—that the questions and answers posed in our national literature, I inhaled and exhaled as atmosphere. In the years since I've aged, traveled and lived in wildly different parts of the country (with wildly different literary self-portraits), become more aware of myself as a reader and the biases, privileges, hopes, and fears I bring into a text—and mapped my reading and writing life over some truly harrowing twists and turns in American politics. 

Whether it's part of growing up no matter the era, or whether recent horrors have jump-started the process for me via disillusionment, I've become off-kilter enough in relation to my own country to be able to more clearly see "American novels" struggling with those same kinds of frantic questions—who are we? Are we sure?—where ten years ago all but the most overt instances of the dimension might have been invisible to me. 

It also seems likely that these questions are more on authors' minds than ever, these days—and I'm sure will continue to be. This is on my mind this month in particular because I've been reading contemporary prize-shortlist selections that, their other charms aside, happen to wrestle with the idea of an American national identity. It's put them in unofficial conversation with one another in my mind—a conversation that sometimes tends toward argument. The clashes aren't fair—they're completely imagined, for one thing, and ideological differences get tangled up in the books' hugely different aesthetic and narrative goals. But this in in itself feels American—a crowded "melting pot where nothing melted" (more on Tony Kushner in a minute); an ongoing argument. For what it's worth, a reading list of recent publications I have conversing with/against each other at the moment on this topic: The Mars Room, The Overstory, Invitation to a Bonfire, Confessions of the Fox, and There There. Add to this two more remotely canonized works I picked up by subconscious chance on the same day: Tender is the Night and Angels in America.

Of these works, the Kushner is haunting me the most. The reasons are legion, but among them is the fact that my (2013) edition comes with an absolutely incredible collection of paratext. The beautiful, poignant stage directions aside (I'm a novice at reading theater and in awe of everything that can be done in stage directions; the economy of language and thoughtful eye toward collaboration with a production team is astounding to me), there's an introduction, a production history, omitted scenes, notes on staging (if you also enjoy stage directions, these will send you to heaven) and a lovely essay from Kushner about the influence of others on Angels. A large theme of this final essay is the American myth of individualism. Kushner's plays are obviously hugely concerned with what it means to live as an American; his essay layers on questions of what it means to write as an American. A passage that has stuck with me:

When I started to write these plays, I wanted to attempt something of ambition and size even if it meant I might be accused to straying too close to ambition's ugly twin, pretentiousness. Given the bloody opulence of this country's great and terrible history, given its newness and its grand improbability, its artists are bound to be tempted towards large gestures and big embraces, a proclivity de Tocqueville deplored as a national artistic trait nearly two hundred years ago. Melville, my favorite American writer, strikes inflated, even hysterical, chords on occasion. It's the sound of the Individual ballooning, overreaching. We are all children of "Song of Myself." And maybe in this spacious, under- and depopulated, as yet only lightly inscribed country, the Individual will finally expand to its unstable, insupportably swollen limits, and pop. (But here I risk pretentiousness, and an excess of optimism to boot--another American trait.)


Again, I come largely bearing recommendations—the works listed above, but also whatever speaks to you. Coming up on the election next week, I just want to suggest reading fiction and nonfiction that ask these questions, or make you ask them. Read more of whatever it is that haunts you afterward. And vote.