I had a conversation with a friend and colleague late last month about a hypothetical class teaching the twentieth century through American novels, one per decade. As I explained to her, I’d stumbled across a similar scenario in a discussion somewhere in the wooly wilderness of the web a month or so back, and had begun mentally calculating which books I would choose for teaching such a class. The more I considered it, the more challenging of an exercise it became; the 1950s and 1960s seemed easy, but the 1970s and 1980s stumped me a bit. Most of the novels I read in the early to mid 1990s were written in the 1980s, but they were primarily sci-fi fantasy and cold war thrillers. Later on I encountered DeLillo et al, but I would never inflict DeLillo on my students — White Noise is an abomination that should be left on the shelf. I might assign McCarthy in a different class, but for one novel, representative of some aspect of the decade? Hardly. And the 1970s…well, I remember reading a lot of Michener in junior high, and then someone told me I should read Roth, which I did, then went back to Michener (Roth. Really? Why? No, seriously!). The lists became a little easier to generate when we started thinking about much more interesting female and minority writers; without a doubt, Morrison’s Beloved would be preferable to anything by DeLillo et al., at least in my book.
(I should note, as a caveat here, that my undergraduate and graduate studies alike focused very heavily on drama AND the Renaissance period, so while my friends were taking classes on 20th century novels, I was reading Jonson and Marlowe. I have no regrets!).
So, with that thought in mind, I figuredI would turn the question over to you folks on the interwebs, as I hear this is being called these days, and see what you are all thinking. We’ll start with the 1900s and work our way on up throughthe 1990s post-by-post, at least as long as folks are interested in the game. Here are the rules as such:
1) Pick an American novel first written or published between 1900 and 1909. For those of us who (sheepishly) scratch their heads at this suggestion, having lived primarily in the Renaissance or some other such superio- I mean, equally valid and interesting field of study – for the better part of a decade, I offer this list from Goodreads.com.
2) Give a brief suggestion as to how you see this novel fitting into a narrative arc of the twentieth century as told through the novel. Evolution of form? History of social / political movements? Expansion or recovery of discourses of race or gender? Sheer entertainment value (Hah! Pitch THAT one to a department and see how far you get!)?
Here’s my own pick:
1) For myself, I’m a little torn between Sinclair’s Jungle and London’s Call of the Wild, but ultimately would probably choose the latter. Part of this is because it looms much larger in my imagination; my grandparents kept a small stock of comics from the 1960s tucked neatly away in a chest, underneath a stack of blankets, and among them was the Classics Illustrated adaptation of the novel. While I had a substantial collection of comics books at home, they were all relatively new. These were special, a link to the past routed through an individual I never really knew (my uncle passed away while I was very young), and Call of the Wild was a bonus in that it extended back to the wild frontier days. I could curl up on the sofa in my grandparents living room in Northern Minnesota over holiday break, inhale the smoke from the wood furnace that heated the entire house, and look out into the snow-draped forest to imagine myself mushing across the Yukon with Buck.
2) Nostalgia trips aside, Call of the Wild strikes me as a better choice because it can be used to simultaneously thrill to and deconstruct the great American wilderness pastoral. Buck is an allegory for all of the unsuspecting men and women (but mostly men, in London’s world) who found themselves thrust into a situation where they had to decide whether to “kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.” The romantic image of the noble beast who reigns supreme in the forest is shattered, providing a metaphor for man’s illusory position vis-a-vis nature. The harsh elements of the Alaskan wilderness successfully resist the advancement of modernity — and here, modernity may even boil down to the simple concept of man being at the top of the food chain. Of course, there’s ample room for more contemporary readings as well; Buck’s successful dominance of the wolf pack near the end of the novel enables his superior bloodlines to take root and produce a new breed of dog-wolf hybrid, a trajectory suggestive of the notion that the European bloodlines of the white frontiersman would enable them to triumph over both the elements and the native (also fictitious) “Yeehat” indians. Thus, Call of the Wild strikes me as an excellent platform for dissecting the mental and emotional valences of first-decade 20th century America — the promise of the western lands dwindling in the face of harsh reality, leaving an enduring mythos about rugged American individualism, all built upon a discourse of subjection. Although the nostalgia may be what’s winning me over here in the end!
All right — your turn!
As per the excellent suggestion in the comments below, feel free to provide two sets of answers — one open to the entire field of writers / novels, and one focusing on work by anyone OTHER than one of the straight, able-bodied white men. I’ll post my own updated response in the comments below later.