Awhile back, I posted my thoughts on the interesting project of teaching the 20th century through American novels, 1 per decade. That post proved to be quite popular, so I’m going to go ahead and continue the series!
There are just two criteria to respond to:
1) In the first post in this series, it was suggested that folks choose two possible texts, one being the canonical “dead white [straight/able-bodied] male” option and the other aimed at providing perspective from authors who might be differently gendered, queered, dis/abled, racialized, colonized, and so forth. I really like this strategy, since I see great value in both options, particularly since it’s always productive to read against the grain when teaching a canonical text as a means of resisting the dominating discourses of a given era. (To say nothing of the worst impulses of Cold War Criti- I mean, New Historicism).
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? Decidedly non-academic yet perfectly natural, wholesome, and not at all embarrassing literary crushes?
We’re moving on into the 1920s. The era of jazz! Flappers! Crazy stock market fortunes! Sarcastic-but-beautiful dames and dashing, daring, dastardly gents. The boys who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — stay down on the farm after a brief fling with Paris, the girls who sought the bright lights and furious pace of the city rather than leap blindly into “wedded bliss.” The era of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Pound, Eliot…and the first stirrings of the wonderfully vibrant Harlem Renaissance, showcasing the likes of Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Nella Larsen.
Those who know me best also know that I am an unapologetic Hemingway fan, and thus may be anticipating that I will choose either The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms. But while I consider both novels to be good within the context of the era, the first is also seriously over-hyped and is still “early” Hemingway, while the second has always just left me a little cold. Don’t get me wrong, I consider both to be fine novels, but not at the top of my list from the decade. Ditto Fitzgerald and Gatsby; I think that Scott is unparalleled as a writer during this decade, but Gatsbyhas moved from being a good novel to being a cultural artifact in its own right, and I really would not want to teach it in a survey course as such.
I do feel strongly that any novel included from the decade has to address the aftermath of World War I in terms of economics, the increasing romanticizing of urban life, and of course, race / gender politics. It seems to me to be a difficult task to find a novel that addresses all of those topics, at least in sufficient detail. I was tempted to let nostalgia for my Midwest prairie upbringing win out again, and pick Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, but although I did enjoy that novel the last time I read it, the characters occupy too much of a bourgeois bubble for me to really recommend it for teaching the sort of course I have in mind.
So, I’m going to go with two novels that, fittingly, take up experimental approaches to form and context: John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer and Jean Toomer’s Cane. The first novel neatly incorporates elements of stream-of-consciousness from Joyce and Woolf, while also dealing with the themes of urbanization, wealth, and the shifting cultural landscape of 1920s America. Toomer’s novel seems to me to be the perfect pairing, both in terms of formal experimentation — Toomer plays with poetry, prose and vignette-style techniques throughout the novel — as well as its participation in another crucial aspect of 1920s American culture, the Harlem Renaissance.
Any thoughts / choices of your own?