The Literature of America


Writing about Moby Dick yesterday, I said “Every American should read Moby Dick, it’s our great national epic and you can’t understand the country without it.” Kevin Drum is apparently a Moby hater and demands explanation of this claim.

This leaves me with two problems. One, I was being hyperbolic. Two, I really have no business writing about literature. That said, this comment from Bob McManus basically sums up my feelings about the great American novels:

Huckleberry Finn is good enough for the young ones. There is enough darkness and questioning there

America as psychotic idealism in Moby Dick or corrupt hypocrites as in Gatsby may need some maturation. Although there are even gentler versions of those themes in HF.

I would only say that that’s a bit too dyspeptic of a way to put it. America is the land of strivers, of people who believe in endless possibility, and where triumphs and tragedies spring from this endless reservoir of boundless desire. It’s the kind of place where a president boasting about his plan to expend vast resources on a avowedly pointless mission to the Moon can be remembered as a great moment in political rhetoric:

A country of more practical people probably wouldn’t get into so much trouble. But then again, in a world full of more practical countries perhaps nobody would have ever gone to the Moon. And it seems to me that that would have been a shame. Nevertheless, this is also the kind of country that might decide one day that it wants to try to bring good government to Afghanistan (?!?!) and create an effective centralized state there. Impressive if you can pull it off, but you’ve got to wonder.