As I was listening to a Minnesota Orchestra concert broadcast recently, a concert primarily of American music, I learned that when Osmo Vanska took the position of music director he began looking for American classical music to program. He’s taken the orchestra’s Composer Institute to new heights, nurturing up-and-coming composers. But I had not known that he’d purposefully begun a search for American classical music to conduct on subscription concerts. I was impressed. And pleased. That evening, the orchestra performed works by Jennifer Higdon and Howard Hanson.
What American fiction would I recommend enthusiastically to a non-American? (Besides my own, of course.) I started thinking of classic American fiction, but then wondered what criteria I needed to use for my recommendations. That the novel is written by an American or that it also conveys some truth or insight into Americans and their lives?
The first novel that popped into my mind was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Set in 1930’s Alabama, this story reveals two sides of American prejudice — the racist side and the non-racist — as seen through the eyes of a young girl, Scout Finch, during one memorable summer. Scout’s voice questions, observes, and states in a powerful cadence. The story endures and entertains.
After that, I was stumped until I thought of recommending only fiction I’d read myself. This eliminates John Updike, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth from my list, which doesn’t mean these guys aren’t worth reading, but only that I’m not comfortable putting them on my list because I haven’t read them.
I’ve read Madison Smartt Bell, though, and I’d highly recommend his work, especially The Year of Silence, a story of a suicide, which sounds depressing but it’s not. I thought of this story when I read it as a main character and her life in the middle of a series of concentric circles of other characters and their lives. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier for a lyrical path into life and love in the Civil War South. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner who wrote truths about the way we classify each other in our “classless” society. Staggerford by Jon Hassler for a glimpse at life in Minnesota and American small towns. Willa Cather’s My Antonia for life on the prairie in the 19th century. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for the horrors of a carnival in small town America — this book scared me more than anything else I’ve read whether in the horror genre or not. Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, which explore human rights.
I started to feel guilty about not including Roth, Bellow and Updike, so I turned to Ernest Hemingway whom I think of as a muscular American writer. He explored the American abroad but my favorite Hemingway novel is The Old Man and the Sea. Of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby which I’ve read four or five times in my life, but I’d personally recommend by the same author Tender is the Night. And then there’s Edith Wharton whose powerful character-driven stories, such as Ethan Frome or The Age of Innocence, offer portraits of a specific time and place created by the people inhabiting them.
One American writer focused on the dark side of human experience and behavior, revealing American character in criminality. I absolutely love Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and recommend The Talented Mr. Ripley to open the door to Tom Ripley’s world. These novels have inspired me quite a lot as I’ve worked on my Perceval novels. Evan Quinn owes a lot to Tom Ripley.
Lastly, the American short story: Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates, A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, and A Gravestone Made of Wheat by Will Weaver…..