Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Challenge - "Who Do You Think Is The Greatest American Writer If It's Not Twain?"

I am challenged to say who the best American author is.  Which I can't say as I've never read everyone who wrote while American.  Like everyone except my incredibly well-read niece and my late friend who was the only person I've ever known who outread her - she was in her 90s, I've never even read everything you're supposed to have read.   If the question were who do I think is the greatest of those I've read, that isn't hard to say, Emily Dickinson is at least heads if not also narrow shoulders above everyone else.

Others on the top ten would include, not in any particular order,  Tony Morrison, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter and Marilynne Robinson, William James, John Steinbeck, and Eugene O'Neill.  I don't consider the category to be limited to those who wrote novels or fiction, plays or poetry.

I am not one of those who say that Huckleberry Finn is the "greatest American novel," not by a long shot.  Marilynne Robinson's recent novel Lila is its superior, as were the two other "Gilead" novels. She is a far better writer than Mark Twain.  I'd say that among his contemporaries, Herman Melville was a better writer and far less conventional in his thinking.  Though I am not, then,  a slavish devotee of Moby Dick.

Mark Twain was certainly capable of greatness but he wasn't able to sustain it throughout a novel and often dispensed with it completely in his short pieces, especially those he wrote late in life when the deaths of his son, first one then, near the end, another of his daughters and his wife made him angry and bitter.  I have to conclude that far from being a religious non-conformist, he was entirely caught up in one of the worst of Calvinist errors, believing that good luck in this life is a sign of election. When the typical 19th century disasters of losing children young and of losing a wife at the not old but older than average age of 58 struck him, along with his bankruptcy (his own fault, the results of his greed and ignorance) and other tragedies and hardships struck, he reacted with anger and disappointment and denial instead of learning from them.  Considering how intelligent he was that choice is especially disappointing.

Robinson's novel Home, in which the old and dying Presbyterian [Twain was raised a Presbyterian] minister Reverend Robert Boughton is facing the vicissitudes of his ending life and the tragic waywardness of his son Jack, is deeper than anything in any of Twain's novels.  Jack's common-law marriage to a black woman with whom he can't live openly to raise the son he loves is a far more complex, far more subtle and instructive redemption than what Huck Finn goes through.  And it is far more meaningful than Twain's Huck can articulate, perhaps more than Twain was capable of.

Mark Twain choosing to put his best novel into the mind and understanding of a boy was a bad choice.  I'd much rather have heard what the adult Jim was thinking about things.  I don't know if anyone ever tried to write that book, especially a Black American author, but if one of them did, I'd certainly read it.  Only, if someone does, I hope they get rid of Tom Sawyer and that stupid ending Twain gave the story.   I do have to say that I find the huge corpus of lit'rature put into the mind and words of imaginary boys to have gotten really stale and old.  Even one told from the POV of a girl is less tedious, though it's still a self-limiting choice.   Having the story, Lila, start out in the mind of the girl who would become Lila, a child more absolutely destitute than Huckleberry Finn, develops as the novel continues into the mind and experience of the adult and very experienced woman.  We never get Huck Finn grown up to have an adult's understanding of even his own experience.

The scene in which Boughton's oldest friend, the Congregationalist minister John Ames, for whom Jack was named, the wayward son's godfather, comes to give his dying friend communion is one of the most intensely moving passages in any book by anyone writing in English I'm aware of.  I don't know if Twain was uninhibited enough to write something like that.  I think he would have thought it was unmanly, as would a lot of his intellectual inferiors who write hagiographic criticism.

I don't know but that I think William Borroughs or Henry Miller might be the worst of those presented as distinguished or significant but if I haven't read enough to know who the best is, the contenders for worst are so many that I suspect I don't event know who that actual worst one might be.  Well, there is Simps but, then, there are also Drudge and Dowd. Some of the worst are bad enough to at least be mildly amusing on account of their stupidity but that doesn't go far.  Especially when the jokey jokes are so old and chemical filled.  Such stuff is like those legendary Twinkies that never really rot but were never edible to start with.

P.S. I should note that "Home" is told through the mind of Boughton's youngest daughter, Glory, which is an interesting choice.  You get her take on some of the same things that John Ames narrates in the first of the novels in the series, "Gilead".   Glory is able to both understand and wonder about things as a middle-aged adult and to articulate so much more than a young boy would have believably been presented as understanding.  An adult can have the same thoughts as a child, a child can't possibly know enough to think like a mature adult.   I think if there's one thing America needs, it's to grow up.

Update:  Oh, give me a friggin' break.  Read the novels.  Put Lila, Doll, Glory, John Ames, Robert Boughton, Jack, even Teddy who makes a brief appearance up against the entire cast of major characters in Twain and you'll see the difference between full characters and cartoons.   Huckleberry Finn is about the only substantial character he ever wrote and he's a cartoon most of the time.  So is Jim.

Update Two:  I haven't decided whether or not to post the stupid comment by Simple Simels in which he makes the claim, "American literature begins with NAKED LUNCH" only, if that's the case, what's his beef with what I said about Henry Miller and Mark Twain?   I suppose it's Simp's idea of a joke, only, in that case, I wonder who was so stupid as to have said it in the first place.

Heaven help us.  If Borroughs hadn't murdered his wife he'd probably have never had a "literary" career.   Perhaps it's a relief for Simps that someone was so much more of an a asshole than he is.

And, yes, I was aware that this would set such dopes off.  I've got to have my fun, too, I'll resume serious writing when this cold lifts.

Update Three:  Well, you silly billy, I'm not the only person who said that if Borroughs hand't murdered his wife he'd probably have never had a "literary" career, this was said by the ultimate expert on that topic:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.

Yeah, right.  You ask me he killed her because their marriage was on the rocks, he'd started sleeping around with other women and men and she'd taken to insulting him while she was high on speed. And, once his brother sprung him by bribing the Mexican cops and officials, he figured he'd cash in on the possibility of turning his murder of her into a literary career.  And it worked.  So much of modernism is run on amoral and not unoften violent thrill seeking and vicarious thrill seeking.  It wasn't his writing ability that made his career as he had none.

Update Four:  Simps, when I can hire a copy editor you'll be last on the list.


  1. My answer to the challenge would be: "Who cares?" Deciding who is the "best ever" is a mug's game. Children play it, not serious readers. I like lots of writers for lots of different reasons.

    Why should I decide which among them was "the best"? What's the point?

    Though I'm gonna have to read the novels you mentioned. Like I say, I like a lot of different writers.

    1. When I'm this miserable with a cold I get really ornery.

      I did ask my niece who her favorite writer was, she said, these days, it's Nabokov, she's read everything he wrote. Her favorite of his is Pale Fire WITH THE FOOTNOTES. A lot of people leave those out, she said. She said that who her favorite is changes. She's 23 and has read more than most people three times her age.

  2. Oh, and the scenes in Lila where she is waiting for the birth of her child gave me insight into something I couldn't possibly know or could have imagined considering before. I've read the Gilead books several times, they are some of the best novels I know.

  3. "Update Four: Simps, when I can hire a copy editor you'll be last on the list."

    You couldn't afford me.

    1. You couldn't put your price low enough to be worth it. Not even if you used the most devalued currency in the world to set it. I'd make a joke about your setting that in Dongs but that would only encourage you to expose your inner 12-year-old.