Thursday, September 15, 2016

How to Be An American Writer, Part 9: Conclusion

In this series of blogs, I’ve talked about four different approaches that American writers have taken toward U.S. society:
1) Expatriates
2) Populists

3) Internal exiles
4) Critics and satirists

I don’t mean to suggest that these approaches are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think many U.S. writers partake of two or even all of these attitudes at one time or another in their literary careers. On the other hand, there are American writers who don’t fit into any of these categories.

In this blog, I’m going to try to make some generalizations and draw some conclusions about these four approaches.

The Balance among These Approaches Has Changed
An interesting sidelight to these four approaches is how the balance among them has changed over the years. In the 1920s, for instance, there were probably as many leading American writers living in Europe as in the United States. These days, there are very few expatriate writers, and even the ones who do live abroad often spend only half the year overseas. For instance, the poet Marilyn Hacker lives in Paris, but only part-time. Why this shift away from the expatriate writer?

The Expatriates Won
Well, for one thing, I think the expatriates won. They waged their struggle to convince Americans that the customs and tolerance of Europe and the Mediterranean are in many ways more conducive to the good life. Nowadays, almost every American city contains elements of what used to be only available in sophisticated Europe—a diversity of lifestyles, for example. Not to mention the espresso machine; the croissant; yogurt; shallots and radicchio; artisan goat cheeses; fine wine, beer, and liqueurs. And the profusion of art galleries. It’s not necessary anymore to be an expatriate to partake of all these pleasures. There’s a quite a lot of what you can get of Paris or Florence right at your local Whole Foods Store, café, or gallery.

But the Populists Are Now the Largest Group
Looking at the lists of American writers and which ones take which approach, I think it’s safe to say that the populists are by far the plurality now, if not an outright majority. Why? The resurgence of writing by women and by people of color and in the LGBTQ community has re-energized writing about moments that matter in everyday U.S. life and the stories of Americans. Not only that, the victory of the expatriates in terms of lifestyles has made it largely unnecessary for U.S. writers to go abroad in order to find the tolerance, sophistication, and artistic ambiance they sought in 1920s Paris. 

There Are Fewer Literary Satirists and Critics
I think the ranks of the satirists and critics have also thinned compared to previous decades. Television and the Internet have become more likely venues for satire and criticism than literature. Satire and criticism are so time constrained—what’s funny or politically astute this week is not necessarily even comprehensible in a few months. So why try to immortalize it in literature? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it has to be done now with more of an eye to what is universal in the satire or the criticism than was the case in the past. Literary reformers are sometimes the victims of their own success, and the conditions they protest change and sometimes even disappear.

So, Where Does This Leave American Writers?
Should we be booking passage on the next cruise ship to Europe in order to hang out at a Left Bank café? Should we wave the flag on Main Street? Should we retreat to a homestead where our only neighbors are grizzlies? Should we mercilessly mock all that is sacred in American life? The point of these blogs is not so much to recommend any of these approaches. Instead, I’m hoping that you will recognize in some of the writers I’ve discussed some impulses of your own, and come to know them better.

I think that each of the four approaches that I’ve described has its strengths and weaknesses, and we can learn something about our selves as writers from considering those.

Expatriates—Strengths and Weaknesses
The strengths of the expatriate, for instance, are sophistication and tolerance. The expatriate usually accepts a range of human facets and pursuits more comprehensive and accepting than what is often welcome in much of the United States. The weakness of the expatriate, from my standpoint, is that this stance can lean toward snobbism, or even elitism with regard to Main Street. There is a sort of disdain for the common American in some expatriates that risks losing what is genuine and democratic in the U.S. experience.
Read more about U.S. expatriate writers >

Populists—Strengths and Weaknesses
The strong point of the populist, on the other hand, is an appreciation for exactly the quality that the expatriate is somewhat indifferent to—the authenticity, camaraderie, and egalitarian impulses of America. Along with the populist attitude goes enthusiasm for the diversity of U.S. society. The weak spot of the populist, I would say, is a certain naïveté, a willingness to ignore what is materialistic and gruff in American society.
Read more about U.S. populist writers >

Internal Exiles—Strengths and Weaknesses
The forte of the internal exile is uncompromising, high principles. The internal exile has the ability to tell the truth about America’s destructive and overly mercantile tendencies. Sometimes the internal exile has an inspiring prophetic side. The internal exile is also sometimes an advocate for nature over wanton human development. The downside of the internal exile is a sort of misanthropy—painting all of the urban experience with a brush that is too wide and too negative. I think some internal exiles are open to the criticism that they are blind to the benefits of diversity in the United States.
Read more about U.S. internal exile writers >

Satirists and Critics—Strengths and Weaknesses
The satirist or critic’s strong point is being able to instruct at the same time he or she makes us laugh. The satirist does not let cultural icons go unchallenged. There is a bravery in that willingness to take on the powers that be. The Achilles’ heel of the satirist, for me, is an occasional blindness to the small, meaningful moments that the populist celebrates. There can also be elitist undertones to some satires or criticisms of American life.
Read more about U.S. writers who are satirists and critics >


Whichever approach to being an American writer feels familiar and comfortable, consider learning from the other approaches as well. Whatever the approach, it’s crucial to appreciate what is true in the other viewpoints.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Be an American Writer, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 8: Satirists and Critics

The last approach to being an American writer that I’d like to discuss is the satirist or the critic. These writers do engage directly with the American mainstream, unlike the expatriate or the internal exile, for instance. But the critics and satirists paint the United States in order to hold up a mirror and show the blemishes, often to hilarious effect.

I’d say the best known U.S. writer satirist/critic is Mark Twain, who had an uncanny ability to mimic the speech and the foibles of the common man or woman.

One of my favorite parts of Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is his portrayal of Tom Sawyer’s gullible Aunt Sally. Aunt Sally is trying to figure out how the leg of the bed in Jim’s prison was sawed off, when Jim was locked in a room with no saw. In reality, Tom Sawyer did the sawing—is that a pun? Here is Aunt Sally’s description of the situation:

“You may well say it, Brer Hightower!  It’s jist as I was a-sayin’ to Brer Phelps, his own self.  S’e, what do you think of it, Sister Hotchkiss, s’e? Think o’ what, Brer Phelps, s’I?  Think o’ that bed-leg sawed off that a way, s’e?  think of it, s’I?  I lay it never sawed itself off, s’I—somebody sawed it, s’I; that’s my opinion, take it or leave it, it mayn’t be no ’count, s’I, but sich as ’t is, it’s my opinion, s’I, ‘n’ if any body k’n start a better one, s’I, let him do it, s’I, that’s all.”

What a gift for rendering the Mississippi Valley dialect Twain had! As much as Twain makes fun of the common man and woman, though, and the gullibility of Americans, you do get the sense that he is in some ways a populist. His poking fun is often done out of a democratic impulse to nudge the masses toward greater awareness, and not out of a deeper cynicism about the U.S.

Other notable American satirists or critics:

On the poetry side, Edward Arlington Robinson, author of “Miniver Cheevy.” Robinson had a knack for finding the underside of different fates. 

e.e.cummings, particularly in poems such as “pity this busy monster, manunkind,” showed the materialistic and insensitive face of U.S. society. 

On the fiction side, Sinclair Lewis, a novelist whose work was extremely important for my parents’ generation. Lewis, one of the few Americans to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is not read as much today as he was two generations ago, but he produced some scathing satires of small-town American life, including the novels Babbitt and Main Street. His dystopian fiction about fascism taking over an all-American community, It Can’t Happen Here, published in 1935, might well be a prophetic glimpse at the regional surge of extreme right politics outside of urban America.

Sinclair Lewis, author of It Can't Happen Here and other novels
NathanaelWest, author of Miss Lonelyhearts, mocked the shallowness of popular American culture.

I think some of the recent American women novelists are critics of American society, such as Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres, and the excellent novellas, Ordinary Love & Good Will, which both shine a flashlight on tender spots in American culture. 

There’s also Jane Hamilton, who wrote the novel A Map of the World, a scathing critique of the prejudices and limitations of Middle America—in the world of that novel, if you make one false move, you become an anathema.

Ishmael Reed is a wonderful satirist who critiques American society with African American funk in mind in such novels as Mumbo Jumbo. Reed is also a poet, essayist, and playwright, one of the few writers who excels in all those genres.


Ishmael Reed, author of Mumbo Jumbo and many other books
We could add to the satirists John Kennedy Toole, who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces (a book I’ve never been able to finish, I have to admit).

In the nonfiction category, there’s Tom Wolfe, who pokes fun at the American intelligentsia and other aspects of U.S. life in such books as Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers and The Painted Word.

The satirist or critic challenges the American mainstream. Unlike the populist writer, he or she doesn’t see the U.S. experience as a source of wisdom or epiphanies about the meaningful, small moments of everyday life. Critics and satirists are taking aim at American society, often with either a humorous or reformist intent, but highlighting the sides of U.S. culture that are deserving of scrutiny or even mockery.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Be an American Writer, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

Monday, September 5, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 7: Internal Exiles

Now we come to the third approach of American writers to U.S. society, which I would call the internal exile. Unlike the expatriates, who discover an alternative home in another country, and who find that the American experience compares in important ways unfavorably to the values and culture of that other place, the internal exile rejects any homeland outside the U.S. The internal exile digs deeply into the American soil, but on his or her own, in isolation from the larger society.

Emily Dickinson
The most famous example of this sort of writer might be Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Dickinson had a brief stint as a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College). She was more or less hounded out of that school after being categorized as “hopeless” by the administration because she was impervious to the religious fundamentalism that was the order of the day. This was the period of the Second Great Awakening, then hurricaning through New England. Here the Puritan tradition resurfaced in its insistence on spiritual conformity. 

Emily Dickinson
After leaving Mount Holyoke, Dickinson kept to her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was actually the congressman from this district, so Dickinson’s nonconformist views on religion, love, and women’s roles would be controversial and possibly damaging to her father’s career.

For example, Dickinson wrote:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

What more eloquent statement could there be of the individual’s right to communicate directly with the Spirit, and to see the divine directly in nature?

In a remarkable essay on Dickinson, “Vesuvius at Home,” Adrienne Rich makes a convincing case that Dickinson understood the explosive nature of her rebellion, and that that Dickinson deliberately kept to her home to protect the revelation of her poetry and her ideas. “I have a notion that genius knows itself;” writes Rich, “that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

I think Rich is right that Dickinson’s reticence to share her poetry was not the withdrawal of a dry school marm but a savvy choice. Dickinson had the shelter of her family’s home as a writer’s retreat—so long as her work didn’t embarrass or disgrace her father and her other relatives. Dickinson’s best choice for publishing and preserving her nonconformist poems was to turn them into a sort of time capsule. That way her poems could be read, understood, and appreciated in a future century—which they are.

Robinson Jeffers
Another writer I would classify as an internal exile is the poet Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962). It seems that internal exiles tend to be poets. Poets are not given to compromise, and it takes an uncompromising and independent spirit to choose and to flourish in internal exile.

In 1912, Jeffers had an affair with a married woman who was older than he was, Una Call Kuster, the wife of a prominent Los Angeles attorney. The liaison was so scandalous that it was featured on the front page of the L.A. Times. Jeffers and Uma fled to Carmel on the California coast, where Jeffers helped design and construct Tor House, a refuge from the humdrum, modern world. Jeffers lugged and mortared many of the stones himself that were used in the construction of the tower.

Along this rugged coast, Jeffers retreated and wrote many of his poems.  

Maybe the poem of Jeffers’ that most embodies the outlook of the internal exile is “Shine, Perishing Republic.” This poem typifies the critical view of the internal exile toward the larger American society:

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
     center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
     are left the mountains.

Gary Snyder
Another internal exile is still living today. I’m referring to Gary Snyder (1930– ), a poet and essayist of the Beat Generation. Gary lives in a house called Kitkitdizze, in the foothills of Sierra Nevada Mountains in California in a house he also helped to construct. He deliberately chose for his home an area that had been heavily logged, in an effort to reclaim and nourish the land. The architecture style borrows from both Japanese homes and Native American lodges. The house is only accessible by a three-mile, unpaved road. For many years, Snyder pumped all the water they used by hand. His family had only an outhouse.

Of course, there are many other facets to Gary Snyder that don’t relate to the idea of an internal exile: he had a long teaching career, very connected to his students at University of California, Davis; he lived abroad in Japan and is in many ways global in his outlook; he was part of the camaraderie of the Beat Generation and close to that group of writers. But I think that there is an edge to Gary Snyder’s writing that is very skeptical about contemporary American culture, an edge that would allow for him to be called an internal exile of sorts. 

John Haines
I believe we can add to the list of internal exiles, the Alaskan writer John Haines (1924–2011). Haines, poet and essayist, lived for twenty years on a homestead outside of Fairbanks. Here’s an excerpt from a poem by John Haines, The Sweater of Vladimir Ussachevsky,” that I think speaks to the view of the internal exile toward the larger society. It’s spoken in the voice of a frontiersman visiting New York City:

The old Imperial sun has set, 
and I must write a poem to the Emperor. 
I shall speak it like the man 
I should be, an inhabitant of the frontier, 
clad in sweat-darkened wool, 
my face stained by wind and smoke. 

The speaker sees himself as apart from the political and economic center, but in that distance there is room to critique the mainstream. In the poetry of this internal exile, there is a sense of belonging to a different polis, a different community from the one that is generally acknowledged as established. I think we see this in Jeffers’ and Snyder’s work as well.

The populist believes in the inherent goodness of American life, but the internal exile doubts it. The internal exile may believe that redemption lies elsewhere—maybe in nature, maybe in Native American or other cultures, maybe in a more resonant past or a more utopian future.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 6: Populist Writers: the Beat Generation, Women Fiction Writers, and African American Writers

To continue the thread of the last two blogs, which talked about populist writers Walt Whitman and Thornton Wilder, I’m going to discuss other groups of American writers who I’m viewing as gathered under the populist umbrella.

A populist writer is not just one who writes about the United States, but a writer who believes that American life is a source of good, knowledge, and redemption. That’s why I’m not including in this particular post excellent writers such as Jane Smiley or Jane Hamilton, for instance. I think their view of American society is more pessimistic than the populists. I’ll talk about their writing in an upcoming blog.

Among other populist writers, we could add the playwright Arthur Miller, who dealt with ordinary Americans in some of his plays. Miller raised the lives of working people to the level of tragedy, a genre of literature that was formerly the domain of kings. I’m thinking in particular of his plays Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge—the latter play I analyzed in a blog earlier this year.

I’d also include as populists some of the writers of the Beat Generation, especially Jack Kerouac for On the Road, a book about discovering the hidden beauty of freeway America and the heartland.

I’d include many African American writers as populists, since a number of these authors are also champions of everyday Americans. I’m thinking of fiction writers Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, for example; and poets Langston Hughes, June Jordan, and Sekou Sundiata. Ishmael Reed I'm saving for the blog on satirists—I see his sensibility differently.

The explosion of women’s fiction in the U.S. in the last several decades often has a populist impulse, finding extraordinary truths in the lives of people often considered ordinary. Some examples would be the writing of Ann Beattie, Elizabeth Berg, Sandra Cisneros, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Patchett, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout, Amy Tan, and Anne Tyler. Those authors focus on the intimate moments of American life that lead to large epiphanies. 

Ann Patchett
There are some male fiction writers who think along similar lines, such as Raymond Carver, definitely a detective searching for the small moments in American households that resonate deeply.

What’s interesting about the literary populism that has come out of the last several decades is that it’s not always an affirmation of all of American life. It’s sometimes an affirmation of a particular slice of American life, a slice often defined by the author’s race, ethnicity, national origin, class, gender, sexuality, etc. It’s a populism with an edge, a populism that overlaps with the critical approaches to American life that I’m going to discuss in the blogs that follow.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Be an American Writer, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8