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.

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