“Imagine a young man on his way to a less-than-thirty-second event--the loss of his left hand, long before he reached middle age.” –John Irving from The Fourth Hand.
Is the Golden Age of American Literature dead? The above quote is from the opening line of John Irving’s novel published in 2001. We all know what happened in September of that year and I can’t help but think that more than just the World Trade Center, along with America’s sense of national security, collapsed.
I found The Fourth Hand today in a second-hand store and immediately was drawn into it and had to buy it. I had read several of Irving’s novels earlier in my life and always came away from them with a sense of my life somehow being changed, embellished, and fascinating. Many of his contemporaries in the late 20th century also had the same effect upon me as a reader when I was studying for my Masters of Art in English, such as Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Ken Kesey, Paul Theroux and others just to name a few. But when I pick up a so-called best seller these days, I don’t find the same kind of compelling prose, meaningful narrative, and provocative insights into the complexities of the human experience that I used to cherish.
Instead, I usually unsatisfactorily discover banality, sensationalism, or superficiality that reflects, in my opinion, a generation of writers that grew up on MTV, vampires, zombies or tiresome, post-apocalyptic themes that do little to mirror life through art as I believe, and was taught, that excellent literature should do. What has gone wrong with this picture (or this book to be more precise)? Have serious authors retreated, along with the rest of American society in general, into a shell of self-denial, and sold out completely to the bottom line or is there nothing left to honestly say about our culture anymore?
Golden Ages of literature come and go. This is a historical fact. England had its with authors such as D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens and similar writers. In fact, England has had more than one Golden Age if you want to go as far back to the times of Shakespeare and Chaucer. Spain, of course, produced great writers during the Cervantes milieu and later with noteworthy authors such as Miguel de Unamuno and other contemporaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. South America had a more recent time when it bustled with magical realistic visionaries like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Cortazar, Isabel Allende and a plethora of other authors who injected new blood and perspectives into the literary world. You can also include Russia, France, Germany, Italy, and other countries that have passed through periods of producing great flowers of creative wordsmiths that withered away, devolving into thinly masked thriller composers (and I use the term derogatorily here) such as Stieg Larsson, J.K. Rowling, and even John le Carré, all fine writers but not philosophers by any stretch of the imagination.