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From Steinbeck to Steampunk: The Day the American Novel Died

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“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.

Toni Morrison in 1993 was the last American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. You have to go back to mid-century to find a stretch when authors such as Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Peal S. Buck, William Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Saul Bellow dominated the world literary scene. After that, foreign-born authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Czeslaw Milosz were awarded the highest honor for their work from the Swedish Academy for the United States. I see this is as no coincidence or prejudice in regards to American literature. We have just run out of meaningful things to say or to contribute besides murder, mayhem, legal thrillers or steam punk fiction.

My theory is that a country’s Golden Age of literature roughly corresponds to its positive, national self perception as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage in terms of economic dynamics, cultural influence, and raw creative potential in life, art, and politics. Using these parameters as a framework, American authors in general have become crippled, disembodied from their predecessors, and write with one hand tied behind their back. Resorting to using their feet to try to make themselves relevant, these writers kick below the belt to fight off the death rattle that has slowly suffocated their voices in a post- 9/11 world, one starving for an intelligentsia who can grapple with a new millennium, but settling for being force-fed terrorist and dystopian themes like those served up by Brad Thor or Suzanne Collins.

Is there not another way–a Fourth way–to follow? Or has American literature fallen victim to the natural cycle of the rise and fall of the Golden Age Syndrome?

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About John H. Byk