I had a couple of outstanding high-school teachers who introduced me to the idea of literature.
Susan Helle and Richard Holm introduced me to great American fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries — Melville, O’Connor, Faulkner — and more contemporary works by authors such as John Knowles, Graham Greene and Herman Hesse. “Mr. Holm” also drew me into the worlds of such geniuses as Shakespeare, Conrad and Dostoevsky and the poetry of Arlington, Eliot, Frost and more.
Until that point, I’d been a fan of science-fiction and other adventurous works of fiction, though my fantasy tastes were fairly narrow and discerning, mostly Tolkien and Le Guin. I also had read, on my own, everything from Solzhenitsyn (no, really!) to Agatha Christie.
I still read in all those genres — which, contrary to the comforting myths of snobbery, entail everything from schlock to literary masterpieces — as well as a great deal of nonfiction and “literary” fiction.
Recently I re-read “Look Homeward, Angel.” I found the book windy, sometimes tedious and sometimes fascinating, its characters lacking in richness and realism — and shot through with remarkably poetic flourishes. Though I did not notice it as a younger reader, I now see how much Wolfe influenced the even-more-poetic Ray Bradbury (as even he admitted).
“If I had 40,000 years, I would give all but the ninety last to silence. I should grow to the earth like a hill or a rock. Unweave the fabric of nights and days; unwind my life back to my birth; subtract me into nakedness again, and build me back with all the sums I have not counted. Or let me look upon the living face of darkness; let me hear the terrible sentence of your voice.”
Wolfe was so poetic that after his death, his great editor Maxwell Perkins took some of his passages and published them as poetry. But despite his stylistic richness, I can see why Wolfe may not hold up for modern audiences.
Wolfe, along with Hemingway, Steinbeck and eventually, Faulkner, captured my fancy as an literary icon in youth. Yet today, so many of the 20th-century writers I assumed would remain “essential” for my lifetime and beyond are all but forgotten or unheard of, especially by the young.
Steinbeck is still read even in high school, but more for his documentary approach to history (meaning, “The Grapes of Wrath”) than as a literary artist.
People still talk about Hemingway, but more as a celebrity than a writer, though his influence — like the Beatles, or Robert Heinlein in science-fiction — is undeniable, whether you are a fan or not; I find that his short fiction is considerably more accomplished and ingenious than any of his novel-length works (read “Big Two-Hearted River,” “Hills Like White Elephants” or “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and you’ll see what I mean).
Faulkner goes largely unread by the young, though he seems, to me, to be the lone 20th-century writer who may prove enduring on not just the American, but the world stage. He is a true genius, though a writer who requires a certain amount of exegesis to truly appreciate (those coming to him blind may find themselves wildly offended by what appears on the surface, for example in terms of racism, without ever understanding how he is subtly eviscerating such afflictions).
Meanwhile, the likes of Wolfe, Dos Passos, Flannery O’Connor Greene and Hesse are all but gone.
That’s sad, because so many of these writers — oddly, of the above examples, I’d put Wolfe near the bottom of the list — are so worth reading. They are universalists whose works transcend setting and time.
And who will be remembered among today’s American 50 years from now? Seriously. Opaque, challenging and difficult (and often rewarding) writers such as Pynchon, DeLillo, Toni Morrison? Or will, as happened with Dickens, writers like Stephen King somehow manage to be elevated and analyzed as literature rather than pop fiction, under whose label they were published?
Honestly, the candidates today are considerably thinner than the 20th century American lit, and I’m not sure any of the above are truly universal enough to warrant elevation to true, enduring classics.
It occurs to me that more than anything, this may simply reflect contemporary culture, in which popular music, film and videos reign supreme, and there is so much fiction published — after thorough meddling by agents and editors to ensure marketability; today Maxwell Perkins would have been fired for being so stupid as to think he could cultivate and nurture a writer of great potential like Wolfe — that this might simply herald the end of the age of literature.