Read, Right, and New? Some American Traits in Fiction

Which works of literature feature protagonists who embody the American character? And what are some traits of a “typical” American?

Henry James, I think, tried to answer that second question in The American. After all, he didn’t name his excellent 1877 novel Christopher Newman Goes to France.

Newman is a “New Man” compared to Europeans living in an older civilization, as well as “An American in Paris” who’s wealthy, self-made, entrepreneurial, generous, mobile, confident, curious, open, honest, direct, unpretentious, unsophisticated (at first), and good-natured (most of the time).

Henry James was on to something there, but Newman is missing most of the negative traits that are also part of the American pysche (more on those traits later). Also, Newman is just one person, and obviously no single person is ever truly representative of an entire population. In addition, many people who aren’t American also had and have Newman’s traits. Finally, the American psyche may have changed quite a bit since 1877, so is Newman outdated as a prototypical U.S. personality?

That said, I still thought it would be interesting to name a number of literary works starring protagonists who might be thought of as quintessentially American. Then I’ll ask you to chime in, because the U.S. is a democracy, right? Well, sort of. 🙂

Doing this in roughly chronological fashion, I’ll start with James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels, published between 1823 and 1841. They star Natty Bumppo (under various nicknames such as “The Pathfinder”), who’s a noble example of the frontiersman/pioneer that’s so much a part of the American mythos. He does depart from “the norm” in certain ways, such as being friendlier to (some) Native Americans than most white men of his time and being much more talkative than the typical taciturn loner living in the woods of the 1700s and the prairie of the early 1800s.

The characters in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a 1985 novel set in the circa-1850 American West, remind us of more nightmarish U.S. traits: over-the-top machismo, land grabs cloaked in “Manifest Destiny,” the massacre of Native Americans, etc. We’re not talking Bonanza‘s Ben Cartwright here!

Staying in the 1800s but moving to Mark Twain, his co-authored The Gilded Age spotlights such character flaws as hucksterism and naked greed, and his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn focuses on loyalty, boyhood pluckiness, and racism in the South (and by extension everywhere in the U.S.). All of which reminds us of how Americans like and don’t like to see themselves.

More on the very American traits of bigotry and trying to deal with that bigotry can be found in the people populating Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, and countless other works.

Another 19th-century frontier was the sea, and various Melville characters reflect how some Americans thirst for adventure and “exotic” places — not only in Moby-Dick, but in Melville novels such as Typee, Omoo, Redburn, and White-Jacket. That author also addressed U.S. imperialism and colonialism in some of his works, but later novelists — such as Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible — would do that more explicitly.

Kingsolver’s hateful missionary Nathan Price is one example of how the U.S. is more religious than most other western countries. Literature does have sincerely spiritual characters, such as the proselytizing but well-meaning Jean Marie Latour in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, the Rev. John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Jim Casy in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the Quakers in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (with the latter two novels also displaying how some Americans strongly fight injustice). But then you have narrow-minded and/or hypocritical religious people in novels like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

Lewis also took a stab at depicting the quintessential U.S. businessman in Babbitt, whose titular character is at first a conformist, money-obsessed workaholic but eventually exhibits the also-very-American traits of restlessness and dissatisfaction.

Joe Christmas of William Faulkner’s Light in August is also an intensely American character — uncertain of his ancestry, a wanderer who doesn’t put down roots, a man who reinvents himself, and a man who partly works “off the books,” as a bootlegger.

Another character with a bootlegger background is Jay Gatsby — whose ill-gotten gains, conspicuous consumption, and single-minded drive to enter high society help make F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby an emblematic novel of “The American Dream.”

The dream to come to America and adapt to the land of “rugged individualism” suffuses characters in immigration-themed literature such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Again, the many traits mentioned above are by no means exclusively American (heck, look at religious hypocrite Brocklehurst in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and religious fool William Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). But perhaps some traits are more pronounced in U.S. citizens — including the loud and crude yet endearing Chuck Mumpson, who has an odd-couple relationship with England-loving American professor Virginia Miner in Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs. Unsavory or downright corrupt political leaders can also be found everywhere, but a particularly American version is the Huey Long-like Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

The authors I’ve named are mostly U.S.-born, but of course many fiction writers from other countries have created American characters and looked at the American psyche. Two examples include Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, whose titular protagonist travels to the U.S.; and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, set in the early days of The Vietnam War.

Which literary characters and works do you think showcase American traits? And, in your opinion, what are those traits, anyway? (I realize several of you who regularly read and comment here don’t reside in the U.S.!)

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else. Also, please feel free to read through comments and reply to anyone you want; I love not only being in conversations, but also reading conversations in which I’m not involved!)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

196 thoughts on “Read, Right, and New? Some American Traits in Fiction

  1. Dave, I must admit that I never thought I’d get involved in a discussion about “romantic suspense” novels with someone as apparently much more learned than I than njNY. However, I think that is the basis of your columns, which is that most of us have a preference about what books we read. Off the top of my head, I know that there are some who prefer to read non-fiction, and you know my preference for reading memoirs. The overriding feeling that I get from your columns is that there are those of us who’d rather read a good book, whatever the supposed genre, that is the most important.

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    • As an NYC resident of several decades duration, I must take exception to your mangling of my moniker, lest I be mistaken, even if through innocent accident, for a person living, if you can call such base existence ‘living’, in the Garden State like poor Dave Astor.

      But seriously, Kat Lib, I enjoyed learning new authors and titles from you, and I look forward to further exchanges.

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      • Kat Lib, you’ve identified a wonderful thing about this blog. We may have similar book preferences or we may have different book preferences, but we all love to read (and we all know a lot about books)!

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        • jhNY, LOL!!! New Jersey does lack some of the advantages of NYC — where I lived for 15-plus years. But we do have the restaurant where Tony Soprano might or might not have been killed in that show’s final episode. (In real life it’s the Holsten’s ice-cream parlor, about a mile from my apartment.)

          Also, George Washington slept in various places in New Jersey, and might have even been awake for a few minutes here and there.

          I could go on and on, but I think I’ve proved that NJ is one of the top 50 or so states…

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          • jhNY, I forgot to add a “brief” for the “NYC-ness” of my NJ town of Montclair: a very “blue” suburb, many residents formerly of NYC, one-third African-American, six train stations, dozens of ethnic restaurants, a jazz club, an art museum, a playhouse, many of the homes 90-120 years old, numerous apartments, home of Stephen Colbert, and possessing a (distant) view of the Empire State Building about 15 miles away. I think NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio is tall enough to see from here, too…

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            • I am sorry to hear you live in a place so morally bereft– I have seen blue movies in tiny rundown theaters before, but to think an entire suburban town is overrun by such smut is chilling indeed.

              Six train stations would make sense, if five were exit only, given your surroundings.

              Am pleased, however, that you boast a view of the Empire State building. Gives your town a landmark of note to ponder from afar.

              As for that De Blasio remark– a tangential thought: ever consider that Red Lobster has been losing market share daily since the departure of Mike Bloomberg? It’s the breakdown of guerilla marketing synergy– The restaurant chain and he had a closed loop of association. They’d advertise ‘endless shrimp’ and we’d vote for the guy even after his term limit had expired. Then he’d propose something intrusively life-affirming, and Red Lobster, having promoted his eternal mayoralty in their catch-phrase, would receive the benefit of our trade. He’s gone; they’re going downhill. It’s all connected.

              De Blasio is a physical manifestation of just how endless the reign of the ‘endless shrimp’ felt to us by reign’s end. We had a Jeff so long we rushed headlong for a Mutt, who I fervently hope will prove a Mutt in appearance only.

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              • Ha ha — a “blue” town! I did see an “X” at various railroad crossings…

                Our six trains stations have exits, entrances, and (I think) tracks.

                Unfortunately, we can now see not only the Empire State Building but that World Trade Center-replacement boondoggle.

                Your Bloomberg/Red Lobster riff left me shell-shocked with admiration. 🙂 But I have scant admiration for the ex-mayor; often an elitist jerk.

                Nice “Mutt and Jeff” comic strip reference! If mayoral height keeps going in the same direction, perhaps a New York Knick will succeed de Blasio…

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                • I was myself no fan of Our Eternal Mayor, and consider the obeisant press coverage of the man, his business and his tenure in public office to be a scandal of omission and misdirection. Perhaps all the local reporters were thinking later job prospects in a shrinking business….

                  Because I couldn’t remember who was tall and who wasn’t, Looked the two up on Wikipedia, and learned some interesting facts: Mutt+Jeff were among the first of all comic strips, and its author, Bud Fisher, was cagey enough to have copyrighted the strip– including his name– so that the strip became portable, and could not be assigned to other artists by the newspaper should the author wish to leave– which he did, for better money, a few times. But cagey as a business man, Fisher was not nearly so industrious as a draftsman and hired over the course of the strip’s long run several artists to do the actual drawing work. One early such artist was my hero, George Herriman, later of Krazy Kat fame. Another: a young Maurice Sendak!

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                  • You’re right — the mainstream media gave Mayor Bloomberg mostly admiring coverage, even as he greatly exacerbated income equality in NYC, treated people of color dismissively (with “stop and frisk” being an example), etc., etc.

                    If some local reporters wanted to keep their options open to get hired by Bloomberg News, good luck to them. I know people who worked there, and they found it to be a white-collar sweatshop.

                    Some facts you found out about “Mutt and Jeff” were familiar to me, but others weren’t. Maurice Sendak and the immortal George Herriman worked on “M&J”? Wow! I knew one of the very last artists to draw “M&J” — North Carolina-based George Breisacher, a really nice guy who died too soon.

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                    • While reading the London review of Books today, I learned something else related to George Herriman– though the article concerned ee cummings, poet.

                      Seems that the big inspiration for ee’s use of lower-case letters only was archie and mehitabel, the famous pair written up by Don Marquis. And archie, though a miraculously able writer for a cockroach, never used caps because he couldn’t depress the shift key and a letter key simultaneously. The Marquis columns, and later the books, were illustrated by: George Herriman.

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                    • Fascinating cummings/Marquis connection, jhNY! I hadn’t known that.

                      I read a delightful “archie and mehitabel” book a few months ago, and greatly enjoyed the Herriman illustrations.

                      As you might know, Herriman is thought to have been partly African-American, but hid it during a more-racist time when that would have been career disaster for him.

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                    • thread’s exhausted, so– yep, I did know of Herriman’s mixed ancestry– I believe he was originally from New Orleans, where his family might have been considered Creole, but I think I remember too he never went back….

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                    • Yes, it was indeed New Orleans, jhNY.

                      As you also might know, the brilliant “Krazy Kat” didn’t have a huge number of newspaper clients during its 1913-1944 run (if I’m remembering the years correctly). The strip was too offbeat for some unimaginative newspaper editors. But the usually despicable William Randolph Hearst liked Herriman’s comic, and made sure it stayed in syndication.

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                    • Went back to my London Review and read the rest of its article on ee cummings, who, as it turns out, was not the least bit of a nice man on the subject of Jews– he was one of the very few of Pound’s friends to correspond with him during the war, and included in the article is one creepy letter to Pound and also a paragraph of anti-Semitic vileness that are most off-putting.

                      On the plus side, such as it is,: he loved George Herriman’s Krazy Kat like krazy, and wrote the introduction to the very first book of Krazy Kat strips published in the early 40’s.

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          • In truth, NJ looms up in the rearview of my family– my father’s people, his father’s side, arriving here in ones and twos in the early 20’s, initially gathered themselves in: Trenton, site of a Revolutionary War battle and home of the deathless phrase ‘Trenton makes and the world takes.’ A relative still walks among you there to this very day.

            Had a chance to work for the Trenton Times back in the 70’s, when the Washington Post sent people with some promise– but not that much promise– there for seasoning. I stuck with the big league club, and eventually left the game when writers such as myself would not honor a picket line of striking pressmen. Most of them were deaf– an asset, or at least not a deficit, in the deafening press room– and several among them, congenitally deaf, were third-generation in the job. Couldn’t see working among folks who couldn’t find sufficient compassion among themselves to support the handicapped. Yep, I was young and full of notions.

            Pretty sure Trenton, like the Washington Post, got along fine without me.

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            • Ah, Trenton — I have three cousins who work/worked there and live near there (Hamilton Township), so I know the area well.

              “Trenton makes and the world takes”…tomato pies (aka pizza). 🙂

              The Trenton Times was always a pretty mediocre newspaper. Probably even worse now, if it still exists.

              Good for you to honor that Washington Post picket line, a principled act that employers lacking principles find hard to forgive.

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            • I have read a lot of his children’s stories, but mainly he writes about identity issues: one doesn’t know who he or she is, or has trouble remembering his or her identity. “Missing Person,” about a person with amnesia trying to regain the past, has a famous sentence about collecting: “It certainly seemed everything ended with old chocolate or biscuit or cigar boxes.”

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              • Thanks, Eric, for that great sum-up of Modiano’s work! I might give him a try, though I suppose with his Nobel win today there will be run on his books in my local library — if that library stocks his books.

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                  • Oh, of course, Modiano might not be widely enough known outside of France to be translated that much into English (yet). Very good observation, Eric. I have to ask my wife, who’s a French professor, if she knows his work. (She’s asleep now.)

                    From what I read, Haruki Murakami was also on “the short list” for the Nobel.

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                    • I hope Murakami does win soon, Eric. I’ve only read one of his novels (“After Dark”), but was impressed. (And I realize it wasn’t one of his “major” efforts.) Also, I’m guessing there haven’t been many Nobel Prize for Literature winners from Japan. I just checked the list on the Nobel site, and it doesn’t give country names for the winners without clicking on each name.

                      Also, I think Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy (among others) deserve that prize one of these days.

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                    • As a member of the English Literary Society of Japan, people might be angry if I wasn’t familiar with great Japanese literature translated into English, now that I am living here.

                      In 1968, Yasunari kawabata won for works like “Snow Country, in which a common man falls for a geisha. The work was considered very lyrical, almost on the level of Fitzgerald, but the difference between lyrical Japanese literature is usually in rhyme whereas Fitzgerald;’s lyrical harmony in writing stemmed from his ability to use iambic pentameter in ordinary prose making it extra-ordinary.There are books written about translating works from one language to another and even the Haiku loses its “majesty” when translated into English.

                      As for Kenzaburo Oe in 1994, he won for combining myth and reality, similar to gabriel garcia Marquez, and for writing very overtly sexual material after WW2 in which he placed foreigners in powerful positions and Japanese women as defenseless creatures. His other works relate to people on the fringe of society either socially, politically, or economically, and combines stark reality with despair.

                      I have so much on my plate right now with school and casual reading, I wish I had the time to read all that I want: I guess I will wait for winter vacation to catch up on everything I want to read.

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                    • Eric, thanks for all the terrific information about the Nobel-winning work of Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe! Your comparison of those authors to Fitzgerald and Garcia Marquez gives me a sense of just how extraordinary they must be.

                      And, yes, if we only had more reading time. In that respect, I’m sure you’re greatly looking forward to your winter vacation!

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      • My heartfelt apology, jhNY, as someone living across the river from Trenton! I had just earlier been commenting on an article on Salon.com about how Chris Christie is still being taken seriously as a candidate for the presidency in 2016. Poor Dave Astor, indeed. 🙂 I too look forward to further exchanges with you.

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        • Kat Lib, “poor” does describe my income. 🙂

          Chris Christie still being taken seriously as a 2016 presidential candidate boggles the mind. Corrupt, mean, only cares about the rich (despite his fake-populist persona), and a lot less competent than he likes to think of himself. Actually, maybe those are typical attributes for most politicians these days (especially Republicans but also including a lot of Democrats).

          Chris Christie’s good points? Well…um…his name is alliterative…

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          • Another good point: he can now reach all the way into his own pocket, thanks to weight loss. Bad point: he will not, as he has become accustomed to reaching into those of his surrounding benefactors. Badder point: he dropped not an ounce of his badgering personality, even though, after weight loss, he looks a lot less like one.

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            • I’m sure his weight-loss surgery was more a political act than a health act. (As an aside, Chris Christie is still rather heavy, which would doom a female candidate in our still very sexist society.)

              Yes, Christie has his super-rich pals who think, because he’s right wing rather than RIGHT WING, that he has a shot at the presidency (despite unforgivable things like “Bridgegate”) and thus they can get a return on their investment.

              And, you’re absolutely correct that he’s still as big a bully despite not being as big.

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      • As a life long resident of Joisey I would take great exception to your dig were it not for the fact that I can enjoy all the amenities , thrills and culture of NYC ,even staying with my niece who resides a block off Central Park, with a 45 minute ride yet not pay your tax and rent or mortgage rates. Plus we have the Jersey Shore , Bruce , the best tomatoes and corn in the world also we’ve Governor Chris Chr… did I mention the wonderful produce?

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          • Great defense of New Jersey, Donny, with that hilarious Chris Christie/”wonderful produce” ending! Despite my mixed feelings about some aspects of the state, I chose to move back here from NYC, so I voted with my feet. (Actually, I drove back to NJ when I moved from NYC to Montclair. Route 3 isn’t great for walking…)

            Nice that you have a niece in NYC! My older daughter also lives in Manhattan, and I’ll be seeing her in her new apartment tomorrow.

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          • jhNY, there are definitely some advantages to being close but not in NYC (aka “civilization” 🙂 ). But home ownership in my town is almost as expensive as home ownership in parts of NYC (lower house prices here but much higher property taxes) — which is one reason why I had to sell my house and move to an apartment.

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            • Then one of the advantages of a Jersey residence listed by Donny Backes Jr. is less of an advantage than he would have me believe– nearly no advantage at all– while the disadvantages remain?

              On the other hand, I have carried on my faux hostility with your state and its citizenry long enough, and wish to be recognized as a joker making jokes in hope of easy laffs, hopefully not at the cost on anybody’s hurt feelings.

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              • No hurt feelings at all, jhNY! It’s fun to banter about NYC vs. NJ, faux hostility and all. 🙂

                (I just got back a few minutes ago from Manhattan, where, after seeing my daughter’s new apartment, we had an Indian-food lunch on the Indian-food mecca of E. 6th St. Malai Marke is better than any Indian restaurant I’ve experienced in NJ!)

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    • Thanks, Donny! Because I mentioned “The Grapes of Wrath” in my column, it’s possible people didn’t feel the need to bring that novel and its characters up again. Tom Joad and Rev. Casy are indeed as American as apple pie, and represent the best of the U.S.

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  2. As exemplars of the American male persona– the face by which we would be seen– I nominate the fictional detectives:Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, all the way to the present in the hulking form of Jack Reacher, the latter written, ironically, or tellingly, in compelling American idiom by an Englishman– as was the first dick on the list.

    Independent-minded, worldly-wise,with near-infallible internal bullshit detectors, unafraid to risk income and status for truth, able with weapons and fists and fleet of tongue, and attractive to ladies, good and bad. Plus, incorruptible no matter the temptation and righteously vengeful.

    The detective novel is conventionally chock-full of ourselves, stylized,idealized yet unsanitized.

    Perhaps someone well-read in genre fiction written for women might make a similar claim about the American female persona as described therein. On that subject, I am a naif.

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    • Great addition, jhNY! Some of those male detectives definitely embody a certain strain of American behavior/personality — for better or for worse. Your second paragraph skillfully summed up many of their traits.

      Interesting that one of the first fictional detectives (C. Auguste Dupin) was created by an American (Edgar Allan Poe) but was a Frenchman.

      I know there are a number of female detectives in fiction (courtesy of Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, and many other writers), but I hardly read any detective or mystery books — whether they’re by male or female authors, or feature male or female sleuths.

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      • I was thinking more along the lines of romance fiction, but I put it a bit too cryptically I guess.

        As for your reading preferences, I envy you. A little. Because I know I might have spent my time more wisely, as they used to put it on my report cards long long ago. But I have spent many engrossed hours in the company of the hard-boiled in fiction, and even a few among them in life.

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        • I just reread your previous comment, jhNY — you were definitely clear, and I misunderstood.

          There are many female characters who are very “American”; I could have named a few more in my column. One who comes to mind is Undine Spragg, in Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country.” Undine is a ruthless, materialistic social climber, and it’s no coincidence that her initials are U.S.!

          Nothing wrong with reading hard-boiled-detective fiction! I have read many novels for entertainment reasons and “guilty pleasure” reasons — mixing those books with “the classics” and more modern literary fiction, as have you.

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      • Interesting too, that an earlier (possibly the earliest) piece of detective fiction,”Mademoiselle de Scudery”, by ETA Hoffmann (published 1819) is set in Paris. Perhaps Poe made his detective and setting French as a kind of homage.

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        • jhNY, that’s a fascinating possibility! And it’s interesting that you placed a date on what might be the earliest detective story.

          I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s excellent “The Name of the Rose,” which, while published during the relatively recent year of 1980, starred the William of Baskerville character doing detective work in…1327!

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    • As to the qualities you ascribe to the ideal American male as personified by some of the classic noir detectives I wonder if Mac Murphy of Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t have all that in Spades? Bad pun intended by the by. Anyway I think it perhaps a great example as he is fighting what is a losing battle against the worst of the American system/combine . I wonder also considering the evolution and growth of Big Chief and many of the rest of his inmate acolytes he didn’t actually beat them.

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      • Kesey is a fine writer of literary fiction, at least in this instance, whereas the best of the detective genre writers manage, at best, to write much better things than the genre requires, sometimes to the point of making literature, sometimes on purpose.

        And sometimes the best stories in the genre manage to convey the Big Picture of American society more than a little– Chandler to some extent, but Hammett very definitely in Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon (and even The Glass Key)– wherein the powerful work through proxies bought by power and masked by hypocrisies genteel and savage, wherein too, good guys, if they win, only win so much and so far. But the Big Picture never changes..

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        • Donny, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a great mention! And jhNY, I agree that genre writers can sometimes (even often) “surpass” their genre and write genre novels as impressive as literary fiction.

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    • jnNY, I would like to comment on females in detective fiction. I started by reading Agatha Christie, but branched out quickly into Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L.Sayers, Margery Allingham. and Josephine Tey. There were as many men working at the same time, so I don’t know that we can call this as a woman or a feminist thing, but one can’t dismiss what women were doing back then, No more than we can say that modern female detective writers such as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, or others aren’t doing the same thing that the author of Jack Reacher is doing today. I don’t mean to put anyone down, but I so think there is an equality between what men and women are writing today, at least when it comes to mysteries.

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      • I wasn’t commenting on female authors of detective fiction, and I freely admit there are many good ones, but also grateful for your list, as I will now have some new ones to look forward to. The last detective story by a woman I particularly enjoyed was Death of a Nationalist, which takes place immediately after the Spanish Civil War. The author’s name was Rebecca Pawel.

        But I was trying to elicit comment on romance novel fiction, which I was posing as a rough equivalent to male-oriented hard-boiled detective fiction insofar as personal p0ortrayals are concerned. Maybe I was right; maybe not. what do you think?

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        • I look forward to Kat Lib’s response, jhNY, but will break in briefly here to say I somehow didn’t correctly reply twice to your clear seeking of an opinion about romance fiction and how American it might and whether it’s the female equivalent of hard-boiled detective fiction. I guess I haven’t read enough romance fiction to answer your question, but some Americans definitely have an “escapist” trait that certain genre novels cater to!

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        • I guess I misunderstood your question. When I was a teen, I read quite a few of what would be called “romantic suspense” novels, my two favorite authors being Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. Out of curiosity, I reread some of those books not too long ago, and they held up surprisingly well in their portrayals of strong female protagonists and in their writing ability, especially Stewart’s. That being said, I can’t honestly comment on romance fiction, because that genre is not of interest to me, at least what I think you mean by that term.

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            • Her books in this genre always had a mystery involved, which as an inveterate lover of mysteries and detective fiction, was more important to me than the romantic aspect of it. I suppose my favorite was “The Ivy Tree,” mostly because of the interesting plotline. Stewart is probably better known these days for the books she wrote about Merlin, none of which I’ve actually read.

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          • I like Ross MacDonald too, though I read him in between Chandler novels till the Chandlers ran out. It wasn’t quite fair to Ross, in that every other title seemed like a weaker sort of Marlowe book, but it did make Chandler last longer.

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    • I loved Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and I ADORE Jack Reacher! However, I know that he would break my heart! All 3 are wonderful examples of the American male persona in literature!

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      • Mary, there has been quite a bit of admiring discussion about Jack Reacher under the Canadian literature post — though Lee Child is of course not Canadian. 🙂 Several commenters, and now you, have convinced me I should try a Jack Reacher novel.

        Thanks for the excellent and engaging comment!

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  3. jhNY, I knew you would have VERY interesting things to say about this topic! Absolutely brilliant comment, including the parts about how America often doesn’t practice what it preaches. Thank you!

    Well, Benjamin Franklin certainly embodied all kinds of American virtues (and some flaws, such as the BS you mentioned) during the 18th century. “…a philosopher in homespun” — spot-on description! I loved his autobiography (partly fictional, I’m sure).

    As an aside, I visited Boston’s amazing Granary Burying Ground a few years ago, and some members of Franklin’s extended family are interred there (along with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Crispus Attacks, Paul Revere, Phillis Wheatley, etc.).

    To address your last paragraph, those books indeed say a LOT about the U.S. I’ve read eight of the 12 titles you named, and was disappointed when my library trip this morning did not turn up “Revolutionary Road”; hopefully next time. Maybe Benjamin Franklin checked it out? 🙂

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  4. A plea for housekeeping, Dave!

    Kindly remove this block of print from the blog, and leave the latest one, divided into paragraphs, already submitted above, to be read by yourself and hopefully some others.

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  5. Why I cannot tell you, but the first thing that came to mind when I read this week’s essay was Ben Franklin’s frontierish marten-fur cap, worn, most famously, as he trolled the Continent in search of funds for the revolution. He was, in that guise, strategically exotic, a canny publicist of himself and his cause; to most who happened on him in the salons of Paris, he was an compelling embodiment of Rousseau’s natural man, a philosopher in homespun, and as such, was lauded and feted. Of course, he was so much more than all that—a capable diplomat, most of all, at that moment, and a most adept and canny politician. But he knew what would be expected of an American in Paris, and he happily obliged, while naturally partaking in all the delights of the French capital. Maybe an essential American trait is BS in the service of a higher cause.

    The notion of America, from its outset, included hyperbole and the flim-flam. Passages to India, cities of gold, land producing great harvests without cultivation, fish that swam in great schools straight into the groaning net. Such super-abundance was super-salesmanship, and it launched as many swindles as it did ships. But it did launch a great many ships, filled with a great many hopeful people, who found what they found when they landed, and made what they could of what they found—not what they expected, precisely, but something better, for most of them, than what they had at home.
    Maybe an essential American trait is the tendency to adjust one’s unreasonable hopes to one’s reasonable circumstances, once each is known for what it is. Settlers settling for what they get. But those hopes did not come from nowhere—most of all, they came from hyperbolists and flim-flam artists. One might come to these shores expecting to find the land he has been granted by a distant king to be covered with gold nuggets, but the wisest of marks soon comes to realize that the land he has been granted, if gold bereft, is rich enough to produce a bountiful crop. And so, to plow.

    We, who might have been imagined by those we left behind to have been heaped over in our boats with fish frantic to be eaten, proved to be pretty good at catching actual fish with other plans.

    We have also, from the beginning, and not unrelatedly, been people seeking a new start on one hand, while pursuing older goals on the other. Second-born sons without a chance at property in the old country remake themselves in the new land, but in the image of the landed gentry in the old country, buying living property to take the role of peasants, buying titles at the old court. Even our recent suburban fantasy is but a shrunken and straitened version of an English country estate. America is a New Spain with new Moors to drive out; a New England filled with wild savages we must convert while exterminating, not so unlike Britain appeared to Roman eyes. We have freedom of religion, but cannot ourselves be free of it. Our workplaces are organized feudally, and work defines us. We are self-made, but of old stuff; old wine in new bottles. The dreams of the Enlightenment found their practical manifestation here, in our government, but our dreams of avarice never died, and now they have strangled the republic with chains of capital.

    Contradiction, then, might well be the most American trait of all. We have happily prattled on about freedom while building our nation on the backs of slaves. We kill for peace; we had to destroy the village to save it. We are all equal, but inequality of information is the essential element of our preferred economic system. In one claw, the eagle grasps an olive branch, in the other a sheaf of arrows. We are a nation of immigrants, whose most enduring political point of friction is immigration. We are, as a people, ahistorical, and so doomed to repeat our mistakes, to the profit, mostly, of a very few.

    Essential reading (fiction): Absalom, Absalom!, The Great Gatsby, The Red Badge Of Courage, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The USA Trilogy, All the King’s Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Invisible Man, Revolutionary Road, Why Are We in Vietnam?

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    • jhNY, I knew you would have VERY interesting things to say about this topic! Absolutely brilliant comment, including the parts about how America often doesn’t practice what it preaches. Thank you!

      Well, Benjamin Franklin certainly embodied all kinds of American virtues (and some flaws, such as the BS you mentioned) during the 18th century. “…a philosopher in homespun” — spot-on description! I loved his autobiography (partly fictional, I’m sure).

      As an aside, I visited Boston’s amazing Granary Burying Ground a few years ago, and some members of Franklin’s extended family are interred there (along with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Crispus Attucks, Paul Revere, Phillis Wheatley, etc.).

      To address your last paragraph, those books indeed say a LOT about the U.S. I’ve read eight of the 12 titles you named, and was disappointed when my library trip this morning did not turn up “Revolutionary Road”; hopefully next time. Maybe Benjamin Franklin checked it out? 🙂

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      • The last draft left out On The Road and Mildred Pierce from my list, to which I know many others might also be added.

        Franklin’s son,if I am not mistaken, his eldest, remained loyal to the crown, so Ben’s powers of persuasion were not unlimited.

        Also, I like your new spelling for surname of the man called Crispus. Seems more appropriate to circumstance, at least as seen from inside a redcoat.

        At this advanced stage of our national history, most of what seems to be in ascendance today might be, after all our good intentions and pledges to the contrary, the return of the repressed. It is not for nothing that one of the most dangerous items let loose from out Pandora’s box was Hope.

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        • Yikes — Crispus Attucks’ name now corrected! Yes, my wrong spelling was weirdly appropriate. 🙂

          “On the Road” is definitely a novel that almost couldn’t have been written anywhere else but in America. Haven’t gotten to “Mildred Pierce” yet, unfortunately.

          Didn’t know that about Franklin’s son, who perhaps told his dad to “go fly a kite”?

          Eloquent last paragraph. Hope, and the dashing of hope, is by no means exclusively American, but it does seem to happen a lot in the U.S. For instance, if another politician runs as a liberal and then governs as a centrist or centrist-conservative (a la Cuomo, Obama, etc.), I think I’ll scream. Okay, I’m screaming…

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          • The American System is an animated corpse, politically speaking, wherein all parties who supplicate for money to run campaigns must please the same class and the same class interests, and misdirect and deflect all others.

            We think the Chinese version of democracy is a hollow joke, in that all candidates allowed by Beijing to run in Hong Kong must be first approved by Beijing.

            Here, replace ‘Beijing’ with ‘the money interest’, and we’ve arrived at much the same place. If there’s a punchline to this state of affairs, the joke’s on us.

            As for liberals– I feel liberalism in our capitalistic context, have managed, most of all, to paint a happy face on a meat grinder. The ameliorating institutions of liberal government, designed, most of all, to protect the monied from their worst impulses, have fallen into disrepair because the beneficiaries are ungrateful and imagine, as a class, to have hit a triple from third base.

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            • Your first paragraph nails it, jhNY. A lot of smoke and mirrors are used by politicians, their consultants, the media, etc., to make the average person think their interests are also being represented. But ultimately the only people really being represented are “The One Percent” and the like.

              Heck, as you allude to, China is at least more upfront about democracy not truly being democracy.

              One would think the wealthy would be grateful that the Democratic Party is “Republican Party Lite,” but gratitude among the upper class isn’t as plentiful as their riches. And, yes, many millionaires and billionaires are not self-made but think they are. A lot of them inherited their money or had incredible advantages (in education, family contacts, etc.) most of us didn’t have.

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  6. Dave! Thought provoking! I have not read any “literature” lately, and my memory is lapsing (largely due to being preoccupied with rewrites of my book), but I will say that your columns exemplify the best of American author traits: stimulating, engrossing, brilliantly observant. You preserve a great tradition!

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  7. Hi Dave. Thank you, that was an interesting question and interesting books. I’m afraid I haven’t read most, Cooper I did, but there you go, I didn’t take Bumppo as “American” when reading the book, rather as a European immigrant in a foreign land. Coping with the situation there, same as any immigrant (or their kids) would cope nowadays. IMO a very political book.

    Actually I find it hard to characterize a people as a whole, and the protagonists you mention seem to show a summary of traits that are fictional, in the way they are coming from the idea of a writer about the topic, in this case “American”. In Europe with so many countries / nations there are any amount of stereotypes about each one, and of course they are all wrong, soon as you meet a person or move in a society. Well, they are funny, of course, good for teasing each other.

    In literature I can think of one book, a travel book, the very grouchy Mr. Theroux paddling around in the South Sea, complaining away about all and sundry, until he finally arrives at the only “happy isles” of the Pacific, Hawaii, as they have burgers there, no pork or spam. I was never quite sure if his bad mood was serious or mocking the average tourist who’s not happy with foreign customs. (Again a pretty international trait I would think)

    If you are asking what would be an “American” trait – by moving around in the society I would think “conformity”, a lot of group pressure. Maybe due to the Puritans starting the thing? On a political level it may be, well, I should say comes across as the believe that “the state” (= our tax money basically) is not responsible for providing basic services to the population. I think that’s a fundamental difference in the world view between Europeans and Americans. But what would Africans or Chinese say to this topic?

    As an afterthought – something very American by your President in a radio speech I read about: “The people of the world look to us to lead. And we welcome that responsibility. We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom. And as we showed the world this week, we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come.”

    Most electorate in Europe would be too self-deprecating (?) to be addressed like this.

    Pheew…. sorry, I started to wander off with my thoughts 🙂

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    • Nice to hear from you, littleprincess! Your wide-ranging comment is much appreciated!

      I totally understand what you’re saying about it being hard to categorize an entire populace. Individuals are so different, and I’ve met many Americans who have few or none of the traits I mentioned. Still, there can be some commonalities, or stereotypes, and I saw the writing of the column as sort of a thought experiment. 🙂 Certainly, as you say, the U.S. unfortunately doesn’t have the social “safety net” Europe does, and clearly has more of a Puritanical strain than Europe.

      As for American politicians talking about how it’s the U.S.’s responsibility to lead — well, I don’t like that “superiority complex,” and the U.S. has often “led” in nasty ways (invading Iraq, for instance) or hypocritical ways (such as decrying dictatorships in “enemy” countries while supporting dictatorships in “friend” countries).

      Interesting point about Natty Bumppo. In the majority of the James Fenimore Cooper books he starred in, American wasn’t even America yet — it was a bunch of British colonies, and Bumppo was in the colony of New York. And certainly he and many others weren’t far removed (time-wise) from Europe, or Africa, in a land that of course was first populated by Native Americans. Given that the white Bumppo acted like a Native American in many ways, he was an unusual combination of that and European-American. And yes, those Cooper novels were very political in a way.

      I’ve never read any of Paul Theroux’s renowned travel books, but did read his “The Mosquito Coast” novel — whose protagonist was quite grouchy, too!

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      • So I guess we agree on the fact that Paul Theroux writes about grouchy characters, they just happen to be Americans. Unless he wants to tell us something about Americans in general we didn’t get as stereotype.

        Cooper wrote about a character who tried to adjust to a different world, nature and culture, than he would normally be around, as I see it. I find that very interesting as a character.

        The question is – is that a role model for Americans in the way they would more or less behave in a similar way. That would bei something for expatriotes to answer I think. Without a specific country in mind, emigrants or expatriotes usually bring their own culture and expectations for life.

        And a thought about differences – the safety net, in a practical way, is not the issue really. The issue is someone’s idea of the state, as a means of all of us taking part and practising solidarity towards the others. That’s independent of how exactly this is executed. Is it all of us helping out via taxes – or is it a volunteer charity helping out the ones they like to help?

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        • Thanks for the great follow-up comment, littleprincess, which raises various interesting questions — including whether governments or charities (or a combination of both) should be providing the safety net.

          Natty definitely had to adjust a number of times in his (fictional) life. He was raised in a Native American environment, then the New York State woods he loved so much started being developed, and then he fled west to the prairie where he was kind of a fish out of water.

          Whether a woodsman, a grouch, or whatever, I don’t think fictional characters necessarily represent the American psyche. Often, they just represent themselves, their own personalities. 🙂

          And real-life people — whether immigrants or “natives” — would best look at themselves, or perhaps their parents or other real-life people, for ways to act — rather than look at fictional characters. Yet some fictional characters do sort of represent the culture their stories are set in or their authors grew up in.

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          • Oh, yes, real life people should look at their surroundings, but literature has always been seen a “moral teaching institution” as well as entertainment. And I can only say if “Leatherstocking” was used as a teaching model nowadays that would be a progress for some contemporaries! I mean, what it teaches – in my view – is not so much a story of bravery but of being bewildered and confused and finding your way without having all the answers. So, if Cooper created a representation of the society he lived in, that society seems quite agreeable.

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            • Very true, littleprincess — one can learn a lot from literature. I know novels such as “Jane Eyre” and “The Grapes of Wrath” helped shaped my personality (at least a little bit) when I was a teen. So they indeed served as teaching institutions in a way.

              While being shaped by real people is probably more practical than being shaped by literary characters, literary characters do reflect the real world in many ways. 🙂 And if people don’t have good role models in their lives, literary role models can be especially helpful.

              I totally agree that there’s a lot to emulate with Natty Bumppo. Adapting, being honest, judging people by their character rather than color, etc.!

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              • Literature can be didactic, but it doesn’t necessarily have to teach anything. Themes do that. Universal truths that literature express reveal whatever the author’s purpose is in writing it, though there may be many, but probably all within a small band of interpretivness (?). And, since literature has a verisimilitude, one can learn many things from literature at the same time.

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                • So true, Eric, and well said! Themes/universal truths do indeed teach us, and they exist in both real life and literature — which intersect because the writers who write literature and the readers who read literature of course exist in real life. 🙂

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                  • Thanks, Dave. And the characterization of Americans or traits that they have in common no doubt come from the thoughts and impressions of the authors, but also people they have come into contact with. You can’t paintbrush a whole society but books like “The Great Gatsby”, with everyone concurring it has at least SOMETHING to do with the “American Dream”, and the uniqueness of that very ideal, does at least portray Americans in a unique way, in a vast landscape of cultures. And there seem to be very similar characteristics that keep on recurring, a motif of behavior, if you will: creativity, inventiveness, spirit to aspire, dream, and create, and of course rights to pursue happiness within the limits of our legal system and Constitution. With more patents than any other country, and the first to put a man on the Moon, in about just 300 years or so, that is quite an accomplishment. And of course it comes through in American literature so brightly.

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                    • Very true, Eric. Although literature can’t define a country, literature can give an approximation or snapshots of a country’s traits — whether it be the U.S., Japan, or other nation. And the U.S. is such a “colossus” that its negative and positive traits (some of which you so correctly named) can seem outsized.

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              • By the time Natty Bumppo was written up, the Natty Bumppos of the world were mostly no longer among the living. I feel he is a creation out of nostalgia, not history, designed to charm and transfix the attentions of contemporary readers in the US, and Europe, where such a fellow was most especially expected to arrive out of an American book. That may explain much about the society as Cooper describes it– lit in tones of gold, but vanished.

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                • Interesting, jhNY. I think you’re right that Natty Bumppo in four of the five “Leatherstocking” novels was a New York State woodsman of the past. But in “The Prairie” (when Bumppo is an old man), the kind of western adventures he had were still current to an extent. And, yes, Bumppo is sort of seen through a nostalgic, idealized lens, yet there’s a lot of gruesome and negative stuff going on in Cooper’s novels to go along with the sunnier stuff.

                  You’re right that Europeans LOVED those books, feeling they were getting a real sense of “wild” America, its wilderness, Native Americans, etc. What they actually got was a combination real sense/fictional sense.

                  By the way, I really enjoyed those five books, with “The Deerslayer” (when Natty is a very young man) my favorite.

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                  • My mother read The Deerslayer to us when I was around 9 or 10 (no teevee). After our immediate uproarious response to the protagonist’s name, I seem to recall we enjoyed the book quite a bit. Now, all I really remember is a scene in a blockhouse wherein settlers were surrounded, fired upon and fired back. And some vaguer business involving kidnapping. But then again, she also read us The Last of the Mohicans, and about that I think I remember someone was called Uncas. Got a mind like a steel sieve.

                    A few years ago, I stumbled upon a literary magazine on a street vendor’s book table, several issues, bound from around 1840. Serialized throughout the issues was a novel by Cooper– probably The Pathfinder, because I do recall it was something I hadn’t been read. Surprised at the time, because I had always assumed Cooper had written earlier, more close to the era of his tales.
                    What I remember, and you can see, that ain’t much, is that Natty Bumppo operated mostly (if not exclusively) pre-1800.

                    So I looked him up on wikipedia and found:

                    The Deerslayer was published in 1841, but was set in 1744.
                    The Last of the Mohicans was published in 1826, set in 1757.
                    The Pathfinder was published in 1840, set in the 1750’s.
                    The Pioneers was published in 1823, set in 1793.
                    The Prairie was published in 1827, set in 1804.

                    Given the multitudinous push West by so many over the period, I maintain that the books are entertaining, occasionally thrilling nostalgia most of all, and that the Bumppos of the world were mostly bumped off by the time the tales were told. Certainly the Mohicans were.

                    And Natty was a very very old man, if not an implausibly old man, by series’ end, which is more wishful thinking made real by the author to the delight of his public, themselves thrilled to hold the wild country of yesteryear at arm’s length, at leisure, by the family fire.

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                    • You remember a lot! What happened in what “Leatherstocking” book is a little blurry for me, too, though I read all five this year (for the first time). “Steel sieve,” indeed! 🙂

                      It’s fascinating the way Cooper wrote the novels out of chronological order, yet the progression makes sense when read in the order of Natty Bumppo’s age — which is the way I read the quintet, going from “The Deerslayer” (young Natty) to “The Prairie” (old Natty — and what a death scene!).

                      And, yes, what a strange name he had. His full name (Nathaniel Bumppo) sounds a bit more distinguished, but the ethnicity of the silly surname stumps me.

                      That literary magazine was quite a find!

                      As for your comment’s main point, I agree that there was a lot of nostalgia involved in those Cooper books, especially given that America was entering an industrial age so much different than the milieu of Bumppo and his Mohican pal Chingachgook. Perhaps nostalgia is often evoked with historical novels, whether their authors intend it or not.

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                  • the string is exhausted, so: Bumppo is a strange name, and I can find only one other person with it (Remy– so it looks like a fictitious one at that) on the first few pages of google search– but there’s an article from daily kos about Jim Webb’s book re the Scotch-Irish, and one of the commenters states Natty Bumppo is such a one. So there’s that.

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                    • Thanks, jhNY! Well, one other person — fictional or not — with that name is more than I expected! (The bachelor Natty had no descendants. 🙂 )

                      I guess a lot of settlers back then were from or descended from Great Britain, so Scotch-Irish makes sense.

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    • Little Princess, I partly agree with you but lean more toward Natty being American. The reason is he’s the prototype. The myth of the American woodsman starts with him. The way we began to view our national heroes like Davey Crocket and Daniel Boone, the way that Teddy Roosevelt viewed how to be a man of the west begins with Natty. He is what they all spring from much as all American popular music springs from jazz and the blues. Even bluegrass is influenced by jazz in its modern incarnation.

      That is why I say that he is an American. Even though he considered himself British growing up. He is that ideal that we have placed on historical figures, on our movie characters, the basics of what we expect these people to have been and be, the Prototypical American.

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      • Just jumping in here briefly, GL, because I know you’re replying to littleprincess. Fascinating, eloquently stated point about how Natty Bumppo is the prototype for the way we look at the many fictional and real-life American woodsmen who came after him, and the prototype for the way some real-life people felt they should act.

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      • GL, I can relate to this myth only intellectually. I’m a woman and I’m a European. “How to be a man of the west” is nothing I relate to, and since the West doesn’t exist that way it’s not even useful to be “a man of the west”. In my opinion, totally personal as I pointed out. When it comes to men I’d like to be around, John Wayne wouldn’t be my choice.

        I understood Dave more in the way how writers characterize Americans in national traits as they are. A prototype is a wannabe. Maybe I’m too anthropological in my approach here. Okay, nothing wrong with fictional prototyping. But do you want to actually live that way?!

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        • Just jumping in here briefly (again), littleprincess, before GL possibly responds.

          One interesting thing about Natty as prototype is that he’s a nicer guy and less macho than many of the people he resembles and/or who tried to emulate him. So they only emulated him to an extent.

          Totally agree about not wanting to be around John Wayne! And as (fictionally) courageous as Wayne was in movie roles, in real life he reportedly shirked duty in WWII. Natty was always courageous, but of course he was fictional!

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          • Hey, jumping in is the essence of a “salon”, isn’t it?! (Still missing the sandwiches… )

            Personally, I don’t mind if someone stays out of fighting. So maybe the real life John Wayne may have been more attractive than the fictional characters he represented in the movies. I don’t know much the real person, but we all have been treated to his movie characters. Compared, I do prefer the fictional Natty Bumppo over the fictional John Wayne. Not for courage, but for being a more interesting complex person.

            btw – when I say interesting I mean the way it is interesting. I learned that in American English it may mean something like “I don’t like it” in a polite way. I’m never polite 🙂

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            • Loved (and chuckled at) your first paragraph, littleprincess!

              I also don’t mind if someone stays out of fighting. Many if not most wars do no one any good — except for people like arms manufacturers and cynical politicians. But WWII was kind of “a good war” in its fight against fascism (though it’s interesting that the U.S. fought and fights fascism selectively), so I’m not sure it was admirable for John Wayne to skip that one. A number of other famous Americans, such as baseball star Joe DiMaggio, also made sure they were nowhere near the front lines — while other “celebrities” did serve.

              You’re right about the use of “interesting” by some Americans!

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              • Hi Dave, once more, for a short stop. (With these long threads I feel a bit like in a maze, I’m not sure I see all answers.)

                You’re right about WWII being a good cause to fight against the fascists (at this moment there is an opportunity again to do so, but seems the people who do get abandoned). I guess he should have gone, too. But it made me think, not so much about Amrican hero models, but war – even fighting a good cause can endanger your soul, can make you fight dirty, just think of Hiroshima. I bet Einstein and Oppenheimer would have wished they had staid home…. but then they were “un-American”, according to McCarthy.

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                • You’re right about longer threads, littleprincess. They do get kind of “thin” — and kind of confusing, especially when more than two people are conversing. But I like it when more than two people are conversing. 🙂

                  Terrific points! Even so-called “good wars” can indeed endanger the soul, as you put it so eloquently. And, as you also noted, many bad things — such as the two atomic bombings of Japan — happen even in so-called “good wars.” Wars always mean horrendous civilian carnage, among many other tragedies.

                  Your last line was sarcasm at its best! Depressing that expressing doubt about weapons of mass destruction, and other kinds of over-the-top military actions, is considered un-American by some right-wingers. In fact, questioning things like WMDs is patriotism of the highest form.

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            • John Wayne stayed out of the fighting in WWII, for reasons of which I am unaware. Do you know why?

              I do recall, however, he was a somewhat sloshed and unpleasant fellow during the last years of his life, on the topic of Vietnam protesters particularly. And he owned a converted mine-sweeper for a yacht, which seems a bit over-compensatory.

              And yet– I am a fan of the man, or at least some of his pictures– most especially True Grit and Rooster Cogburn and The Shootist. Heck, I even like Branigan. But then, I’ve always had an over-fondness for stubborn old man characters. And now I am one.

              Just this weekend, I saw him star in a romantic comedy with Claudette Colbert— he was surprisingly charming, and able as a romantic lead, and I wish he had done more such stuff in the first fifteen years of his long career.

              Which shows complexity, at least a bit, in the actor, if not the roles.

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              • I don’t know why, jhNY. I assume he pulled celebrity “rank,” but I might be wrong.

                Interesting that John Wayne, like a number of other right-wingers such as Dick Cheney, was pro-war and against anti-war protestors yet didn’t serve himself.

                A mine-sweeper for a yacht? Wow! Wonder if Wayne also drove a pre-Hummer tank. 🙂

                Can’t say I’ve seen more than a couple of Wayne’s movies, but he did seem to act well. Like a lot of actors, he got typecast — but certainly gained a lot of fame and made a lot of money as a result.

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        • LP (if that’s OK) You aren’t getting to anthropological on the topic. In fact we just might be using the words differently. To clarify when I say prototype I mean the precursor, the one others are based on going forward. John Wayne’s movie personas would be examples of the archetype Natty inspired. I my understanding a wannabe would be someone who tries and fails to live up to the now existing archetype. So kids who act like John Wayne are wannabe’s as they come after, where as Natty is the prototype as he comes before.

          So sticking with your examples some more; Natty the basis for American movie heroes is not going to be as close John Wayne’s characters as John Wayne’s characters are to each other. Or even as close as Clint Eastwood’s westerns are to John Wayne’s. You can see in “Leather Stockings” stories the guy who inspired all those who came after. Just as Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin detective stories are prototypes for the genre which boomed after Sherlock Holmes was created.

          For the record I’m not much of a John Wayne fan either. Natty would be better company.

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          • Thank you for explaining (of course, LP is fine), especially the detective motive made it clearer for me. And in this you are right, of course. As you said – a persona, like ancient Greek hero(e)s.

            I have a problem with the myth thing, though. If we talk about ancient Greek stories there is always a strong religious background/tie. In literature we deal with humans. They say the “Odyssey” (not the “Ilias”) was the first European piece of literature, mostly for this reason.

            Maybe introducing movie persona was moving away from the literature aspect of the characters. Pictures create a new sort of mythological aspect, it seems.

            P.S. I must apologize, I’m slow in answering, Dave knows, sometimes I don’t have time to stay in a conversation.

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            • LP I don’t think movie characters are getting to far off. Many movies are based on books and short stories.

              I agree about the “Odyssey” being about the humans rather than gods as opposed to the “Iliad” which is all about the gods meddling in human affairs. It is interesting to hear that it is considered the first piece of literature, I wasn’t aware of that. It does offer a perspective on where movies were in the 1940-50s. The popular ones, like John Wayne’s films, don’t focus on people as complex characters. The great ones, like “Casablanca” show you complex humans.

              This same idea could be applied to most books. Though some characters stand the test of time without complexity, the really good ones are reused and become the basis for characters in later works and are remembered.

              In another comment I compared Tom Clancy’s “Executive Orders” to the story of Cincinnatus. The same story has affected how we, as Americans, view George Washington. He was also the basis for the character Maximus in the movie “Gladiator.” Cincinnatus was a complex person with simple goals, that makes him a compelling basis for other stories.

              I suspect we could also trace Odysseus as the basis for other characters through literature, movies, and even video games.

              Don’t worry about slow posting I don’t get to do much either most of the time.

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              • Lucius Quinctius, the dictator? He’s not a figure in Roman history I know much about. He didn’t like the plebs. He was pretty effective in fighting off enemies. He put down power given for a single purpose and left, according to Livius. What has he to do with George Washington? Same attitude, regarding power and enemies and plebs? I’m afraid I don’t know the book of Tom Clancy you mention.

                An early example for an Odysseus adaptation might be Sindbad the seafarer. But if there’s any Odysseuses in American literature you would know better than me. He was the one who invented the “Trojan Horse”, he wanted to stay home and not go to war, he was a brillant talker, prefered to talk his way out of problems, never mind if somethinng was an unheroic lie. Complex, not very likeable in real life, maybe, but a personality, not a prototype in the sense of a template.

                See, that is how I took “prototype”, as a template, and I looked at from nowadays and here, back and over to a literary template. Then I prefer more complex characters, who don’t serve as a template but make us think.

                Sorry, I gotta go again. Have a good weekend.

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                • That’s the correct Cincinnatus. Its the stepping down from power, which Washington did a couple of times. He didn’t want to be king and stopped being president before his term was over.

                  I think “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” would be the most likely Odyssey in American literature.

                  I agree the more complex the character the better, but some of the best ones I’ve read are simple fools who grow rather than being complex from the beginning.

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      • Whoa there. There is more to American popular music origins than jazz and blues, and more to their origins too.

        Your example of bluegrass, for example, derives many of its tunes and melodies from Scotch -Irish ballads and fiddle music. And the blues is a proto sort of music in many early studies by mostly self-appointed experts in the late 40’s through 60’s, but it is not much earlier than jazz, if it is earlier at all,so far as the written and recorded record can prove.

        The earliest known jazz bands in New Orleans played out of The Redback Book– itself a compendium of earlier ragtime tunes. And the first recorded jazz band, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, was composed of New Orleans white men who claimed to have invented it. Obviously they didn’t, but they played well, and it was jazz, fully formed, and they took the world by storm– thanks to their discovery by Al Jolson, Broadway star. Nearly all the standard jazz tunes began life on the Broadway stage, or as pop music.

        According to biographer Peter Guralnick’s interviews with contemporaries, Robert Johnson was fond of playing “My Blue Heaven”, at least for his own enjoyment. Charley Patton, the blues great from rural Mississippi, played a strange version of the Tin Pan Alley tune Runnin’ Wild, and the two major tunings for slide guitar in blues, derive from a mid-19th century white composer’s two most famous arrangements for guitar; Sebastopol (Vastapol, or D tuning) and The Spanish Fandango (Spanish, or G tuning). Sebastapol, in turn, was composed in emulation of mid-19th century Russian guitar music, some of which was also played in a tuning. Slide/steel guitar, sometimes called ‘the voice of the blues’ itself may well have been invented by a Hawaiian high school student at the turn of the 20th century, A Hawaiian band featuring steel guitar and ukuleles was brought here for an exposition in St. Louis, which proved immediately popular, and is one of the first pop music phenomena to be popularized via the phonograph record in the Nineteens.

        In other words, it’s complicated.

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        • Yes, there is. But it still owes a lot jazz and blues. In the 50s rock really was a blend of the two creating a new sound. Modern bluegrass (as in the last ten years) has begun to use jazz rhythms in the way the artists create the base line and play the rhythm instruments. Its quite a fascinating thing to see that change occurring. Much like listening to Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd, in succession. You see the change in the how rock was played and how it became its own real music.

          Much is the same with taking Natty Bumpo and tracing the lines of other characters to get to John Wayne’s movies. Natty had a basis before him, but was different from those predecessors. John Wayne’s characters are much the same, you can see parts from lots of characters that have built up over time to become this new thing.

          If you like jazz, and classic jazz in particular I would suggest going to jazz88fm.com tonight at 7pm Central Time. Butch Thompson has a show called Jazz Originals in which he plays and discusses the early jazz musicians and the songs.

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          • “much as all American popular music springs from jazz and the blues”– it was to this declaration I was responding.

            Obviously, new things grow out of old– but the old things come from far more various and interconnected places than most realize.

            Thanks for the radio tip! I do love early jazz– Bix and Satch and Jelly Roll most of all.

            I believe that the West African blues scale, and its application to chords resident in most American pop music of the 19th century, made for a new American music– the blues– played and popularized by black Americans, but played to a fascinated public that included some whites and some white musicians most significantly. You can hear mountain musicians such as Dock Boggs attempting the blues in the late Twenties, and the blues-scale solo style was riveting and exotic to most who heard it– whether they heard it first in blues songs, or applied to pop via jazz musicians, or in mountain or even gospel music. Jazz, in its beginnings, I think, is the musical equivalent of the minstrel show maker of telling, humorous and pointed asides (Mr. Bones?)– a kind of instrumental commentary on the main melody to which it is appended, and often employed the blues scale.

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            • I’ll admit the “all” was over much.

              The blues scales from West Africa are very much a feature of jazz and blues. I remember hearing a variation on one of the Scottish fiddle tunes played by a trumpeter in the blues scales. The difference is very stark and surreal as you know the song but it doesn’t sound right at first, then it clicks.

              I agree that the original jazz players were very much into the instrumental commentaries. The older improve pieces from the 20s and 30s you can hear the main melody through out the piece as opposed to the solos from the bebop era where the melody is more likely to disappear.

              I love listening to Jelly Roll go on a rag. If you listen tonight there is a good chance for hearing your favorites even if they aren’t the focus of the hour.

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              • Fred McDowell and wife sang church songs on an Arhoolie record from the 1970’s I’ve still got around here someplace, and one of the numbers was “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, or, less likely, “Amazing Grace”– it’s been a while. At any rate, it was to my young ears a revelation to hear the pair shade the melody toward the blues scale automatically, and it was obvious that’s just the way they heard it.

                I too love to here Jelly Roll ‘go on a rag’– and I think I own everything he ever recorded, including some latish stuff I found on 78 on the General label (late 30’s), and all that Library of Congress material he made for A. Lomax.

                Pleased to make the virtual acquaintance of a fellow enthusiast!

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                    • The Broadway show was amazing. “Oh, What a Night!” is one of my Top 5 favorite songs of all time, even though lead vocals was sung by a non-original member of The Four Seasons, though Frankie Vallie does sing the bridge sections.

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                    • That IS a memorable song, Eric! I didn’t realize it had two vocalists.

                      My For Seasons “singles” are stashed away somewhere, but I remember having “Dawn,” “Ronnie,” “Rag Doll,” and “Let’s Hang On,” among others.

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                    • As you seem to be a fan, perhaps you will remember, that in the midst of the British Invasion, when hits for American groups were thin on the ground, that the 45 for “Let’s hang On” was initially released without an artist credit. On the sleeve of that single, there was a very simple word puzzle, the solution of which was promised to provide the mystery group’s name. When completed, however, the answer was ‘your friends’. Of course, anybody with half an ear could tell it was the 4 Seasons.

                      A few years ago, in my work as a music archivist, I learned just how successful the group was, and how long the same folks had worked together, on stage and behind. When reissues began to be profitable, much 4 Seasons master material could not be found, though many searches were made through the archives and libraries of their record label, and licensees. Finally, a business manager happened to notice that one of the bills he’d been paying– for decades- was to a storage facility in the Garden State, though by that point, the contents were unknown to the payer– upon inspection, the masters were found, in perfect condition and order. Only a group that consistently earns could have unthinkingly paid a bill for decades, and the Four seasons were such a group.

                      Bob Crewe, producer and songwriter of some of their greatest hits, died only last month.

                      Whenever I hear “Sherry Baby” I am reminded of a little red-headed girlfriend I had when I was ten, as she was so named, and the song was a hit when we were an innocent item.

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                    • jhNY, The Four Seasons were by no means my favorite ’60s group (among those I preferred were the Beatles, the Who, Stones, Moody Blues, Iron Butterfly, CCR, etc.), but their songs were catchy and quite nice.

                      Competition from the British invasion certainly did a number on some American music acts — The Four Seasons and Elvis among them.

                      Didn’t know that about “Let’s Hang On”! And that’s a terrific story/anecdote about storage of those master recordings.

                      I remember seeing that Bob Crewe obit.

                      Songs like “Sherry” definitely evoke nostalgia in all sorts of ways.

                      Thanks for the very interesting comment!

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  8. Dave, “The Hunt for the Red October” is a great example of American traits. In the book you see the American Captain making the calls and doing it his own way. Jack Ryan in the rest of the series also does it all, he’s just an analyst yet he gets to have all the adventures without the training most field agents happen.

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  9. Awesome Dave, let’s start the week off with a question that is impossible to even define let alone answer. Of course as an American I don’t allow for concepts like impossible so I’ll take a stab. First name to spring to mind was Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s challenge to middle class values in mid twentieth century America- On The Road. Odd thing is I’m not a fan of the author in general and while the book absolutely soars in places I’ve always thought the whole automatic writing thing he claimed to practice was nonsense and much of the work feels contrived. Dean lives because he is based on one of the more interesting real life characters of the age , Neal Cassidy. Cassidy was famously by force of personality ,intellect and charisma a muse to, and admired to the point of worship ,by not just Jack but Ginsberg , Burroughs and many others. It was said with the help of coffee, speed and booze he could drive from coast to coast in two days and seems to have had a hypnotic effect on any one he encountered. He is also the living link between the Beats and Counter culture/ Hippie generations as the wheelman on Ken Kesey’s bus Furthur for their cross country trip immortalized in Tom Wolf’s Electric Light Kool Aid Acid Test. Besides being an archetype part conman/shaman part holy fool it’s impossible to imagine much of the history of American counter culture from the mid 50s to the mid 70s or so without him . He died in 1967 by the way wandering down train tracks in rural Mexico after randomly showing up at a village wedding celebration . The police report listed dehydration as the cause but recently there have questions raised about the case. I mention this because the death of any great rebel or anti hero should have a touch of mystery.

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    • “Awesome Dave, let’s start the week off with a question that is impossible to even define let alone answer” — nicely put, Donny! 🙂 But you did answer it quite well. My column didn’t mention the very American phenomena of the Beat Generation and ’60s counterculture — and their impact on literature. You filled in that gap wonderfully with your fascinating info and great thoughts about “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Ken Kesey, etc. Thank you!

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  10. I loved James’ “The American” but then I love everything by James…I wish I had more literary stamina for him: I find that I need to take a break from H.J. after each novel and intersperse it with a few others. His is a fascinating story because he wrote about the transatlantic American, the American with a wound in his heart from his or her European ancestry – a Jimmy Durante disease (stay or go?) – perhaps all of you have that? I know my wife does (who’s from CA and lived in Europe for the last 25 years) though she has learnt to live with it. Of course as the new immigrants are not from Europe, the hue may change but the hurt probably remains. — I recently (already mentioned it in another comment) finished Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer: struck me as quintessentially American, too. The book takes places in Louisiana, New Orleans and though I’ve never been there it made me ache to go. I hated being here (Berlin, Germany) while I read it. It was most peculiar. Percy caught something here, a large, beautiful whale of desire, and served it just right. I’m improvising here but it’s late and I just had to say it! Thanks, Dave!

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    • Better late than never, I’m also developing a great admiration for Henry James. Like you, Marcus, I love “The American,” and plan on reading “The Portrait of a Lady” as soon as I get my hands on it. But a non-James novel or two first — similar to your approach. 🙂

      Yes, one of the strong appeals of James’ fiction is that American/European contrast, push-and-pull, etc. James was obviously perfectly situated to do that, given his personal and thorough experiences with both places.

      Your wife from the U.S.? That indeed makes for a diverse marriage. Is she a Henry James fan, too?

      My ancestry is Eastern European, but a couple of generations removed — my four (now-deceased) grandparents emigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago. So I don’t feel an intense pull from Europe, though I’ve greatly enjoyed my visits there.

      “The Moviegoer” is indeed a very American book. I’ve been to New Orleans four times, and Walker Percy’s novel definitely evokes that city (albeit that city from before my time) and the American South.

      I appreciate the thoughts in, and the eloquence of, your comment — and hope you get to Louisiana one day!

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      • Actually, my wife switched me on to James…he’s not much read here, I think, except maybe “Portrait of a Lady”…which to me is not his best though his best known for sure. I ‘m reading them in their order of creation…and I also love reading about that process in his notebooks. There simply isn’t anyone like HJ – he’s up there with Shakespeare.

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        • Ah, then she must be a big fan of James, like you became. Up there with Shakespeare is high praise indeed, Marcus!

          Great idea to read James’ work in order of creation (and to refer to his notebooks). I imagine that chronological approach will take a long time; he wrote SO many books.

          Which novels of his do you think are the best?

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            • You just couldn’t wait for me, could you 😉 Just kidding. POL is great (I’ve never read but only listened to it as an audio book: I find that esp. the later James novels gain much from being recited). My favorite novel is, I suppose “The Tragic Muse” (not one of the later ones and there is no good reading of it…I always wanted to do a reading myself: perhaps I will when I’m retired!). Enjoy POL!

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              • Ha! 🙂 Today just happened to be a good day to go to the library. (I’m in a one-car family, and I had the car today.) Just put “The Tragic Muse” on my list, and it will be one of the Henry James novels I read in the future. Thanks, Marcus!

                I can see how James’ writing would sound great being read out loud. Hope you get a chance to do that one day!

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  11. Dave, I’d like to also mention a book that meant a lot to me as an American woman becoming a feminist in the late 60’s/early 70’s, “Sister Carrie’ by Theodore Dreiser. His book was about a country girl rising from being a mistress of certain men to becoming a famous actress, which at the time I found to be empowering (OK, I hate myself for using that now overworked term, but I don’t know how else to describe my feelings at the time 🙂

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    • “Sister Carrie” IS an excellent novel, Kat Lib. Thanks for mentioning it! I haven’t read it in decades, but it’s still on one of my home bookshelves.

      As you know, non-rich characters and real-life people sometimes have to empower themselves in any way they can. And a century-plus ago, any woman trying empower herself had limited opportunities and had to leap many roadblocks. So I can totally see how a reader could admire Carrie.

      Come to think of it, another Dreiser novel — “An American Tragedy” — could have easily fit into my blog post because of its title alone. 🙂

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    • Dave, one of the problems with your website is that after a certain amount of comments, I keep getting a red-flagged warning that I somehow don’t know my user name or my password. That’s only a minor criticism, because on the whole, you have a most very informative and interesting website, and while I tend to hate the term “you’re the best” as I would somehow talking about “empowerment of women,” you are the best when it comes to talking about literature. Thank you

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      • Very sorry to hear about that flagging problem, Kat Lib. Not sure how to fix it. With my middling tech skills, I muddled through the setting of various “settings,” but I didn’t come across one that would explain/fix that. Thank you for persevering with comments despite that glitch.

        And thank you, also, for your very generous words about the blog! 🙂 As I’ve said before to various people, my writing is only part of this whole thing; the comments from literature lover/experts such as yourself are what makes this blog what it is. I appreciate that very much!

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  12. Quintessentially American?

    I think of arrogance and of the hustler,” the latter persistent from early American literature.

    The cultural thread of the “hustler” may be explored in the non-fiction works of Morris Berman: A Question of Values, or in the last volume of his trilogy, Why America Failed.

    Twain’s Tom Sawyer (we could go back earlier) is America’s first predatory capitalist as he not only gets the neighborhood kids to whitewash his fence but pay him for the privilege.

    Melville’s The Confidence Man? America has had its share of con-men.

    There is The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man by Guy Owen, made into a film with George C. Scott (1967).

    You mentioned Elmer Gantry and Jay Gatsby (an aside about Gatsby: the most recent film version, with Leonard DiCaprio, has these wild dance party scenes, feverish and uninhibited which look like those Heineken TV commercials of today. In fact I’ve gotten clips of both on Youtube and played them simultaneously, muting one or the other and it seems like they’re interchangeable).

    Gantry and Gatsby bear an interesting comparison. They seem to be hustlers without a past. That is, they have shady pasts, which seem not to matter because they’re always re-inventing themselves in the present: a classic hustler mentality.

    I’m also reminded of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, where the main character writes travel literature for Americans traveling abroad who basically want to remain insulated with “Americaness:” where are the McDonalds are in Paris? That’s what you want to do when you travel to Europe. Must be that “American Exceptionalism.”

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    • Joe, the hustler or con man or whatever one calls him is indeed a VERY American character appearing in many fictional works. In addition to the titles you so aptly cite, another of many that comes to mind is T.C. Boyle’s novel “The Road to Wellville” — which actually has more than one huckster-ish character.

      As I think we’ve discussed, an adult Tom Sawyer could very well be a corporate raider, bank CEO, or greedy hedge-fund manager if he lived today!

      Yes, arrogance is also a trait of many (not all) Americans. “Arrogance” and “Americans” even share the same initial letter. 🙂

      I didn’t see the latest “Great Gatsby” movie, but from having looked at the trailer and clips a while back it definitely seems like a One Percenter’s dream. Hilarious the way you simultaneously played that film’s party scenes and a Heineken commercial. But depressing that they were so similar.

      Excellent last paragraph, too, with a witty conclusion. There is indeed an American tendency to want an American experience while abroad. Fortunately, some Americans avoid that. I’m one of them, and it’s not something I feel boastful about — it’s just more interesting to see how other countries really are.

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    • Ezra Pound’s favorite American hustle–

      In colonial times, a sharp Yankee trader plied Connecticut with faux nutmegs, the real thing then being a valuable commodity, that he’d had carved from wood.

      At some world’s fair or centenary later, the CT pavilion sold wooden nutmegs to visitors for a few cents apiece to commemorate those bygone days. At some point, they ran out of wooden nutmegs, and without informing the public, substituted for them, nutmegs.

      But that insularity to which you refer, is not only American. Going back to Merry Old England by ferry from France, the middle-aged and very English women behind me complained to each other for more than a few minutes about the inaccessibility of Watney’s Red Barrel on the Continent.

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  13. Hi Dave, you mentioned the Rev. Nathan Price, a deeply-flawed Evangelical Christian missionary, who thinks that he can convert the heathens to the one true religion, while making no attempt to understand their existing religions, customs or language. I’m not sure that is typical of all American missionaries, but I would suspect it applies to many, even if they are well-meaning. I’m currently reading Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior.”. Dellarobia is a great character, and I love her musings on how most Americans would throw out a jacket rather than fix a zipper or why we buy cheap Christmas ornaments made in China rather than handcrafted ones made locally (I am guilty as charged!). I’m interested to see how the environmental issue between the logging interests and the disruption of the Monarchs’ ecosystem plays out. It’s good to see a writer of Kingsolver’s stature address the issue of climate change. We’ve discussed before how she took on the issue of eating locally in her non-fiction book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.”

    The Henry James novel that I reread most recently was “The Wings of the Dove.” Have you read that one, Dave? Its main plotline is that of two secretly engaged Londoners (Kate Croy and Merton Densher), who are too poor to get married and prey on an extremely wealthy American orphan (Milly Theale). It is Kate, when she learns that Milly is ill and probably dying, who comes up with a plot to have Densher marry Milly so to inherit her wealth. It’s a very good book, and I’d recommend it if you haven’t already read it.

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    • But nathan price may also be lauded for onbe characteristic that may or may not be considered a typical American quality, and that is to prefer activity as opposed to passivity. So many characters are simply headstrung in their beliefs that, true, it may turn out disastrous, for him or her and others around them, but it brings about at least an active participation rather than letting things happen around them and reacting to them. That might be a unique capitalist tendency, even for Nathan Price, as his currency and capital was not in monetary terms but in the number of religious converts he could acquire.

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    • But Nathan Price may also be lauded for one characteristic that may or may not be considered a typical American quality, and that is to prefer activity as opposed to passivity. So many characters are simply headstrung in their beliefs that, true, it may turn out disastrous, for him or her and others around them, but it brings about at least an active participation rather than letting things happen around them and reacting to them. That might be a unique capitalist tendency, even for Nathan Price, as his currency and capital was not in monetary terms but in the number of religious converts he could acquire.

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    • Very true, Kat Lib — there have been nicer missionaries in literature (and in real life) than Nathan Price. Even the rigid St. John Rivers in “Jane Eyre” at least had integrity. But the whole idea of missionaries bothers me, with its implication that one faith (in this case Christianity) is better than another. I’m even bothered by the Salvation Army, which does great things but I wish it didn’t couple those deeds with religion.

      Glad you’re finding “Flight Behavior” absorbing! Barbara Kingsolver is an expert at offering social commentary (climate change, consumerism, etc.) while never losing track of the importance of also offering three-dimensional characters and compelling story lines.

      I haven’t read “The Wings of the Dove,” but definitely plan to get to it eventually. I think I’ll try “The Portrait of a Lady” first, which I know is one of your favorites!

      Terrific description of the “Dove” plot, which sounds intriguing as well as “noirish” — and terrific comment in general!

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      • Eric, excellent comment! You’re right that Nathan Price was indeed active. Going from the U.S. to Africa, and from a first world to third world life, takes a lot of gumption. Too bad he was so nasty and so wrong. And of course he not only didn’t do Africans any good but also brought his wife and four daughters on his “mission” when they didn’t want to be there.

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        • It reminds me of the 1986 Harrison Ford movie “Mosquito Coast, in which Ford moves his family, to their dismay, to Central American so he can live out his dream, not necessarily in the best interests of his family, and things don’t go well for him either.

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      • Kat Lib and Eric, I just took out “The Portrait of Lady” today. Looking forward to starting that Henry James classic! 🙂 And, Eric, I also took out a Kate Chopin collection that includes “The Storm” story you had mentioned.

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  14. dave, your opening contrast lays an important foundation for the difference between European literature and American literature, though there are exceptions of course. The European novel portrays characters within constraints of a historical moment by depicting all aspects of life controlled by social and hierarchical arrangements, and these include of course dating, courtship, and marriage. American literature tells of moral, spiritual, religious, or metaphysical forces on quests; the emphasis is on freedom, mobility, and pursuits (of both physical capital, and emotional desires, especially in “The Great Gatsby” where the emphasis is on physical capital and the emotional stability that stems from trying to maintain that enormous capital. Huck’s leaving Aunt Sally and Aunt Polly’s is an unacceptance of the European “bourgeoisie” order of society. In Henry James’ novels, naiveties embark for Europe in search of experience. F Scott Fitzgerald chronicles the fall of Dick Diver, a brilliant young American who sets out to be the greatest psychologist the world has ever seen. Sherwood Anderson’s Joe Welling uses the freedom of speech to score victories against those more powerful than he. But what must be the most quintessential quality of the human spirit, in its American context, is how Tom Sawyer, in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, not only gets people to paint the fence for him willingly, but he persuades them to also pay him for the opportunity. It is almost as if one is only constrained by imagination, creativity, and inventiveness, truly American qualities since Colonial times.

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    • Eric, eloquent comment with many elements and insights! Loved your comparison between American and European literature. There are many exceptions, as you note, and probably more exceptions in more recent literature, but there is a lot of truth to what you say. In “The American,” Christopher Newman’s fiancee Madame de Cintre certainly was under some of that European constraint (at least the constraint of that continent’s 19th-century aristocracy).

      Excellent observation about “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”! A VERY American novel by perhaps the quintessential American author (if there is such a person). The young Tom has entrepreneurial and capitalistic tendencies (two very American things, for better or for worse); is also quite willing to exploit people (another tendency we see too often in the U.S.); and, as you say, has “imagination, creativity, and inventiveness” (all three positive!).

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      • Thanks Dave. I was thinking about the title “The American” and thought back to two short stories in which Hemingway wrote about behaviors and attitudes of Americans without giving them any particular names: “Cat in the Rain”, and “Hills Like White Elephants.” Probably character names were not necessary as they simply represented American values at the time: hedonistic, self-absorbed, and internally focused, or at least as Hemingway described them. In many ways, simply calling a character “American” brings with it so many nuanced behaviors and attitudes, with which to explore in familiar and unfamiliar settings.

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        • Eric, I was thinking I should get Hemingway into my column, but it was already longer than usual. 🙂 It sounds like those two stories you mention do indeed spotlight certain elements of the American psyche.

          Also, among the very interesting things about Hemingway’s excellent “For Whom the Bell Tolls” are the personality contrasts between the only American in the novel (the idealistic yet in some ways jaded Robert Jordan) and various Spaniards (and a couple of Russians) he’s aligned with or fighting in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

          “In many ways, simply calling a character ‘American’ brings with it so many nuanced behaviors and attitudes, with which to explore in familiar and unfamiliar settings” — very true!

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          • I think I should have stated “preconceived nuanced behaviors and attitudes”, but Hemingway was certainly keen to address his characters in ways he felt would heighten the story’s tension and entertainment.

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            • “preconceived” — great addition there, Eric, although your point was already excellent.

              And while I haven’t read as much Hemingway as I have read many other authors, I can see that he expertly used many writing tools of the trade.

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  15. First of all, Dave, thanks for thanking me for recommending ‘The American’. I seem to recall the introduction or the afterward to a paperback edition of ‘The American’ I used to own said something to the effect that in the 19th century you would never encounter a novel called ‘The Englishman’ or ‘The Frenchman’. That title is a red, white and blue flag calling attention to itself and serving notice to the rest of the world of the distinction of an ‘American’ character as opposed to anything European. The early American writer was probably seen by much of Europe as some kind of strange, new world Englishman. You mentioned ‘Huck Finn’ and ‘Moby-Dick’ and I encountered this idea of the American character in virtually every American literature class I ever took. Of course, all the American Literature classes I took in college were taught by the same man so that might have something to do with it. You mention Faulkner’s ‘Light in August’ but that reinvented character also appears in the form of the determined Thomas Sutpen in ‘Absalom! Absalom’ who vows, after growing up as a poor white sharecropper having the enter the back door of the Southern aristocrats house in the pre-Civil War South that he will build his own plantation from the ground up someday and never have to enter someone’s house from the back door again. Of course, he makes several strategic mistakes and the dynasty he had hoped to establish from his bloodline takes unexpected turns and disaster ensues (as it usually does in Faulkner’s vintage novels). Flem Snopes, the antihero of ‘The Hamlet’ the first of Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, also someone with a poor white trash background, also builds wealth and buys up land and businesses buy conning a lot of people. While Faulkner saw Snopes as part of his Southern mythology this could also be seen to be emblematic of what was happening throughout the U.S. at various times in its history. You said that James was somewhat optimistic. ‘The American’ was published when James was still a pretty young man. Most of his Americans in his later fiction, especially the ones that encounter the ‘old world corruption’ of Europe, seem much more jaded and world weary and not as idealistic as the ‘new man’ Christopher. By the turn of the 19th/20th century, the new man is definitely not very new and he’s taken a few rough tumbles and been in a few scrapes.

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    • Oh, and your mention of ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ reminded me of Allie Fox in Paul Theroux’s ‘The Mosquito Coast’ another kind of American who thinks that the old America is going to hell so he’s going to the harsh third world jungle to pretty much start over, which is that ‘light out for the territory’ American exploratory spirit still burning, just taming another savage land and staking his claim. The cycle continues or would if Allie could really make his family and the savages all bend to his iron will.

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    • You’re very welcome, Brian! I thought “The American” was an extraordinarily good book (even though it’s not Henry James’ best, from what I gather), and I’m now well into the also-excellent “The Europeans” in The Library of America’s “Henry James, Novels 1871-1880” edition.

      Interesting that Americans don’t come off as well in James’ later novels, some of which I hope to get to this year and next. I already see a tiny hint of that in “The Europeans,” which was published just a year after “The American.”

      I also don’t recall a novel called “The Englishman” or “The Frenchman” — or “The Russian” or “The Canadian,” for that matter. Henry James indeed titled “The American” for a reason.

      “‘Absalom! Absalom” is among the Faulkner novels I’d like to eventually get to. Your great description definitely makes one want to read it.

      I appreciate all the information and insights!

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      • Allie Fox of “The Mosquito Coast” is indeed a strong example of a certain type of American, for the macho/autocratic/latter-day-pioneer/latter-day imperialist reasons you eloquently mention and because, well, he’s a crackpot. 🙂

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        • Brian, I just finished “The Europeans,” and have to downgrade it a bit from the “excellent” description I used in an above comment to “good.” It has its moments (especially Henry James’ depiction of the contrast between the two European siblings and the Americans they’re visiting). But the novella doesn’t evoke a lot of emotion, most of the characters are not quite believable, and the ending with all its marriages and such feels a bit contrived and forced (though one major character does decline to get engaged!). Sort of like a B-list Jane Austen novel.

          I know it wasn’t one of Henry James better efforts, and I still plan to read some of his…better efforts! (Including “The Portrait of a Lady.”)

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          • I agree. It’s been several years since I read it. I wondered why Merchant/Ivory took so much trouble to make a film of it in 1979 when they would have been better served by filming ‘The American,’ ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ or even an excellent novella such as ‘The Aspern Papers.’ James, like many other authors, had to make a living off his writing so he wrote some weak novels and stories just like everyone else. One I haven’t read yet is the early novel ‘Confidence.’ I also wasn’t terribly thrilled with ‘The Bostonians’ (also filmed by Merchant/Ivory) although many have praised it to the skies and I don’t recall being overwhelmed with ‘The Princess Cassamassima’ either. However, I still feel that when he was at his best few could surpass him.

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            • Thanks for the great reply, Brian! When authors write as much as Henry James did, there are invariably some misses along with the hits, but from everything you’ve said and from everything I’ve read, James had a very high batting average. As you know, I thought “The American” was exceptional, and the fact that a number of his novels are considered even better is impressive.

              I can see how “The Europeans,” while not a great book, would have some cinematic possibilities. But, as you say, Merchant/Ivory had better potential film fodder.

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              • I have to agree with Brian on “The Bostonians.” I was on a roll with reading books by James many years ago, but this one brought me to a dead stop. In fact, I think I started it two or three times then finally gave up. I didn’t realize there was a Merchant/Ivory film of it, though I did rather enjoy their production of “The Golden Bowl.” At any rate, now I have to go back and reread “A Portrait of a Lady” to see if it’s still as good as I remember it being. I was also quite taken with “The Ambassadors,” but again, who can say for sure after so many years.

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                • Kat Lib, I never read “The Bostonians”; sounds like a chore! I did see the film, and, like, Brian, wasn’t thrilled with it. It was okay.

                  From what I’ve seen and read, making a movie of a James novel can’t be easy. His writing often depicts the interior thoughts and psychology of characters, and there aren’t a lot of dramatic or melodramatic moments. Plus the romance seems kind of cerebral rather than passionate — which may reflect the fact that James had little or none of a romantic life (with women at least). Of course, I haven’t read as much of James as you and Brian, so I could be off in what I’m saying!

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                  • The firm version of “The Wings of the Dove” was very well done, and I at first thought that Merchant/Ivory had produced it, as it seems like something they would have done. Helena Bonham-Carter received an Oscar nomination for her role as the manipulative and devious Kate Croy. Merchant/Ivory has done some great films of classics, such as “The Remains of the Day,” “A Room with a View,” and especially “Howards End” (also co-starring the aforementioned Helena Bonham-Carter).

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                    • Thanks, Kat Lib! I’ve seen a couple of Merchant/Ivory movies besides “The Bostonians,” and that team usually does an excellent job. Sort of like Masterpiece Theater for movie theaters. 🙂

                      “The Remains of the Day” is a great novel; I’d love to see the film treatment! And as wonderful as Helena Bonham Carter has been in numerous roles, I keep thinking of her as the evil Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” movies!

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                    • I think Henry James in general is very difficult to film because so much of the effect of his most layered novels lies within the winding maze of a style and the very introspective view of a character’s subjective perception of an experience. If you don’t somehow get the effect of that in a visual medium you’re left with the surface plot which often, when looked at from a purely plot level, is not tremendously distinguishable from dozens of other novels. Merchant/Ivory were much more successful with the much more filmable E.M. Forster. I think Henry James, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad and a few other dense authors present similar challenges to filmmakers. I have faith that it can be successful on occasion. ‘The Wings of the Dove,’ directed by Iain Softley, was more successful than most because it to a large extent reinterpreted the novel and made certain changes which turned out to be good decisions, fortunately. For one thing, the sexual content was brought out of the closet and displayed with a frankness that would have made HJ blush. I think filmmakers often fail because they try to be too faithful and reverential to the original.

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                    • Walter Scott was very similar in that vein. Much of his praise is in his description of both character and setting, which can last more than most people would like. And, if you transpose him to film, one is left basically with making plot choices to beef up the work without his masterful and lengthy descriptiveness.

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                    • Brian, your elegantly expressed reasons for why Henry James’ novels are difficult to film make total sense. Yes, movie makers need to change things quite a bit when adapting an author with a writing style like James’.

                      Great point about sexual content, too. From the relatively little I’ve read of his work, James seems almost incapable of making a romance seem passionate, tempestuous, etc. (Perhaps, as I mentioned to another commenter, this has something to do with James’ personal love life, or lack of.) But his writing has many other strengths to compensate for the almost-bloodless romances.

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                    • Eric, great observation about Sir Walter Scott and the difficulties in bringing his excellent novels to the screen! Indeed, there have been few Scott-inspired movies (at least that I’m aware of). “Rob Roy” was a very good movie in the 1990s, but it was MUCH different than the novel. I saw the film first, and read the novel a few years later, and was astonished at how much was changed. Not that I should have been astonished…

                      Scott’s superb novel “The Heart of Midlothian” was dramatic and plot-heavy enough to make a film, and I see online that it did inspire a 1966 movie. But it was an obscure TV film.

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                    • Most novels don;t really translate all that well to film especially when there are literary aspects to deal with such as setting, narration, character, theme, symbolism, etc. When the novel is a great deal of dialogue, or mainly plot-driven, they do.

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                    • Eric, you nailed it. Yet that doesn’t stop Hollywood and other film producers from trying to bring some almost-“unbringable” books to the screen. Guess they often like to have a known property rather than a totally original script. That also explains all the sequels we see.

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                    • “The Remains of the Day” stars the great Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in the lead roles. You can’t get much better than that. Says one who hasn’t really watched any movies for the last four years (except for the Harry Potter movies!).

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                    • A great point, Eric. At least the Oscars acknowledge reality in that respect!

                      Reminds me that a few authors have also been movie and/or TV actors/actresses, including Fannie Flagg and Thomas Tryon. Richard Wright even starred in a 1951 film version of his “Native Son” novel — playing the protagonist even though he was way too old for that part.

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                    • Kat Lib, I agree that one can’t get much better than Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins! And speaking of “Harry Potter,” Thompson was great in two of those films as Professor Trelawney.

                      I chuckled at your line about not seeing a lot of movies. I haven’t seen many in the past few years, either, although I managed to get to all eight “Harry Potter” films. I have a friend who’s very into movies, and sometimes he gets me to see one despite me not taking the initiative about that. Lately, we saw “12 Years a Slave” (devastating) and the older “Groundhog Day” (funny, poignant) at his house, and we saw “Guardians of the Galaxy” (hilarious, oddly moving) at a theater.

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                    • Eric, I think she was on a game show or two, among other things. I’ve only read one of her novels — “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” — and it is superb (funny and moving). Very American book, too, with its elements of small-town life in the South, domestic violence, racism, the haves/have-nots, etc.

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          • dave, I have also just finished the Europeans by Henry James!I have to agree with your assessment and I understand why James did not wish to include the novel among his final and most polished NY edition. At the same time I found it very enjoyable and a breeze to read by comparison with others of his.in fact his depiction of the European countess with American roots, who is supposed to married a German Prince is far from convincing to me as a German. overdrafted and drawn. i think he had a better grasp on the French the English and the Italians.it is interesting in itself to see that even this great master of psychology experiences cultural boundaries like everyone else.

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            • Wow, Marcus, that IS a coincidence!

              I agree with you that “The Europeans,” despite its flaws, is quite engaging and easy to read. It flows very nicely, and never bored me. Of course, one has to get over the mental hurdle that cousins were allowed to marry in those days. 🙂

              If that novel was a little longer, if the ending was better, if the characters were more three-dimensional rather than types…but those are three enormous “if’s” I posited!

              It is indeed interesting that Henry James depicted English, French, and Italian characters more believably than German ones. “…even this great master of psychology experiences cultural boundaries like everyone else” — great line by you!

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