(An aside: only when I recognized Temple's name on this blog, did I connect her to her listsicle on Flavorwire about "50 Books Every Teenager Should Read," on which I blogged last summer. What a great source for book recommendations! Needless to say, I'll be following her on Lithub from now on.
The subject of the Great American Novel came up recently in a conversation I had with a colleague who teaches English in Germany. She has shared several German novels that I can read to develop my German skills. She wanted to know which books American kids read--or which books might provide insight into the American Dream.
This is what I wrote her (apologies for the informal, e-mail style of writing).
> > I was thinking more about your book. You saw my post on Facebook, too. A good way to think about Americans is that every American is Odysseus--inventive, wandering, and able to consider himself/herself moral while doing pretty immoral things (polluting the environment, voting for Donald Trump, invading Middle Eastern countries, etc.).
> > The best American books, then, are "road trip" novels. The earliest American "classic" was James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, about a woodsman and his trusty Native American sidekick who take two damsels through dangerous woods to the safety of a frontier fort. Huckleberry Finn, one of the greatest American novels, follows a runaway boy and an escaped slave down America's greatest waterway, the Mississippi River. In the 20th Century you have Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which was a forerunner of the Hippie Era. Moby Dick, which I have taught many times, is a road trip quest to find a single white whale in all the world's oceans. Ernest Hemingway's classic, A Farewell to Arms, is a World War I novel that does exactly the opposite to what German, French and British writers told about the war--it travels back and forth, from Milano to Caporetto, to Roma, to Lake Como, then on to Switzerland!
> > Some other great American books on this theme, which may not be as well known overseas, are Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, a western about a cattle drive that goes across the country from the Mexican border in the south all the way to Canada. Cormac McCarthy's The Road, published in 2005, is probably the most influential American book of this century. If you want to find America's soul, you'll find it on the road!
> > (Speaking of road trips, I'm planning a road trip over spring break to...The Grand Canyon! My family and I plan to drive (20 hours), hike to the bottom, and spend
> > My favorite book in this genre is John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which follows economic migrants along the historic Route 66 highway from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. I'm planning to teach this in my 11th-grade English class in April, and if you have some high-level students who might like to read it with us, it might open up a new angle on the book for students in both our schools. This is just an idea. Few of my English students would be in German Club.
It may be strange to think of America as a land of mutually wandering Odysseuses, but I feel it's pretty apt.
I'm not the writer that Emily Temple is--or the writers she cited in her column. To me, modern books like To Kill A Mockingbird miss the aspects of the road in American letters. McCarthy's Blood Meridian is indeed a road trip from Tennessee to Texas, then out into the wilderness (so is True Grit), but what a bloody adventure it is.
To me, the two greatest books in my list reflect two of America's greatest highways: the Mississippi River (Huckleberry Finn) and Route 66 (Grapes of Wrath). Here I need to apologies to Melville, who wrapped the entirety of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans in Moby Dick. Of the two, Grapes was written as America became a major power, and it captures a frustration greater than Twain's bitterness at human nature--a frustration with the rot of wealth, power, and decency in the face of desperate poverty.