To celebrate the “Final Four” in college basketball, I’ve decided to put together my own tournament—this one to decide the all-time top American writer. It’s a big project. I’ll need help.
How it will work: There will be sixteen seeds, sixty-four writers altogether. A writer will have to be good simply to make the tournament. Brackets will be set up, starting with four #1 seeds, then the #2 seeds, and so on. Then, the writers begin squaring off mano a mano. I’ll hope to enlist volunteers to choose between, say, Henry James or Allen Ginsberg. The winner moves on. This continues until we have an overall winner.
I haven’t decided if the brackets will be arbitrary, or split up between, say, regions, or using other classifications, such as a Poetry bracket, Playwright bracket, and so on. Probably not the latter, simply because the history of American literature has been dominated by the novel. It would be unfair to leave out novelists who’ve had a huge impact on the civilization and culture in favor of poets or playwrights who’ve had no great impact at all.
Which brings us to the question of what places a writer above another. I’ve sketched out what I believe are the main points, but welcome more.
A.) Influence/Importance/Relevance. Meaning, impact on America and the world. Not simply on the literary art, but on culture itself. Has the writer’s work become part of the culture?
B.) Popularity. Not the main point, but a major point.
C.) Persona. The writer’s persona is part and parcel of the writer’s impact. I refuse to take the narrow view of writers that, say, New York editors take, where the work is assessed in a vacuum. Literature has thrived in this crazy country when the main writers have been larger than life. Their very presence has promoted the vibrancy of the literary art.
D.) Critical Standing. This means, the quality of the work itself. Has the body of work stood the test of time? Is it considered world class? Are significant ideas expressed in the work? Great themes relevant to people anywhere?
E.) American. Is the writer and the work authentically, recognizably, quintessentially American? Is he or she representative of the land, this nation, and the nation’s voice? To some extent, writers should be of their place and time.
The writer’s mastery of form, and of various forms, can be considered as well. The forms include Novels, Poetry, Plays, Short Stories, Essays, and Criticism.
In this discussion, what am I leaving out?
Next: Will be a discussion of what makes a “1” seed, and whether there are any automatic #1’s, as, say, Tolstoy would presumably be an automatic #1 in an all-time Russian writer tournament.
WHO'S GOOD ENOUGH?
Who's good enough to make the tournament? Certain writers are gimmes-- but 64 spots, when you start listing writers, isn't a lot. The American Pop Lit Competition Committee hasn't decided if there will be a play-in game. Who should we start thinking about?
Sinclair Lewis? Anne Sexton? Pearl Buck? David Mamet? Zora Neale Hurston? Fanny Hurst? Maya Angelou? John "The Mummy" Updike? Charlie Bukowski? Ezra Pound? Carl Sandburg? Gertrude Stein? Sherwood Anderson? Truman Capote? Zane Grey? Herman Wouk? James Jones? Ray Bradbury? James Cain? James Fenimore Cooper? Harriet Beecher Stowe? Isaac Asimov? Ayn Rand? Mario Puzo? John Berryman? Bernard Malamud? Richard Wright? Ray Carver? Raymond Chandler? Lillian Hellman? Mary McCarthy? Katherine Anne Porter? Any contemporary poets? Any fantasy writers? Let's have some names!
In the meantime, we'll start on the easy part-- the #1 seeds.
GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS
Yes, I’m supposed to start discussing the #1 seeds for the All-Time American Writer Tournament. But as I was thinking about Ernest Hemingway—a likely #1 seed—I pondered whether he would be a good guy or a bad guy, if, say, the tournament were similar to Wrestlemania. I believe Hem would relish being a villain.
Who are other “bad guys”? Everyone hates Joyce Carol Oates, so I have her penciled in to the bad guy role also. Then there are some obvious “Boo! Hiss!” characters such as Ezra Pound and his tag-team partner, T.S. “The Fop” Eliot. As Ayn Rand seems to be heavily disliked, and carries the egomania of an effective bad guy, we’ll have her play that part as well. She used to stampede around in real life wearing a cape and using a cigarette holder, so she’d gladly play the part in the tournament.
“Good guys” by definition are a bland lot. In literature we have Emily D, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, Harriet Beecher Stowe of course, and possibly social conscience guys like Arthur Miller and Carl Sandburg. Miller, anyway, will have a female manager who was a bit of a celebrity herself. That will add some melodrama.
Anti-heroes? Jack Kerouac for sure, and likely Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman.
Then we have the Divas, which is where I put Allen Ginsberg, “Glamor Boy” Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and J.D. Salinger. The hard part will be getting Salinger into the ring. One can see a sneering Hemingway waiting for him, accusing him of cowardice and such—though if Salinger avoids disqualification and enters the ring he might do fairly well.
THE #1 SEEDS
Two American writers were so gigantic in standing and influence, even on the world stage, that they're automatic #1 seeds. Both of them, in ways good and bad, helped define what it is to be American.
1.) Ernest Hemingway. Possibly the biggest writer persona ever. In his day he was a bigger figure than movie stars and pop singers. Instantly recognizable. Larger than life. A giant part of the culture. He destroyed the effete image of literature. He had popular best-sellers but was also a critical darling. He defined, at least for a while, the American voice-- and in many ways transformed the English language. Even the Brits weren't the same after Hemingway. In America, the hard-boiled detective genre sprang from a single Hemingway short story. ("The Killers.") Hemingway began as an underground writer, the artistic creation of Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound. He took from his mentors, synthesized their ideas and made them accessible to the world. It's impossible for us today to understand how revolutionary was the early Hemingway sound. Though much of his work today is dated, his best stuff holds up-- his "Macomber" story one of the most exciting tales ever written; his top novels, "Sun" and "Farewell" striking reads also.
2.) Walt Whitman. More than any other single writer, Walt Whitman created the American voice and justified a distinctive American literature very different from its Old World models. Beyond that, he transformed the art of poetry on a world scale. Many consider him the father of free verse. Not just his art, but his persona was distinctively American. "Leaves of Grass" was every bit as revolutionary an artistic happening as anything Hemingway wrote. Or, for that matter, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, who would've been impossible without Whitman blazing the trail before them. Whitman was the first hippie. He lived during a time when poetry was popular, and he was the most popular poet. The American character is a mix of several influences. Whitman is surely one of them.
Those are the two automatics. This leaves us with two more slots to fill. Who else is on their lofty level? There are several candidates. The literary establishment surely wants Henry James up there-- but he has a couple strikes against him. Other names seem to fit more comfortably as #2 or #3 seeds. Then there are the Nobel Prize winners, but some of the winners have been quite mediocre. I have a rough idea of who else belongs at the top of the seeding, but am willing first to hear remarks. (After all four top seeds are determined, there will be a news conference, at our venue site, at which I hope to get a few remarks
from the four.)
The other two #1 seeds:
3.) Herman Melville. What does one do with Moby Dick? One of the other top competitors, Toni Morrison, explained once in a long essay the novel's symbolism and significance. Talk about writing about America! The Pequod with its hierarchy, mad captain, and multi-cultural crew remains a striking metaphor about the country and concept "America." What do they chase? That which Melville, writing ten years before the Civil War, saw as America's founding flaw-- the "white whale." I doubt if any novel ever written by anyone anywhere has been more ambitious-- ambitious in terms of discussing the world, nature, society-- and ambitious in looking inward toward man's sins and soul. It's also a great yarn. Lest we think this was all Melville wrote, he began as a popular novelist, wrote some classic short stories, including one, "Bartleby," which in our cubicle work world is more relevant today than ever. Herman finished his career with a great novella, "Billy Budd," just to show he still had it. But Moby Dick-- a novel which can stand with any novel written by the world's best, even the Russians.
4.) Mark Twain. I happily bow to the voice of the crowd on this selection. As a persona he's up there with anyone. He has his undeniable masterpiece, other classic works, fantastic essays and a few good stories. If we're talking about which writers defined the culture and the American voice, then figures like Twain have an undeniable edge. We also can't deny there was a time when American lit was much bigger in cultural importance than it is now. But be aware-- there are many brackets to fill. A wide variety of voices will be heard from.
THE PRESS CONFERENCE
As I prepare to introduce the four bigs-- #1 seeds-- to the expectant crowd, I look around for my newly booked commentator, Emily Dickinson ("Emily D"). I notice she's been cornered by Mailer, who while clenching and unclenching his fists and talking nonstop is explaining to Emily why he should've been a top seed and up on that stage. I think, Emily! Emily D is very talented and very cute, but she's not very worldly.
The Four are invited to step to the microphone to make a few remarks.
Hemingway: "It was an honor. It was a surprise but it was also an honor. It was not a surprise at all but he said it was because he didn't want people thinking he wasn't humble. It was easier to be humble. He didn't want to think about not being humble."
Whitman: "You who celebrate bygones! I, habitan of a cemetary in Camden, treating of himself as he is in his cups, Chanter of verse, I project the history of this contest, the great pride of this man in himself, Cheerful-- knowing this man Walt Whitman will win."
Melville: (Melville declines the opportunity to speak, but instead remains in his chair on stage, puffing on a pipe and observing the proceedings like a bemused sea captain surprised to be on land.)
Twain: "I had a lurking suspicion that Ernie Hemingway was a myth, that there never was such a fantastic personage. I asked old Wheeler about him, and he said it reminded him of the infamous Jim Hemingway last seen flexing his neck muscles around the barroom stove in Algonac due south and over a bridge from here. Big-bearded big-headed Jim backed Wheeler into a corner then sat him down and reeled off a monotonous narrative about flyfishing in a river not ten miles from this very spot. A fishing story, we used to call it. The one that got away. But no fishing story like the one Herm Melville on this stage has been known to tell." (Twain takes a puff from his own pipe.) "Fishing stories! You propose to defeat this old riverboat captain with fishing stories. Good luck."
In this town's local barroom afterward, three of the Big Four stand around a stove telling yarns. Across from me, Emily D sips from sherry in a glass, the sherry the color of her eyes. "I taste a liquor never brewed," she confides.
I've known many poets and they're a strange bunch.
"What do you think of this event so far?" I ask, gesturing toward where Mark Twain holds court, where even Melville stands listening, four giant men in the small wood room-- Mailer trying to butt into the conversation rises barely to the others' shoulders. Emily gazes around the little tavern.
"Such a delirious whirl!" she says.
A REPORT FROM THE VENUE
There's a palpable buzz in town today. People suspect something big may occur. I figure they've heard the loud voices coming from the Selection Committee room. But there've been other happenings. Among them:
-Several mysterious writer figures have booked into the Grand Hotel.
-The Poetry community, practitioners of the art who've taken up residence in the area, have undergone a change in mood. Initially euphoric that one of their number was the second name chosen, they've now dropped, as is their nature, to the other extreme. Speculation exists that it'll be many seeds before another poet makes the brackets. I've heard grumbling. "Where's Eliot?" they've asked. "At least Eliot! Or Poe? How can you leave out Poe?" I don't tell them that Poe's entry, when it occurs, will have more to do with his fabulous stories than his poetry.
-At the same time, a coffeeshop is poised to open at the end of the main street. Poetry advocates have been seen inside, directing workmen. There've been arguments about where to place the tables. Poets, as is their nature, seldom agree about anything. The poets must see the coffeeshop as a way to lobby for their kind. Poets have been known to host impromptu readings at such places.
-The Big Four have been conveniently sent out of town to scout for pine trees. Good American pine will be needed to construct the outdoor arena in which the matches will take place. Before they left, Herman Melville was seen to duck quickly back into the Grand Hotel, possibly to see one of the new visitors. All is speculation! Then the four left. Hemingway was grinning, impossibly happy to be with his new compatriots. They're supposed to locate tracts of pine, but word in town is that instead they've gone hunting and fishing.
-Some of the writers-- Joyce Carol Oates among them-- have located an exercise room in the basement of the old hotel. I dropped in to take a look. It's not at all like a modern gym, but instead has equipment last used in the 19th century-- dumbbells and boxing gloves. When I glanced around I saw Mary McCarthy, or someone who looked like Mary McCarthy, using the heavy gloves to punch out a silhouette of Lillian Hellman. Oates watched, egging the burgundy-haired woman on. "Bunny" Wilson the lit critic-- an extreme longshot to make the event-- stood by as well.
-Emily D, overwhelmed by the excitement of past days, has taken to her room. She's assured me through her new friend, Sylvia Plath, that she'll be back as guest commentator as soon as she's able.
-In the meantime I've been forced to take on as Emily's temporary replacement, Norman Mailer. He must sense that he'll not be chosen in the next few brackets, and so has time on his hands, is eager for any way to gain the spotlight. Or, as he explained to me,
"I reluctantly concluded that with the inevitable reaction against maleness, of which I'm of course the embodiment, as well as being the essentially pre-eminent literary figure of his time, I, Mailer, caught in this really predictable and shitty existential crisis of identity, this primordial mentality truly American, American-ness sense of existential angst-- dread, dread!-- the mountains of critical response to this figure Mailer who's always stood independently for this instinctively pure essence of writer, I say essence because it's so anally basic, this maw of warm shit excreting itself from the corpus of the art, the community, expressing itself against this symbol of male willness, I, Mailer. . . ."
This isn't what he said exactly. I'm giving a shortened facsimile. If I were to post his full explanation for why he's signed on as a substitute commentator, I wouldn't have enough space.
Even Mailer senses the electricity in the streets. That something, as early as tonight, is about to break. I hope to be able to give a report, as well as an announcement of the #2 seeds, within the next couple days.
THE #2 SEEDS
A.) F. Scott Fitzgerald. With Fitzgerald the case to be made is why he isn't a #1 seed. For two reasons. First, he didn't influence and express the American voice to the same extent as the four. Nobody talks like Fitzgerald or writes like him. Being the best means being unique-- and I think he's the best American writer, if not the most important. Second, Fitzgerald has never been as big on a world scale as the others. Other cultures have never quite "gotten" him-- a sign of how truly American he is. Still, he's never been more appreciated than now-- another Gatsby movie upcoming-- and his work can become more influential, if writers understand exactly what he did and how he did it. I'll address his writing in another post.
B.) Ayn Rand. The literary world for sixty years has refused to acknowledge this person, but it's like trying to ignore the sun or the moon. Her influence on America is bigger than what has become quite a tiny literary world. Her ideas and analysis are the world we live in now. America, with its oversized strengths and flaws, its egoism and materialism, is a Randian world. If we as advocates of literature ask literature to be a living part of the civilization, a necessary part of the argument, then Ayn Rand, more than any American writer, past or present, fulfills that role. The Reagan era took its ideas from her. The Tea Party today is part Jefferson, part Jesus, and part Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged alone sold a million copies last year. With a movie version due out, that number will only go up. Added note for the p.c. crowd: Ayn Rand was a feminist before there was feminism.
But, the writing? What about the writing? Despite the ostensible logic she claimed to express, Ayn Rand's novels-- even their ideas-- are illusion. Her books are very much works of art. I'll address this next week in a separate post.
C.) Toni Morrison. Morrison allows us to bring American literature to its varied present while at the same time strengthening its tie to the past. Morrison has a unique voice-- a big, loud, American voice-- which at the same time is tied inextricably to founding American authors like Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe. If Ayn Rand's viewpoint is part of the contemporary American argument, then so is Morrison's. Besides, Toni Morrison isn't just a renowned novelist. She's also a dominating essayist, and has even written the libretto for an opera-- "Margaret Garner"-- which I saw presented in Detroit in 2008. I was blown away by it.
D.) Jack Kerouac. As dynamic a persona, as mythic a person, and as American a voice as anyone. On the Road, his most influential book, is quintessentially American. As much as any work of literature, it captures and defines this country, which has always, always, been about the open road-- the impulse toward freedom, the need to travel ever farther. Where, we're not always sure. Fitzgerald called it a green light. Kerouac expressed the driving and striving on a more visceral level.