The other day I lunched with a fellow who has spent the past several years methodically working his way through the great novels of England's Victorian era, on the eminently reasonable assumption that any books that have survived for a hundred years or more are likely to have something to recommend them. Now he has come up for air, and proposes to have a go at the fiction of 20th-century America. What he wanted to know was: Where should he begin?
He came to the right party -- not because I necessarily know what I'm talking about, but because I have a strong streak of Professor Higgins in me. The chance to take a tabula rasa and mark it to my liking is more than I can resist. So I told him I would come up with a list. In fact, I ended up spending the better part of a week brooding over it: making and remaking lists, arguing with myself and occasionally my wife over the merits of any number of novels and story collections. Finally I boiled it down to 22 books -- one reader's short course in eight decades of American fiction.
But why keep the list a secret among myself, my wife and my friend? Why not toss it out for public consumption, in the hope of stirring up a lively debate? So here it is, in chronological order of the birthdates of the authors:
* Edith Wharton: "The House of Mirth."
* Theodore Dreiser: "Sister Carrie."
* Willa Cather: "Death Comes for the Archbishop."
* Jack London: "Martin Eden."
* John P. Marquand: "Wickford Point."
* John Dos Passos: "U.S.A."
* F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The Great Gatsby."
* William Faulkner: "Light in August," "The Sound and the Fury" and "Absalom! Absalom!"
* Ernest Hemingway: "Men Without Women."
* Eudora Welty: "The Collected Stories."
* Ralph Ellison: "Invisible Man."
* Bernard Malamud: "The Assistant."
* Saul Bellow: "Seize the Day."
* Walker Percy: "The Moviegoer."
* Peter Taylor: "The Collected Stories."
* Evan S. Connell Jr.: "Mrs. Bridge."
* William Styron: "Lie Down in Darkness."
* Flannery O'Connor: "The Complete Stories."
* Frederick Exley: "A Fan's Notes."
* Larry Woiwode: "Beyond the Bedroom Wall."
Okay. The major omission is obvious: Henry James. But this is a list of 20th-century fiction, and by 1900 James was no longer an American novelist. He had lived abroad for a quarter-century, and all of his so-called "American novels" had been published by 1881. Certainly "The Portrait of a Lady" belongs on any list of great American fiction; but it was published two decades before the turn of the century and therefore cannot be included here.
There are six near-misses: Kate Chopin's "The Awakening," Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel," James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan," Philip Roth's "The Ghost Writer," Gail Godwin's "A Mother and Two Daughters" and "The Stories of John Cheever." The Chopin is a superb book, but perhaps more notable for its anticipation of later feminist attitudes than as a work of art. The Wolfe and Farrell are books that have passed their prime; if not exactly period pieces, they certainly are dated. The other three are simply too recent to permit any real perspective on them; my hunch is that Godwin and Roth will flourish over the years, but that Cheever will come to be seen as a brilliant stylist and satirist who unfortunately has not a great deal to say.
The same can be said of John O'Hara, J.D. Salinger and John Updike -- all, like Cheever, New Yorker writers. Yes, Virginia, there is a "New Yorker school," and its writers do sound remarkably alike: smooth, controlled, urbane, faintly world-weary and, from time to time, casually theological. Agreeable though the style may be, it is nonetheless a straitjacket for writers of fiction.
Other notable omissions: John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller. Steinbeck was more a journalist than a novelist; aside from Pearl Buck, he is our most preposterous Nobel laureate. Mailer might have become a substantial novelist, but he got too busy just being Mailer -- the same preoccupation that knocked off his hero, Papa Hemingway. Pynchon's seriousness of purpose and inventive prose are admirable, and I wish I could read him, but there you have it: I can't, hard though I've tried. As for Heller, "Catch-22" is brilliant in spots -- but those spots come toward the beginning and the end, with an indigestible middle in between.
Of the books that are on the list, 10 of 22 are southern -- a category in which I include "Invisible Man." In part this reflects my own strong interest in southern fiction, but it also simply reflects literary reality: The South bulks as large in American fiction of the 20th century as New England did in the fiction of the 19th. Walker Percy, asked once why this is so, replied succinctly and accurately: "Because we lost the war." The South's acquaintance with the dark sides of life is matched by no other region of the county and explains the great themes that haunt its literature -- history, bondage, defeat, endurance.
Hemingway is on the list against the considerable resistance of the list maker. The influence of his work on American letters and attitudes is far greater than the work itself; it is because of this influence that he makes the list. His best work is in the early short stories; you can't gainsay "The Killers," "Fifty Grand" or "Now I Lay Me."
John P. Marquard, whose work seems largely to be forgotten, eventually will be rediscovered as the American Trollope, or at the very least the American Galsworthy; "Wickford Point" is his most accomplished novel, at once a wicked satire of various levels and aspects of New England society, and a serious consideration of the writer's situation. Another listing that is likely to surprise many readers, Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," employs an astonishing storytelling gift and an outrageous sense of humor to explore things that matter: identity, fame and obscurity, the "American Dream," one's obligations to society and one's self.
Finally, there can be no doubt that by contrast with the English, the Europeans and the Russians, we have not produced a "great" national literature; among other reasons, we simply haven't had as much time. But there are six books on this list that can be called "great" without fear of embarrassment: the three novels by Faulkner, "The Great Gatsby," "Invisible Man" and "The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor." For eight decades of work, that is not half bad.