Friday, June 26, 2009

Stories from the Heartland*

*This post was pre-written before my departure.

I am deep into my Midwestern odyssey right about now, so in my absence, I thought I'd provide you with a few of my favorite socially conscious Middle American novels. 

1.  Babbit (1922) by Sinclair Lewis
I read "Babbit" ages ago and still can't get its hapless protagonist out of my head. Everyone has a Babbit in their lives; he's that annoying combination of ignorance and optimism, the guy who always follows the herd but remains convinced he leads the pack. Funny thing is, you can't help but sympathize with the schmuck. He's an archetypal character, most recently revived (I think) by Ricky Gervais in "The Office." A midlife crisis forces Babbit to confront the pressures of provincial fervor, conformism and materialism head-on, resulting in a personal awakening...or not. 

2. The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) by Booth Tarkington
At its heart, a tale of a prominent Midwestern family in decline, it offers a perspective on the rapid industrial rise of America as seen through the eyes of George Amberson Minafer, a selfish, spoiled heir who is unable -- or unwilling -- to face progress. Yes, the movie is a masterpiece, but I think the book is just as satisfying.

3. Jennie Gerhardt (1911) by Theodore Dreiser
Jennie's life resonated with me; at the time I read this book, I had just moved to Manhattan after college and was working at an ad agency and supporting myself for the first time. I remember feeling anguished over her tragic circumstances and the unfairness of what life was like for a girl my age a mere 80 years earlier. 

4. An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser
So much has been written about this book and I'll just say this: it changed me. Clyde Griffiths is like every American: he wants the girl, the money and the lifestyle to go with it. Unfortunately, he lives in a society that is prejudiced, insular and unfair, making it next to impossible for him to achieve these goals. By the time he commits his great crime, you almost forgive him for it, knowing the struggles and tragedies of his life as intimately as you do. 

Note on Dreiser: 
I know some people are anti-Dreiser because they feel his prose is clunky and mechanical. He has been called "one of the worst greatest writers in America." To me, however, you don't read Dreiser for the prose, you read him because his unerring journalist's eye gives you a searing glimpse into the dark side of human nature at the turn of the 20th century. 


Melissa Powar said...

For another taste of Midwestern literature, I recommend Time Will Darken It, by the much overlooked William Maxwell. Set in Illinois in 1912, it is a fascinating meditation on fidelity and goodness and the complexities of family and responsibility.

Happy travels!

home before dark said...

"Winesburg Ohio" by Sherwood Anderson is a favorite.
"Our Town," by Thornton Wilder still speaks to me.

And in my small southern Oklahoma hometown, there were many babbits. None quite as perfect in their identity to its namesake than George W. Bush.

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

I feel the same way about an American Tragedy- loved the Magnificent Ambersons. Glad you are thinking of your devoted readers whilst away. la

Clarity said...

Sinclair Lewis is one my top 3 authors, thank you for mentioning the genius behind "Main Street" and "Babbit". Recently discussed him with a loved who declared "He is out of fashion" - I disagree. Still searching for a first edition "Main Street" for my collection.

I still need to read Dreiser but have heard promising things.

Amy said...

Sinclair Lewis is one of my favorite authors. His stories about life in small town America are as relevant today as when they were published. It's been a while since I read Dreiser. I think I'll read "An American Tragedy" again after I finish the book I bought today, Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park". It's the only one of Austen's books I never read & I've been meaning too for a long time!

Enjoy your holiday!

ArchitectDesign™ said...

I LOVE Dreiser! I remember reading 'sister carrie' about 10 times in high school!! LOVE that book! And not just because the edition I have has a beautiful portrait by Sargent on the cover either!

Thomas Hogglestock said...

You may have moved on from your Midwest phase but one title to consider is As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross. A shortish novel where nothing seems to happen yet so much does. It takes place in Dustbowl-era Saskatchewan and, to me at least, it really captures something about life on the prairie, and suggests, to me at least, that the "American" heartland doesn't stop at our northern border. I am sure that might sound patronizing to a Canadian. Suffice it to say that Ross' book reminded me of people and places I knew in my childhood in central Minnesota and on trips to North Dakota.

Miss Cavendish said...

I love to teach *Ambersons,* *Tragedy,* and Dreiser's *Carrie* as well (though my students resist Dreiser's naturalistic vision). And I can certainly vouch for Thomas's suggestion (in the comments) of Ross as well . . . Of course you've seen *A Place in the Sun* with Taylor and Clift, which was based on *Tragedy*?


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