American Literature and Reevaluating My Reading Standards

I know lots of people discuss reading broader globally, moving about of Western Lit if they have thoroughly read Western Lit which doesn’t seem the case for most people, good and well. I however, don’t even read that broad. I’ve barely read my own nation’s literature, and what I’ve read . . . I . . . do not love.

I like some children’s/ya sort of literature (Alcott, To Kill a Mockingbird) and plenty of middle grade from the U.S. but most of my adult classic reading is British. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Anglophile in the way many people do, who seem to portray England exactly the same as during the heyday of the classics. I love the literature and the history, in part because well, like many Americans, it is my history and when it diverges, it is my cousin’s history so to speak. I’ve no desire to be British, nevertheless, I’m definitely rather an American’s American in many respects.

But I do not love our literature. Don’t misunderstand me, I do have some respect for it for some aspects of some of it (I think, perhaps the wordsmithery and that is it), but I don’t understand the tone of it at all. Its so incredibly depressing and fatalistic and that doesn’t seem to fit the overall tone of our nation throughout history. For example, I can understand that sort of tone in Russian Literature. I can’t find any bright spots or hopefulness ever in Russian history. But we at least have always acted like everything was hunky dory whether it was or not. And fatalism seems the opposite to our can do attitude for much of history. It is also, in my opinion extremely boring and depressing to read. And all the literature I’ve come across from America is fatalistic.

Tied to this fatalism and glumness is a total lack of humor/awareness/sense of the ludicrous. I think lots of people know that when you take everything as humor, nothing is serious, but I think that when everything is serious, nothing is. I don’t think that there needs to be objective humor per se, but there is a sort of connected attribute of self-awareness, a sense of the ludicrous, that without which, serious perspectives come across as bland and pompous and possibly ludicrous. Ethan  Frome layers on so many tragedies of such a self-imposed type and in a way that by the end, I’m disgusted, not empathetic. And if that was all truly supposed to be serious, its absolutely a ludicrous story.

Earlier this year when I was bingeing the Speaking with Joy podcast, she had a quote by Chesterton. I believe it had to have been this one. I can’t verify that it was Chesterton, but all the same, whoever said it it sums this point up perfectly

“Humor can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle.”

American literature will never have my love, but I have felt that I needed to read more. You ought to read more than just what you love, and I am after all, American. So, I’ve put authors on my list. I’d read some short stories I found interesting by Faulkner and Hemingway. I picked up  The Sound and The Fury. Yeah, that was a no. I did a bit of research on his other work and dropped Faulkner. Maybe the two short stories are enough. I then eventually picked up Hemingway, and slogged my way through two works and got mired in a third. I had thought that because they were so short, I would read all the fairly famous ones anyway. Mulling it over, I decided, that that was enough. I don’t enjoy his stories, nor do I think I need to dwell on them. All of his characters are sociopaths, anyone with feelings is portrayed as weak in addition to the fatalism. I don’t really think that that is a great thing to absorb in addition to my not enjoying them. I’ve had a taste. That is enough.

I then decided, that I’d try to try one of each fairly famous American author’s works. I don’t have to read all their works, I don’t even have to read the most famous of their works. Getting a taste of their work is good enough, perhaps in fact may be too much.

Recently my sister mentioned reading a Flannery O’Conner novel and feeling like she shouldn’t be reading it, it was something about a pastor who wasn’t a Christian but was still preaching. I feel like that is another aspect to Am Lit. That of focusing on really disturbing things and people. Or at least some of them like O’Conner (I’ve not read hers, that is the impression I’ve received from what little I’ve heard), Faulkner, and Hemingway. I remember in high school Am Lit that the focus was on short stories and they were all horrible, so I assumed all short stories were that way. Why is this such a focus?! And should I be reading this stuff? Maybe a short story is the only taste I should have, if any of such authors.

I guess, tread warily will be my goal.


  • McKayla

    I should read some more American Lit, too, but I’m just not a fan of depressing stories. One of my goals for this year was to read more literature, in general.
    I should also get actual standards when reading. I feel like I enjoy more things than I don’t, which I guess is a good thing, but I’m also wondering if I just have bad taste.

    • Livia Rose

      I’m not either, but I also know I can tend to have a bit of a Hobbit problem, avoiding reality for the sake of fantasy happiness yet I don’t want to end up wallowing or even in horrid stories that should maybe not exist rather than learning which is what I feel some American lit can tend towards.

  • Elizabeth

    I have a complicated relationship with classics although I really haven’t read many of them. Some are really good and other ones seem more problematic than anything. Personally, I think some classics are taken too seriously and points are made that never really were in the book to begin with. It’s ironic that so many revered and studied books can be so misunderstood. Some books I honestly wonder why they’re considered classics, but that’s probably just ignorance on my part. I really haven’t read enough to have much of an opinion.

    I read an annotated Alice and Wonderland last year and it is was hilarious how hard they were trying to make insightful points over the fact that Alice wasn’t falling down the rabbit-hole as fast as the jar that came down with her because they said the laws of gravity are all wrong and Carrol would have known that.

    1984 was a problematic one for me because it’s all incredibly sexual and had rapey undertones that were never really addressed. The author was trying to make a point but it just seemed so…one dimensional and buried in fetishes.

    Something like To Kill a Mockingbird though had some of those things too but it worked and made sense. The points that people made or examples that were shown in different people were supposed to be there.

    Anyways this was all really fascinating. I should pay more attention to what kind literature the books I read are.

    • Livia Rose

      I love To Kill a Mockingbird, I think everything is addressed wonderfully, I wasn’t counting that in my Am Lit, I think more younger age stuff is MUCH better. Its the ostensibly deep adult stuff. It is just presented without hope, and I feel like touches terrible things in a weirdly voyeuristic sort of way, not a sort of social commentary sort of way.

      I do think the is a great level of literary giftedness in the US classics I’ve read. I’ve had a problem with the morals really.

      But I do think there are classics were the artistic gift just doesn’t seem to be there (cough, Hugo, cough) enough to merit the great fame.

  • Marian

    Still exploring US literature, but so far, I’d agree – there’s just something less loveable about US lit. There are certain books I absolutely love, but as a category, it’s less recommendable than, say, British or Russian.

    I’m currently reading the complete short stories of Flannery O’Connor. I think she’s a brilliant writer, but the subject matter does veer towards the dark side of humanity, and I have to take breaks.

    Jack London is more of the “classic adventure a la British writers” and less of the “bleak stuff”… although as I say that, I have to admit his stories do have some violence.

    For Hawthorne, I’d probably recommend The Blithedale Romance; it’s his most readable novel.

    I loved Billy Budd by Herman Melville. But it is not a cheerful story. 😆

    Mark Twain certainly had a sense of humor. I enjoyed Tom Sawyer, Joan of Arc (not a comedy, but a good novel), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

    • Livia Rose

      American authors are brilliant, just not my thing. Its, like trying too hard to be gloomy, self-consciously, ostentatiously dark. Not dark with a purpose or a good purpose anyway.

      Russia is dark too, and I don’t recognize the people as people, like its like they are a whole other species.

      Mark Twain’s sense of humor and mine don’t seem to overlap much from what I remember. I couldn’t stand the Joan of Arch, she was too “saintly” literally.

      I’ve avoided Jack London, animal stories tear me up.

  • Davida Chazan

    I read quite a bit of American lit when I was younger – it was part of the curriculum, I guess. Then I married a Brit and suddenly there were authors he’d read that I had never heard of! Plus, the only good library (at the time – now it is gone) was the British Council Library, and of course they’re going to have more British authors (plus Irish and Australian and Canadian and New Zealand). Well, while discovering them, I didn’t miss the old Americans. Mind you, of the modern authors I’ve discovered in the past decade or so, I’d say I’ve found some good Americans among them.

    • Livia Rose

      I’ve loved modern middle grade American authors and some YA. Not sure how much modern adult authors I’ve read, tend to avoid them, I find them shallower. Wendell Berry is a modern literary author I respect more, still less agreeable to me than Brit Lit, too realistic probably. (I like living in fantasy land). Marilynne Robinson is similar

  • Skye H

    I tend to read a lot of British authors too, I used to avoid classics but this year I’ve found I actually like a few. I enjoyed The Great Gatsby even though it is rather depressing and basically a cautionary tale about how the American Dream is unattainable. It’s got this beautiful writing and descriptions that just draw me in.
    I do wish more authors utilized humor.

    • Livia Rose

      I think humor is like salt. I don’t know if I read that somewhere or what, but yeah. Salt is more than a seasoning, it is a flavor enhancer, so is humor. You have to have it to deepen the story. I’m not necessarily meaning, laughing, but the sort of awareness that having a sense of humor brings.

      Of course I also like living in happy fantasy land where there is lots of laughter, so without that I’d still probably not love the story.

      I’ve read the Great Gatsby a couple times I think, not my thing. My sister loves one of the author’s other books, Tender is the Night. She’s more into the dark and moody literature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.