I’ve never read Huckleberry Finn. This has always caused me a considerable amount of guilt – guilt being a specialty I’ve spent far more time refining than my prose. I was always under the impression that the fact that I’d never read my own country’s National Author (capital letters, for certainly the title comes with a certificate, jacket sticker, theme song and the like) somehow reflected poorly on me because, well, I’m an American, and I like to write… Shouldn’t I have read our guy at some point?
However, I’ve come to realize an interesting phenomenon…. Today I was speaking to a friend at my gym – a Russian named “Geny.” I was discussing with him my great affinity for (as any of you who have ever read me… or met my cat… might have guessed) the greatest story of all time, Eugene Onegin. To this, Geny, despite the fact that he was likely named after the title character(Eugene = Yevgeny –> Geny), responded that he’d never read Onegin. I was shocked–though I need not have been–for Geny is not actually even close to the first Russian I’ve met who has never read Pushkin’s classic. Still, it got me thinking… Do any of us actually read our national authors?
I guess I’d assumed that every Italian had read Dante; that every Frenchman had read Victor Hugo; Hell I figured even Jeremy Clarkson could probably recite a wee bit of the Bard.
Maybe I’m wrong. Though there’s another possibility. What if what outsiders consider to be another’s national identity-defining novel is not what said others would choose for themselves?
Some list tells me that Mark Twain is the American storyteller, and I don’t know. Not having read him, I’d perhaps put forth F. Scott Fitzgerald as my offering into that impossible debate.
I’ve often figured that maybe part of our difficulty in determining the Great American Writer is that Americans come from so many different places, that and also how we Americans love our hyphenated pasts. (I haven’t read Twain, but you bet I’ve read Joyce.) Now I see that glint in some of your eyes, “Ohhhh, McGrath… Fitzgerald… a love affair in shades of green… Now I get it.” But that doesn’t come close to explaining the guy I’d put second on my Great American Writer list: Ralph Ellison (whose Invisible Man unquestionably says as much about the American experience that 99% of us know as the sublime Gatsby does).
I don’t know what it is that tells me that those two have the Authentic American Voice, though I’m happy to explain why they each represent a voice which I not only find myself able to identify with, but also which I’d identify as American.
So, this has me thinking. Who is it that you consider to be your national author? What is it that you consider to be your national novel? I’ll venture one guess: There’s gonna be more than one answer for each.