10 Best American novels of the past half century

Tyler Cowen recently flogged the state of American literature, and for good reason: American literature, like American society as a whole, has always been a bit provincial despite the fact that it’s a commercial republic. Ours is, as Tocqueville once observed, a “disagreeable and talkative patriotism,” and not fit for stories universal in scope. American literature is provincial despite the fact that the republic is the world’s hegemon, too. Again Tocqueville: “in democratic nations a writer can flatter himself that he may get a mediocre renown and a great fortune cheaply.” There is also the fact of the world having too many wonderful writers in it, dead or alive. If you want to enrich yourself, you simply must read as much foreign literature as possible.

Yet it’s hard to believe that American literature, despite its provincialism, is too American for readers around the world to enjoy. The commercial nature of our mores (“I do not know a country where the love of money holds a larger place in the hearts of man,” says Tocqueville of the United States), the sheer size of our republic (325 million people give or take a few million), and the extent to which our cultural grasp has rooted itself worldwide is sure to produce a cosmopolitanism of some scope.

So, I present to you the 10 best American novels produced over the last half century. I do this not out of a vulgar or even talkative patriotism, but out of a respect for the less-heralded cultural underpinnings of the republic, the ones that celebrate and encourage – quietly (almost humbly) – timeless and universal tales about humanity in all its facets.

Fifty years back takes us to 1969. The postwar boom has faded. The so-called Thirty Glorious Years are almost over. The Cold War against the Soviets will be fought for another 20 years. The buzzword of note, in the press and among the wonkish and literary elite, is “de-industrialization.” There are riots in the streets. A once-confident republic is less sure of itself than it has been since its founding era, and has even discovered, perhaps for the first time in its short history, a sense of self-loathing and despair. It is against this mainstream cultural backdrop that the following list comes from:

10. Ham on Rye (1982) by Charles Bukowski. At number 10, Bukowski, known more for his poetry than his novels, barely makes the cut. And Ham on Rye is, at first glance, not a particularly strong choice. It’s about being white trash, which is an essentially American identity (or it was up until ten or twenty years ago). A second glance reveals a more universal theme, though. Henry Chinaski’s mother is from another country. She married a foreign soldier, bore his child, and left her own country for what she thought could only be a better life in the occupying soldier’s homeland. Bukowski’s book is of global relevance.

9. Humboldt’s Gift (1975) by Saul Bellow. Every sentence in Bellow’s story is a breath of fresh air. Every character is memorable. Every theme to be found has universal appeal. This one should probably be ranked higher, to be honest. Bellow’s writing surely pushes the conservative reader of 2019 deeper into his despair over the decay of the republic. Philistines take note: read this one first.

8. Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison. Yes, I know Morrison just died, but this book would still be on the list even if she was still among the living. Like the ghost in her novel, Morrison’s story will haunt you. Slave novels and haunted houses are as American as apple pie, you say, but what about a runaway slave’s dead baby ghost? Ghosts themselves play a prominent role in much of the world’s literature, as does slavery. Beloved is a world-class tale, though, not only for its subject matter but its themes as well: deep, sorrowful pain and love well-earned.

7. The Echo Maker (2006) by Richard Powers. The intelligence of Richard Powers is overwhelming. His stories are based on the experiences he’s had within America’s scientific and literary institutions. His voice is therefore too American, too literate, unless it’s used to tell a story about a man who seems to have gone insane. The definition of insanity varies across cultures and within the medical profession, but every society has crazy people in it, and Powers’ storytelling ability gives to this notion a new foundation.

6. The Namesake (2003) by Jhumpa Lahiri. This is a debut novel from a prize-winning author, and it’s been overlooked precisely for that reason. It, at first, seems far too American to make this list. There’s the bored housewife driven to philandering, of course, but also the son of immigrant parents who just can’t seem to please anybody. Yet the world now is filled with immigrants and most of them don’t seem to care much about the American Dream. They dawdle, they doodle, and they do their best to come to terms with their dual identities, much as Gogol does in this story. The Namesake is a deceptively great story.

5. Breakfast of Champions (1973) by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut? Maybe, but Breakfast of Champions is too weird to be universal. Shouldn’t the novel that came before Breakfast of Champions get the nod here? Folks, the world is a strange, sometimes violent place, and Vonnegut’s seventh novel captures every essence of such a cold, hard fact. Much of this story screams “too American,” but if you assigned this book to high schoolers in any country of the world, they’d remember it well into old age.

4. The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica (1983) by John Calvin Batchelor. The list’s dark horse, Batchelor’s novel is American literature’s best-kept secret. The story is a familiar one for people around the world. It’s about the unwanted, and it begins in a bar in Stockholm packed with American military deserters and draft dodgers. Throughout the novel, which is peppered with big words and leans heavily on Norse mythology, the United States is never reached, never touched. In fact, none of the story takes place in the United States at all. The protagonist instead floats from Sweden to Antarctica and is beset by a series of horrific events. Americans will think this book weird, but foreigners will understand it just fine.

3. Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy. A cowboy tale. The Wild West. Nothing says “too American” like a Western, you say, but frontier stories are surprisingly universal (think of Facundo, for example, or even War and Peace). Cormac McCarthy has produced several good works, including some that would give the 1990s a spot on this most prestigious of lists, but Blood Meridian is his best novel. At the risk of sounding provincial myself, I’d argue that it’s the best book on the frontier, ever.

2. Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides. There’s not much to add to the commentary on this one. It’s a masterpiece, and one that is obviously global in scope. There is little about this book that is too American, and much to be excited about for America’s future; despite the republic’s many failures it is still the world’s cultural powerhouse. Middlesex contributes to this tradition, and its impact will be felt around the world for decades to come.

1. The Known World (2003) by Edward P. Jones. As good as the other nine books are on this list, The Known World is easily the greatest American novel of the past half century. Surely two slave novels in a list of America’s 10 Best is one too many, and far too American for a list with such cosmopolitan aims. No. The Known World is a work about good, evil, and moral ambiguity. It is a blueprint for the future and an explanation of the present. It perfectly encapsulates the world we’ve always lived in. Jones accomplishes this task with aplomb, and he uses chattel slavery to do it. That’s rare. This novel is a gift to the world, from a people whose cosmopolitanism and morality is often overshadowed by the power of their military and the reach of their clandestine operations.

Further thoughts

Yes the 1990s were garbage, as is this decade, but who knew the aughts were such a great time? How much of an impact did 9-11 have on our literary class?

Yes I know there are a lot of good books written by Americans. If your favorite American novel from the past 50 years is not on this list, it’s because it’s too American (too provincial) or not quite up to the Christensen Snuff.

Yes I know there’s no science fiction or fantasy on this list, and that science fiction and fantasy are just as intellectually stimulating as traditional literature.

Now, back to Feyerabend!

Nightcap

  1. Democracy in America: Tocqueville v. Trump Harvey Mansfield, City Journal
  2. The tyranny of the “national interest” Pierre Lemieux, EconLog
  3. Ayn Rand had Asperger’s Syndrome Shanu Athiparambath, Veridici
  4. Autism and National Public Radio Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Tensions between liberalism and democracy from a Tocquevillean perspective Ewa Atanassow (interview), JHIBlog
  2. High theory and low seriousness Gustav Jönsson, Quillette
  3. Another misuse of Eastern ideas Amy Olberding, Aeon
  4. The real reason Netflix is cancelling their Marvel shows Mark Hughes, Forbes

Nightcap

  1. Libertarian populism is still relevant in the Age of Trump Kevin Boyd, American Conservative
  2. What others have said about America James Poulos, Law & Liberty
  3. In praise of Viktor Orbán Lee Congdon, Modern Age
  4. Beyond the SETI paradigm Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

RCH: 10 libertarian thoughts on the (American) Civil War

I went there. I did it. I dropped a doo-doo right in the middle of August, for all the world to see. An excerpt:

5. Shout-outs to Alexis de Tocqueville and Joseph Smith. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the best book on America, ever. Joseph Smith founded the “American religion” (to quote Leo Tolstoy). Both men also saw that the north-south divide in the United States was bound to lead to future calamity. It wouldn’t be accurate to call their thoughts on the American divide “predictions,” but both men were outsiders in one form or another, and both men have etched their names into history. The French, who had lost Tocqueville just two years prior to the beginning of the Civil War, approach to the American bloodbath was to remain neutral (after consulting with the United Kingdom), and instead invade Mexico. Napoleon III invaded Mexico, in the name of free trade, late in 1861 and established a puppet monarchy, which angered the United States as it violated the Monroe Doctrine. However, there was not much the U.S. could do and Napoleon III did not abandon his puppet until early 1866, when it became apparent which side was victorious in the American Civil War. The French preferred normalized relations with the American republic to a puppet monarch in the Mexican one. The Mormons, for their part, largely sat out the Civil War. Volunteers from Utah helped guard the mail routes from Indian attacks, but other than that, the Mormons, who had not yet been assimilated into American society (indeed, they had only fled from violence in Missouri to Utah a few decades prior to the Civil War), were content to let both sides bleed.

Please, read the rest.

Why Hayek was Wrong about American and European Conservatism III

I am continuing from here, where I mainly discussed definitions of liberalism and conservatism. This sequence of posts was inspired by F.A. Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’. I am happy to share Hayek’s sentiment that market liberalism is not the same thing as conservatism, but I find some of the argument rather unsatisfactory. What I have concentrated on so far is what I see as the inadequacy of Hayek’s view of conservatism as just a position of slowing down change. What I am getting on to is firstly his view of European liberalism and then of American conservatism.

Hayek’s essay seems to me to contain rather odd claims about the difference between British and continental European liberalism. He suggests:

the majority of Continental liberals stood for ideas to which these men were strongly opposed, and that they were led more by a desire to impose upon the world a preconceived rational pattern than to provide opportunity for free growth. The same is largely true of what has called itself Liberalism in England at least since the time of Lloyd George.

I certainly sympathise with his suggestion that British (unfortunately Hayek makes the common place but still highly incorrect error of substituting England for Britain, particularly absurd here because David Lloyd George was Welsh) liberalism went to much in the direction of top down rationalism (i.e. statism) from about the time of Lloyd George in the early 20th century. It is of interest here that LG (as he was frequently know) split the Liberal Party and was Prime Minster with Conservative support, wishing his faction of the Liberal Party to merge with the Conservative Party, while advocating statism at home and foreign policy adventurism abroad (in Ottoman Anatolia, shortly before it became Turkey), topped by a rather Caesarist personal style.

Returning to the main issue, the sweeping views Hayek indicates of continental liberalism are rather reductive. He equates continental liberalism (or at least a very large part of it) with what comes out of the French Revolution. He can only be thinking of neo-Jacobin currents in France (known as ‘radicals’) and related national-republican currents elsewhere. There is certainly also a history of more individualistic market liberalism on the continent along with what could be called a kind of liberal moderate constitutional royalism.

It would be better, I suggest, to think of continental liberalism as tending to split between the poles of national-republicanism and constitutional royalism. Hayek concedes in this essay that conservatism can be aligned with nationalism, but claims he cannot follow this up because he is not sympathetic enough to nationalism to be able to talk about it. This does not stop him from a more unrestrained attack on the nationalist tendencies of neo-Jacobins, though frequently such people had a desire for a union of European nations. The Italian national-republican and admirer of British liberalism, Giuseppe Mazzini, is a good example.

It seems clear enough that Hayek leans in the conservative direction of the two pole distinction I mention above. We can see this in his list of liberal heroes in the essay: Edmund Burke, Thomas Babington (Lord) Macaulay, Alexis de Tocqueville, David (Lord) Acton, and William Ewart Gladstone. Burke is a hero of conservatism and my last post explains why I think he stands for conservatism rather than liberalism, calling Benjamin Constant as my prime witness.

Macaulay was a Whig Liberal, deeply attached to the landowning classes and the empire, the sort of people who abandoned Gladstone when he started to emphasise the rights of the Irish. Macaulay ought to be read by liberty advocates. He was a great historian and had some admirable pro-liberty sentiments, but we cannot doubt that he leaned towards the conservative imperial state end of liberalism.

Tocqueville is someone popular with conservatives, but then there are also many left leaning Tocqueville admirers. It is part of the character of his writing that there is something for almost anyone. There was certainly an aristocratic and imperial side of his thinking, with strong criticisms of the Jacobins during the French Revolution and after. However, it should also be noted that he was at least happy to work with moderate republicans in French politics, that is those following a toned down Jacobinism and preferred them to the strong royalists. He saw the world as taking a democratic turn, which he thought had some dangerous aspects, but which he said should be followed in a way foreign to Burke and Macaulay.

Acton’s view of liberty leaned strongly in the direction that any restraint on central power was a good thing, to an extent that meant disregarding universal rights. The most famous example of this is his support for the slave states during the American Civil War and his correspondence with Robert E. Lee, which expressed gushing admiration for this prominent Confederate general and slave holder. Acton had some very pertinent things to say about the dangers of democracy, but failed to see that the danger is unrestrained majoritarianism rather than democracy as such, or at least failed to see that democracy constrained by constitutionalism was a better corrective for democratic vices than his attempts to cling onto non-democratic forms of government, or at least very attenuated forms of democracy (as in indirect elections). We can safely place him on the extreme right of the liberty movement.

Gladstone was a friend of Acton and was strongly influenced by him for many years. However, Gladstone, who started off as a High Tory (traditionalist conservative), ended up as a radical promoting home rule for Ireland and Scotland (to the horror of the Whig, that is conservative, Liberals) and extension of the suffrage beyond the property owning classes, who restricted the rights of Irish and Scottish landowners when he saw how they were treating their tenants against natural justice. These measures led him to be condemned as a dangerous socialist at the time, which is of course nonsense. He had an understanding that traditional property rights could become abusive and oppressive over time and that it was the legitimate role of the representative state to use its law making capacity to to challenge such abuse despite the protests of traditional landowners. Though he was influenced by Acton in his view of the US Civil War, he took a rather more national-republican leaning view of the Risorgimento (Italian movement of unification), and his later policies certainly suggest a less Burke-Macaualy-Acton oriented approach.

Hayek’s views of 18th and 19th century liberalism show a strong inclination towards the conservative end of liberalism (even if we assume that we are only concerned with individualistic market based liberalism here) and a very strong reaction against any national-republican elements of liberalism, while evading the issue of conservative-nationalist affinities.

To be continued

Nightcap

  1. How to decolonize a museum Sarah Jilani, Times Literary Supplement
  2. The American island that once belonged to Russia John Zada, BBC
  3. America still has a heartland (it’s just an artificial one) Venkatesh Rao, Aeon
  4. Why Westerners fear robots and the Japanese do not Joi Ito, Wired