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. Lessons from the East Asian economic miracle Byrne Hobart, Medium
  2. Confessions of an Islamic State fighter Alexander Clapp, 1843
  3. Russia’s vanishing summerfolk Christophe Trontin, LMD
  4. Too cool for Woodstock Rick Brownell, Medium

Nightcap

  1. On gratitude and immigration Charles Cooke, National Review
  2. The myth of the welfare queen Bryce Covert, New Republic
  3. Why did the Department of Justice cut such a deal?” Ken White, the Atlantic
  4. When the sun never set Michael Auslin, Claremont Review of Books

Nightcap

  1. The Fermi Paradox Tim Urban, Wait But Why
  2. The aliens among us Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg
  3. Yes, ownership matters Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. America’s Messiah complex Colin Dickey, New Republic

Nightcap

  1. Brexit and the battle for sovereignty Alex Massie, CapX
  2. Japanese media and its foreigners Elanor Sezer, Japan Times
  3. The most original novelist in America Laura Miller, Slate
  4. The Englishman who saved Japan’s cherry blossoms Claire Hazelton, Spectator

Nightcap

  1. Welcome back, American nationalism Francis Buckley, Cato Unbound
  2. When belief makes reality David Riesbeck, Policy of Truth
  3. The slave holders on the border Melchisedek Chétima, Africa is a Country
  4. Yes, The Black Hole is Legit Sci-fi Rick Brownell, Medium Cosgrrrl

Main Street in Gopher Prairie (and elsewhere)

…but there are also hundreds of thousands, particularly women and young men, who are not at all content. The more intelligent young people (and the fortunate widows!) flee to the cities with agility and, despite the fictional tradition, resolutely stay there, seldom returning even for holidays. The most protesting patriots of the towns leave them in old age, if they can afford it, and go to live in California or the cities.

This is from Main Street, the 1920 classic by American Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis. Lewis won his Nobel Prize for his 1925 work, Arrowsmith, and was so upset about not winning the Prize for Main Street that he refused his award for Arrowsmith and publicly complained that he should have won the award for Main Street rather than Arrowsmith (he eventually accepted his prize, years later).

Main Street is a mean book about small town life (Gopher Prairie, Minnesota) in the United States of America. It’s mean because it’s true. It’s amazing and worth reading and blogging about nearly 100 years later because it still resonates powerfully with today’s reader. The more things change, technologically, the more they stay the same, sociologically.

Lewis was a dissatisfied left-liberal who never quite could make the transition over to socialist, though he was sympathetic to their views and aims. In Main Street, in fact, he lambastes the dissatisfied rural gentry (left-liberals, all) for their condescending dismissal of socialist arguments without ever actually considering them fully. Lewis grew up in a small town in Minnesota, where the majority of the plot of Main Street takes place, and was the son of a country doctor. His privileged, rural upbringing no doubt weighed heavy on his mind when he attacked the American small-town way of life.

He (Lewis) wasn’t an America hater, and neither are most left-liberals. Their conservatism betrays their progressive senses. They don’t want or desire revolution, they want change, and they believe the founders, most of whom were slaveholders, instituted a government that could be run by the people. Left-liberals often come across as bitter and hate-filled, and this essence can seem especially true when contrasted with the thoughts of a conservative-liberal. Lewis was certainly a bitter man (he died of alcoholism in Rome in the 1951), but his mean-spirited attacks on American society were, to him and his fans, the work of a patriot (that most conservative of citizen).

If you haven’t read Main Street yet, I recommend doing so. It’s nearly 100 years old now, a fact that made me smile to myself as I realized I was reading a 98-year old novel. (Sinclair Lewis is somewhat fashionable again due to the popular quote “if fascism comes to America…” being misattributed to his name. The freshness of seeing his name on a bumper sticker just makes the reality of how old his works are that much more interesting.) If you don’t, at some point in your life, read one of Lewis’ major works (Babbitt, Main Street, or Arrowsmith), you will die a philistine.

I finally read Main Street after years of it taunting me on the bookshelf. It was worth it, all the more so because I am dissatisfied with where I am at in life. I don’t quite live in a small town, but I do live in a college town after spending the last 7-8 years or so of my life in major American cities that also happen to be sexy American cities, and the culture shock has been hard to confront. Contrary to popular belief, college towns don’t have all that much “culture” in them. Instead, you have a small population of seasonal migrants and a larger (but still small) population of “locals” who live off of the migrants and off of the few industries that have manged to take root in the community. In order to have any sort of leisure in the American college town you must be either a professional or a shopkeeper. Otherwise, you’re shit out of luck.

Main Street reminded me of the streak of dissatisfaction that runs deep in American society. There’s a plan in motion, here in Waco, that involves professionalizing my wife, so I cannot be bitter, but I am dissatisfied. The large Baptist university here is too practical. Its students (Rand Paul is an alum) are dull, and most are philistines, replete with all the usual stories about traveling “abroad” (to western Europe, where the drinking age is 18…) and not knowing a lick of the region’s rich history. There are no Jews, no Koreans, no South Asian Muslims, and few homosexuals. There is a relatively large black population here, but it is, alas, just as conservative as the white one.

Naturally, Californians are reviled. As are college graduates. As are liberals of any kind.

One bright spot here is, of course, the food. Bar. Bee. Q. Even this, though, the one lone bright spot so far, is brought down despairingly by the fact that pants in my size are rare, if you get my drift. My inner celebration of the stereotype of the parochial and bumbling Southerner, now reinforced by real life, coupled with Main Street‘s piercing insights, have provided me solace in an otherwise empty period of intellectual stimulation in my life.