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. Arnold Kling likes Larry Summers! askblog
  2. A stake in the heart of capitalism Douglas J. Den Uyl, Law & Liberty
  3. Friendship in pre-war East Asia: Lu Xun and Uchiyama Kanzō Joshua Fogel, JHIBlog
  4. The irony of modern Catholic history James Chappel, Commonweal

Nightcap

  1. Victorian values, libertarian legacy David Loner, JHIBlog
  2. Tyler Cowen interviews Kwame Anthony Appiah
  3. How I met Paul Samuelson and Milton Friedman Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. The Christian origins of religious liberty Francis Oakley, Commonweal

Nightcap

  1. A certain idea of France Peter Hitchens, First Things
  2. Political tribalism is overstated Matt Grossman, Defending the Open Society
  3. Do books make us more cosmopolitan? Tim Parks, New York Review of Books
  4. Culture matters Virginia Postrel, Econlib

Nightcap

  1. On the inexhaustible desire to keep talking about Marx Jonathan Wolff, Times Literary Supplement
  2. The promise of polarization Sam Tanenhaus, New Republic
  3. Anglo-Saxon England was more cosmopolitan than you think Rhiannon Curry, 1843
  4. DC unfriends Silicon Valley Declan McCullagh, Reason

Some reasons why I love capitalism

Here is a list of things I love about capitalism. Before presenting the list, it is important to say what I mean about capitalism. By capitalism, I mean free market capitalism. I don’t mean oligarchic capitalism (as it is very common in Latin America), state capitalism (communist countries) or Crony capitalism (sadly, more and more prevalent in the US). What I mean by capitalism is a system consistent with personal choice, private property, and voluntary exchange. The system Adam Smith described in Wealth of Nations. With that in mind, here is the list:

capitalism is true to human nature;

capitalism (slowly but surely) produces (immense amounts of) wealth;

capitalism is (more or less) stable;

capitalism helps the ones who need the most;

capitalism allows us to help others in need;

capitalism reduces violence;

capitalism reduces the incidence of wars;

capitalism breeds cosmopolitanism;

capitalism makes a better use of natural resources;

capitalism produces more beautiful cities;

capitalism is consistent with the Bible.

Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process

I have spent a couple of posts addressing various spurious economic and fiscal arguments against looser immigration restrictions. But, as Brandon pointed out recently, these aren’t really the most powerful arguments for immigration restrictions. Most of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric revolves around strictly alleged cultural costs of immigration. I agree that for all the economic rhetoric used in these debates, it is fear of the culturally unfamiliar that is driving the opposition. However, I still think the tools of economics that are used to address whether immigration negatively impacts wages, welfare, and unemployment can be used to address the question of whether immigrants impact our culture negatively.

One of the greatest fears that conservatives tend to have of immigration is the resulting cultural diversity will cause harmful change in society. The argument goes that the immigrant will bring “their” customs from other countries that might do damage to “our” supposedly superior customs and practices, and the result will be a damage to “our” long-held traditions and institutions that make “our” society “great.” These fears include, for example, lower income immigrants causing higher divorce rates spurring disintegration of the family, possible violence coming from cultural differences, or immigrants voting in ways that are not conducive to what conservatives tend to call “the founding principles of the republic.” Thanks to this insight, it is argued, we should restrict immigration or at least force prospective immigrants to hop through bureaucracy so they may have training on “our” republican principles before becoming citizens.

There are a number of ways one may address this argument. First, one could point out that immigrants face robust incentives to assimilate into American culture without needing to be forced to by restrictive immigration policies. One of the main reasons why immigrants come to the United States is for better economic opportunity. However, when immigrants are extremely socially distant from much of the native population, there a tendency for natives to trust them less in market exchange. As a result, it is in the best interest of the immigrant to adopt some of the customs of his/her new home in order to reduce the social distance to maximize the number of trades. (A more detailed version of this type of argument, in application to social and cultural differences in anarchy, can be found in Pete Leeson’s paper Social Distance and Self-Enforcing Exchange).

The main moral of the story is that peaceable assimilation and social cohesion comes about through non-governmental mechanisms far more easily than is commonly assumed. In other words, “our” cultural values are likely not in as much danger as conservatives would have you think.

Another powerful way of addressing this claim is to ask why should we assume that “our” ways of doing things is any better than the immigrant’s home country’s practices? Why is it that we should be so resistant to the possibility that culture might change thanks to immigration and cultural diversity?

It is tempting for conservatives to respond that the immigrant is coming here and leaving his/her home, thus obviously there is something “better” about “our” cultural practices. However, to do so is to somewhat oversimplify why people immigrate. Though it might be true that, on net, they anticipate life in their new home to be better and that might largely be because “our” institutions and cultural practices are on net better, it is a composition fallacy to claim that it follows from this that all our institutions are better. There still might be some cultural practices that immigrants would want to keep thanks to his/her subjective value preferences from his or her country, and those practices very well might be a more beneficial. This is not to say our cultural practices are inherently worse, or that they are in every instance equal, just that we have no way of evaluating the relative value of cultural practices ex ante.

The lesson here is that we should apply FA Hayek’s insights from the knowledge problem to the evolution of cultural practices in much the way conservatives are willing to apply it to immigration. There is no reason to assume that “our” cultural practices are better than foreign ones; they may or may not be, but it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to use state coercion to centrally plan culture just as it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to centrally plan economic production.

Instead of viewing immigration as a necessary drain on culture, it may be viewed as a potential means of improving culture through the free exchange of cultural values and practices. In the market, individuals are permitted to experiment with new inventions and methods of production because this innovation and risk can lead to better ways of doing things. Therefore, entrepreneurship is commonly called a “discovery process;” it is how humanity may ‘discover’ newer, more efficient economic production techniques and products.

Why is cosmopolitan diversity not to be thought of as such a discovery process in the realm of culture? Just as competition between firms without barriers to entry brings economic innovation, competition between cultural practices without the barrier to entry of immigration laws may be a means of bettering culture. When thought of in that light, the fact that our cultural traditions may change is not so daunting. Just as there is “creative destruction” of firms in the marketplace, there is creative destruction of cultural practices.

Conservative critics of immigration may object that such cultural diversity may cause society to evolve in negative ways, or else they may object and claim that I am not valuing traditions highly enough. For the first claim, there is an epistemic problem here on how we may know which cultural practices are “better.” We may have our opinions, based on micro-level experience, on which cultural practices are better, and we have every right to promote those in non-governmental ways and continue to practice them in our lives. Tolerance for such diversity is what allows the cultural discovery process to happen in the first place. However, there is no reason to assume that our sentiments towards our tradition constitute objective knowledge of cultural practices on the macro-level; on the contrary, the key insight of Hayek is it is a fatal conceit to assume such knowledge.

As Hayek said in his famous essay Why I’m Not a Conservative:

As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about. It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance.

As for the latter objection that I’m not valuing tradition, what is at the core of disagreement is not the value of traditions. Traditions are highly valuable: they are the cultural culmination of all the tacit knowledge of the extended order of society and have withstood the test of time. The disagreement here is what principles we ought to employ when evaluating how a tradition should evolve. The principle I’m expressing is that when a tradition must be forced on society through state coercion and planning, perhaps it is not worth keeping.

Far from destroying culture, the free mobility of individuals through immigration enables spontaneous order to work in ways which improve culture. Immigration, tolerance, and cultural diversity are vital to a free society because it allows the evolution and discovery of better cultural practices. Individual freedom and communal values are not in opposition to each other, instead the only way to improve communal values is through the free mobility of individuals and voluntary exchange.