American Voice Notes


Here’s an extended version my contribution at the Writers’ Weekend panel on the American Voice. What I said was much shorter and less coherent. Please forgive any typos. I’m on my second twelve-plus hour day.

The American voice is the voice of the outsider – Twain observing slavery, also tramping abroad with a non-European sensibility.

Everyone here is “from away” except for Native Americans, and they have become the ultimate outsiders. Louise Erdrich, Ojibwe families who struggle; Sherman Alexie, outcasts in Reservation Blues – Robert Johnson and the Spokane Indian Big Mom – plus those misfits in the band.

The New World provided the rest of us stories about people outside society in some way – black, female, poor. Nick Carraway who aspires to be wealthy and sophisticated. Herzog who doesn’t want to be much of anything – certainly not Jewish.

From writers who transplanted themselves out of their native space. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Wright, Ann Petry.

Mother regarded her writing more in the tradition of Dickens than any of her contemporary black writers. She came as a stranger to Harlem, where she set The Street. We watch as Lutie Johnson struggles to become a member of the middle class. Mother saw the poverty and racism of Harlem intimately when she wrote for the Amsterdam News and The People’s Voice. She also lived in the environment with the rotten meat and produce in the shops, the exorbitant prices for shoddy apartments, complete segregation of the black residents.

No European could have written The Street or The Narrows.

Some of her terrific outsiders:

  • the “fierce and warlike” Layne family in “The New Mirror” – named Crunch in The Narrows;
  • pretty much everyone in The Street;
  • Johnny Roane and the servants in Country Place;
  • the piano player and Aunt Frank in “Miss Muriel”;
  • the entire family in “The New Mirror”;
  • the dead patriarch in “Dora Dean”;
  • the migrants and the peace marchers in “The Migraine Workers”;
  • Louella Brown;
  • the protagonists in “Like a Winding Sheet” (Johnson), “The Witness” (Charles Woodruff), “In Darkness and Confusion” (William Jones), “Doby’s Gone” (Sue Johnson.)

This outsider status is related to race and racial tension.

What about before Twain? Melville had people from all over, explored the world, used dialect, etc. vs. those derivative of Britain: Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, etc.

Twain ushered in the twentieth century and changed the approach to fiction. He wrote about slavery, the South. He prepared the way for Faulkner, Maya Angelou. Faulkner embodies it with his outcasts.

More recent example: Gone Girl. (Gillian Flynn) – the consummate insider becomes outsider when his wife disappears and he’s suspected of murder.

American fiction writers over the years have relied on current events and recent history. It will be interesting to see what comes of this political season.

Mother’s works where characters shaped/were shaped by current events and recent history.

  • The Street – Harlem in WWII
  • The Narrows – a murder in Hawaii in the 1930s
  • Country Place, the 1938 hurricane in Connecticut
  • “In Darkness and Confusion” – 1943 Harlem riots
  • “The Moses Project” – our Incarceration Nation had a need for electronic monitoring bracelets – designed at Harvard by social psychology students in the 1960s.

Current events are intimately tied to rapid changes in the culture. Contemporary authors feature dystopia and disaffected characters. Reasons? Proliferation of tech gadgets, widening gap between groups of people (The Harder They Come), loss of “tribe” that Sebastian Junger writes about, greater emphasis on youth culture. Now we have California (Edan Lepucki), outsider protagonists in a world in which people must struggle for the barest necessities and confront the worst in themselves and others.

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline, published 2011) dystopia to the Nth degree – Matrix style with tech gadgets in which the people become players and pawns in a video game where the stakes are survival. The tribe becomes crucial. Is this literature?

My favorite contemporary example is the loss of tribe from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old. The antagonist describes City, the protagonist, as “White, Homeless, Fat Homosexual.” to which City replies, “I am not white, homeless, or homosexual.” There are many such passages in Kiese Laymon’s brilliant first novel Long Division.

The American “voice” is not a single voice. traditional New England drawing room –

  • Hawthorne, Alcott
  • slow drawl of southern cruelty – Faulkner, Welty, John Kennedy Toole
  • western twang of open spaces – McMurtry
  • the road – Kerouac, dosPassos, Steinbeck

Mother’s novel Country Place is European in sensibility and setting – small New England town, etc. but the violence of the hurricane is an American phenomenon. So it’s the sense of place that in part determines the “voice,” which brings us back to Louise Erdrich who thinks this key.

Conclusion: I know less about this topic now than when I started.

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