American Literature

Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Stories
     Poe was my first major literary enthusiasm (age 13). Many of his stories and most of his poems now seem pretty corny to me, but there’s no denying his remarkable intensity and inventiveness.
     There are two good recent biographies by Kenneth Silverman and Jeffrey Meyers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays  [1803-1882]
     Emerson sometimes seems platitudinous, but he was the number-one influence on Thoreau and Whitman and people as different as Nietzsche and Henry Miller have found him invigorating and thought-provoking.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick  [1851]
     In some ways Moby Dick seems almost Shakespearean. Ahab’s dramatic soliloquies are like something out of Macbeth or King Lear. Yet this magnificent book is at the same time uniquely American, conveying the exhilarating expansiveness of the new world almost like Whitman, but also darkly hinting at its extreme social contradictions (examined in C.L.R. James’s study Mariners, Renegades and Castaways). You might also enjoy Typee and Omoo, based on Melville’s youthful adventures in Polynesia.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin  [1852]
      This is a rich and powerful book, unjustly disdained by people who haven’t read it. The title character is a very strong one, far from being “an Uncle Tom.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden  [1854]
      Walden is an account of a two-year experiment. Thoreau set out to learn what life was about by simplifying it, so as to find out what is essential and what isn’t. His merit lies not so much in his extremism as in his patience and attentiveness. Other people have gone through much more extreme experiences in the wilds, but few have written about them so well. Others have been just as keen observers of nature, but few have drawn from their observations such pithy lessons about human life. Thoreau also wrote a number of excellent essays. See not only the famous “Civil Disobedience,” but also “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” “Life Without Principle,” and “Walking.”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass  [1855]
      Whitman is so fetishized as “the great American poet” that it is important to understand that his celebration of “America” is not a narrow patriotism, but a projection of what he saw as America’s potentialities to initiate and inspire a liberated global community. However lamentably those potentialities have failed to materialize, his vision remains perhaps the most vivid evocation of what a liberated society might be like: at once ecstatic and democratic, mystical and down-to-earth, enterprising and leisurely, grandiose and tender. In the same way, Whitman’s “I” should be understood not (or at least not only) as his personal ego, but as a larger self that includes or relates to everyone and everything. He sometimes sounds almost like Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, but at the same time like a very flesh-and-blood individual. This is particularly true of the “Song of Myself,” the greatest section of his book and one of the most wonderful works of world literature. Be sure you read that, if nothing else.
      [Rexroth essay on Whitman]

Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer; Huckleberry Finn  [1876, 1884]
      Moby Dick has one real character, who loses himself in a magnificent death trip, dragging everyone else down with him. Huckleberry Finn has two — two persons who abandon the social self-destructiveness symbolized in Melville’s book and set out on Whitman’s “Open Road” — in this case the meandering watery road of the Mississippi — and find themselves in the development of their comradeship with each other, despite all the cons and corruptions of the world they pass through. Tom Sawyer isn’t on the same level, but it’s still one of the world’s most entertaining books, in addition to being the essential prelude to Huckleberry Finn.
      There’s lots of other Twain material of varying quality — Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, novels, stories, essays, humorous sketches, travel books, autobiographies — mostly pretty good, sometimes rather dated and corny. But even the corniest pieces have something healthy and invigorating about them. The candid self-exposure and humorous self-mockery in writers like Twain or Montaigne or Henry Miller is humanizing for everyone, helping us to recognize our own faults and foibles and hopefully encouraging us to be a bit more tolerant of others.
      [Rexroth essay on Huckleberry Finn]
      [Rexroth essay on Mark Twain]

Henry James, What Maisie Knew  [1897]
      On the whole I don’t care much for Henry James. Despite all his sophisticated psychological insights, most of his characters strike me as cardboard: the refined upper classes as upwardly striving middle-class people like James imagine them to be. And his later, increasingly contorted style, particularly in the last three novels, seems ridiculous. Proust’s sentences may be longer and sometimes even more complex, but there’s usually a reason for them, they help create a particular ambience, whereas James’s endless equivocations often seem to do nothing but disguise the lack of substance. But I did enjoy the short novel What Maisie Knew, about a little girl pulled in both directions by her manipulative divorced parents. That’s the work I’d recommend if you want to get a taste of James at his best.
      [Rexroth essay on Henry James and H.G. Wells]

H.L. Mencken  [1880-1956]
      Where is Mencken now that we need him? Nobody else, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, would be capable of debunking present-day American society as it deserves. Mencken may seem dated in some ways, and very politically incorrect, but he is still one of America’s most entertaining writers, joyously leaping into the fray, cigar in mouth and twinkle in eye, to lambaste the latest folly of Boobus americanus. Though he is often scathing, he has the saving grace of amused tolerance for the foibles of mankind and a Twainian readiness to admit that he himself is as capable as anyone else of making a damn fool of himself. A few of his famous remarks: “Conscience is the inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking.” “Puritanism — The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”  “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
      I suggest that you try The Vintage Mencken (ed. Alistair Cook). If you like him, read some of the many other collections of his articles on politics, journalism, music, literature, religion and other topics, and also his delightful autobiography: Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days (collected in one volume as The Days of H.L. Mencken).
      [Rexroth article on H.L. Mencken]

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer; Tropic of Capricorn  [1934, 1939]
      Even though I never met him, Henry Miller has seemed like an intimate friend since I first discovered him over fifty years ago. I no longer take him seriously as a thinker, but I still love the gusto and humor of his autobiographical works, which in addition to the two Tropics include The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (Sexus, Plexus, Nexus). Actually, almost everything he wrote is autobiographical, even when he is talking about some other topic. The opinions he expresses are often silly; what keeps us interested is the man himself.
      In general I prefer Miller’s earlier writings (1930s and 1940s) — the collections of essays and sketches (Black Spring, The Cosmological Eye, The Wisdom of the Heart), his travels in Greece (The Colossus of Maroussi) and America (The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Remember to Remember), the little book about Rimbaud (The Time of the Assassins), and The Books in My Life. His later books, written in his old age after he had settled down in southern California and become rich and famous, are often thinner stuff. But real Millerites (and there are thousands of fervent ones all over the world who will tell you how discovering Miller changed their lives) will find some interest in virtually anything by or about him.
      Of the various biographies, Jay Martin’s has the most detailed information but Robert Ferguson’s adds some more critical insights. There are a number of personal memoirs, including reminiscences by Miller’s friends Alfred Perlès and Brassaï (the great photographer), a couple volumes of Anaïs Nin’s journals, and several volumes of correspondence with Nin, Lawrence Durrell and others. Of the numerous literary studies the best is probably Leon Lewis’s Henry Miller: The Major Writings. If you are one of those who have dismissed Miller unread due to feminist criticism, see Erica Jong’s The Devil at Large.
[Rexroth essay on Henry Miller]
      [Another Rexroth essay on Miller]

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath  [1939]
      I avoided this book for years under the mistaken impression that it was a typical piece of populist sentimentality. The theme (the plight of a family of migrant workers during the Depression) certainly lends itself to such sentimentalism, but on the whole I think Steinbeck managed to do justice to it without going overboard. That is to say, the book is powerfully moving, but in a manner and degree appropriate to the content: it does not manipulate the reader into an excessive emotionalism for its own sake. The book was made into an excellent film (by John Ford, featuring Henry Fonda) and an excellent song (Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad”).

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man  [1952]
      There have been a number of fine African-American novels (Richard Wright’s Native Son, for example, or Zora Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God), but to me Invisible Man stands out as the most powerful and memorable. From the astonishing prologue through the progressively shifting series of styles — naturalistic, expressionistic, quasi-surrealistic — the narrative carries you along its strange trajectory. The book inevitably deals with many aspects of “the African-American experience,” but Ellison did not wish to limit himself to that particular pigeonhole. He wanted to address universal human issues. I think he succeeded in doing this.

William Carlos Williams, Selected Poems  [1883-1963]
      Williams was a very genial and down-to-earth poet, far saner, wiser and less pretentious than Pound and Eliot and probably a better poet than either of them. His emphasis on bringing poetry back to living speech and direct communication influenced most subsequent American poets, including all the ones mentioned below.
      This is perhaps as good a place as any to recall that poetry is meant to be read aloud. That’s the best way to really get the feel of it. Better yet, try memorizing a poem you like, so you can repeat it to yourself or recite it to friends. The concentrated, metaphorical nature of poetry flexes intellectual and emotional muscles that most of us don’t use often enough, sharpening our senses and refining our sensibilities. You may not completely “understand” what a poem means at a conscious level, but your “inner self” is unconsciously assimilating it all the while (just as, in the ordinary “default” mode, it is constantly assimilating the compulsive cravings and delusions broadcast by the mass media).
      [Rexroth poem for William Carlos Williams]

Kenneth Rexroth  [1905-1982]
      Rexroth is one of the two big influences on my life (the other being Guy Debord). I’ve written so much about him that there’s no point repeating myself here. Suffice it to say that I highly recommend virtually everything he wrote. You can find plenty of material by and about him at my online Rexroth Archive.

Kenneth Patchen, Selected Poems  [1911-1972]
      Patchen had a unique combination of righteous anger and playful zaniness. For a brief period in the sixties he was my favorite poet. Many of his poems now strike me as too strident or too sentimental, but some are still powerful and/or funny. Check out also some of his delightful books of picture-poems.
      [Rexroth essay on Kenneth Patchen]

Eli Siegel  [1902-1978]
      Eli Siegel is a remarkable and most unjustly neglected writer and thinker. His poems are among the few modern ones that I still read and reread with pleasure. His other writings are generally concerned with expounding his philosophy of “Aesthetic Realism.” According to this perspective (which is not limited to narrowly artistic concerns, but relates to psychology, education, social relations, and in fact just about every aspect of life), people are fundamentally seeking to “unify opposites” within themselves and in their relations with each other and with the world. The arts are seen as key means or expressions of such unity. The primary danger — the “original sin,” so to speak — is contempt: the temptation to think that you will enhance yourself by demeaning someone else. It is, of course, difficult (and sometimes in fact inappropriate) not to be contemptuous of certain persons or things. Siegel’s point is that you should make sure that you have not got into the habit of actually seeking such situations so as to make yourself feel better by contrast.
      He works out the implications of these deceptively simple insights with a delightful zest and a remarkable lucidity. Some of this zest and lucidity has been inherited by his followers, though their adulation of him is so effusive and so incessant that it has undoubtedly put off many people who might otherwise have benefited from what he has to say. I don’t think Siegel is quite as great as they make him out to be, but I have reread many of his works many times and each time it’s like a breath of fresh air.
      His two volumes of poetry are Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana and Hail, American Development. His other books include The Williams-Siegel Documentary (about William Carlos Williams, who enthusiastically saluted Siegel’s poetry), James and the Children (a study of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw), Damned Welcome (a collection of aphorisms), Goodbye Profit System (an anticapitalist polemic), Self and World (an exposition of his psychotherapeutic theories and methods), a Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters, and numerous articles, essays and talks. You can find out more about them at the Aesthetic Realism website.
      [Rexroth reviews of Eli Siegel’s poetry]

Donald Allen (ed.), The New American Poetry: 1945-1960  [1960]
      This was a very influential book for people of my generation. It includes selections from Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, Frank O’Hara, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen and many others. An updated edition was published in 1982 under the misleading title The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised (none of these poets have any connection with the fatuous academic gibberish of postmodernism). The original edition has recently been republished by the University of California Press. I suggest that you peruse one or the other, then read more by the poets you find most interesting.
      An excellent supplement to the Allen anthology is David Meltzer’s San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets, consisting of interviews with Everson, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Rexroth, Snyder, Welch, Whalen, and several others.
      [Rexroth essay on these poets]

Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems  [1956]
      Ginsberg’s poetry is uneven, often too sloppy and self-indulgent. But at his best he approaches his great mentor, Whitman. In this, his first little book, every poem, and in fact practically every line, is dynamite.
      [Rexroth essay on Allen Ginsberg]

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums  [1958]
      This is my favorite of the four or five Kerouac books I’ve read, mostly because it is about Gary Snyder and the Bay Area scene during the fifties, but also because of its style. The influence of his subject matter seems to have inspired Kerouac to be more calm and lucid than usual, though he nevertheless remains typically clueless in many regards (he has only a dim, puzzled awe at Snyder’s self-discipline and absolute zero comprehension of his anarchist politics).
      In the book, Japhy Ryder = Gary Snyder. Alvah Goldbook = Allen Ginsberg. Warren Coughlin = Philip Whalen. Rheinhold Cacoethes = Kenneth Rexroth. Arthur Whane = Alan Watts. Francis DaPavia = Philip Lamantia. Ike O’Shay = Michael McClure. Cody Pomeray = Neal Cassidy. Ray Smith (the narrator) = Jack Kerouac.
       [Rexroth reviews of Kerouac]

Gary Snyder, Poems and Essays  [b. 1930]
      Snyder’s life and works have inspired countless people, myself included. His early poems were superb and his latest ones still are. His first collection of essays, Earth House Hold, is probably the most important, but the subsequent ones have all been well worth reading. My only notable criticism is that he seems to have lost some of his initial radical aggressivity and settled into a more defensive posture. In his early essay Buddhism and the Coming Revolution, for example, we find the following statement: “The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious, through meditation.” In subsequent years, however, he has put much more emphasis on striving simply to preserve “the Old Ways” than on contributing toward a revolution capable of reviving their good aspects. I think he got it right the first time.
      [Rexroth essay on Gary Snyder]

Philip Whalen, Selected Poems  [1923-2002]
      When Phil Whalen died, the obituaries frequently referred to him as “one of America’s best-loved poets.” That rather trite-sounding phrase was truly appropriate in his case. Though he had eventually become a pretty famous poet and even a formally recognized Zen teacher, he remained easygoing and unpretentious. His poems are not perhaps so consistently brilliant as Snyder’s, sometimes they even verge on the banal, but they are more leisurely and more personal. Reading him, you get to know an interesting and congenial person, kind of like you do in reading Montaigne’s essays.
      [Rexroth essay on Philip Whalen]


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

No copyright.