And while we are on the subject of heartfelt opinions as to great books and writers and such, I might as well say here with little fear of contradiction or howls of protest that Mr S. Clemens is The Greatest American Writer, Period, and he was the greatest American writer of the 19th century, no question about it absolutely, and he ought to damn well be considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century also, whereas his utter total masterpiece Autobiography was largely dictated or ractonteured in the opening years of that bruised gaggle of years, and it seems to me that with all due respect to E. Hemingway and J. Steinbeck, that the Canadian-born S. Bellow was the great American writer of the 20th century, which somehow seems very American that a Canadian was our finest troubadour of the times (although bless their cold hearts they produced Farley Mowat and Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood and Ken Dryden, too), and as for the 21st century we are awfully raw yet to pick a star, and maybe it's not Americans so much who should be saying such things, but readers abroad, because so much of what makes great American writers great is that they are saying something piercing and true about the peculiar bone of Americanness, which is far more interesting a topic than is usually bruited about in the shrill baying of political pundits and the dusty groves of academe. For example, don't you think it's true that to be American has something to do with being able to lie with panache and grace and hilarity? And to be American has some intimation of violence and independence and automobiles and confidence bordering on arrogance? And to be American also means in some way familiarity with footloose, inventiveness, the ability to use your hands to fix things or to punch someone in the nose, the bravura to think that you can get through damn near anything because we always have even when things looked darkest? And don't you think that America is in a sense a teenager of a country, young and strong, convinced beyond all sense of its immortality, able to do astounding things and incredibly dopey things back to back, unwilling to listen to advice, burly and handsome, energetic and liable to let things slide until the last second, with a dirty room and a brilliant smile? The sort of country that drives you insane but you cannot help loving? Know what I mean? So by those lights you can see why I lean toward Steinbeck and Bellow and Twain and Springsteen and Willa Cather and Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy and Woody Guthrie and Count Basie and Raymond Chandler and Ken Kesey and John McPhee and Arthur Miller as wondrous American writers, because they are telling stories of Americanness with broad strokes, and reading them, listening to them, hearing our voices through their stories, is in a real sense to understand something about living and loving here in this place which is an extraordinary place unlike any other that ever was, which is a remarkable thing to say, and in the end a moral charge — to live here with the respect this place deserves, this Turtle Island, this gift, this blessing, this grin of a country, this verb, this roaring idea, is finally to be charged with loving well.
Or something like that.
Books mentioned in this post
Brian Doyle is the author of The Grail: A Year Ambling and Shambling through an Oregon Vineyard in Pursuit of the Best Pinot Noir Wine in the Whole Wild World