In reading Susan Straight’s lovely essay on the important books of her childhood, we find a defense of her claim that, good as it is, broad as it may be, the best American writing has always been regional.
She is correct about this. As much as I yearn to read the novel about America, the one book that represents us most fully and accurately, I know that all of the candidates we’ve had–The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Sound and the Fury–and all of the candidates we’ve had since these great four were published have all been regional works: novels tied to the life and land and ethos of a particular set of states. I don’t know that anyone can write a great book about the whole of America, because no one can occupy the whole of it, inhabit the whole of it, or take the measure of the whole of it.
I think Moby-Dick comes closest to filling the bill because of its wonderful evocation of the ocean. (We are, after all, a land with three seacoasts). But Melville’s book is still as much a part of New England as Hawthorne’s masterpiece is, and only Hawthorne’s book does any justice to women at all.
So, still we wait for a work that transcends its place of origin, and gives to us a fair picture of American hopes and dreams. A lot of people have tried to produce such a work (John Dos Passos, for instance). Even William Least Heat Moon’s travel book Blue Highways tries to give us a complete sense of this land and its peoples, but nobody’s done it yet in fiction.
Can it be done?
Let’s get to work out there.