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Summer of Classics - The Recap

My Summer of Classics started a bit late, as much of June was spent reading Atonement and The Road (two great books destined to one day be considered classics, but which have not yet stood the test of time). But I finally got my act together in June and read several true classics - and, admittedly, a few which to my mind were less than classic. Here's a recap.

Sherwood Anderson: Winesburg, Ohio
Like Edgar Lee Masters (see below), Sherwood Anderson surveyed the Midwest small-town life of his boyhood home from the safe distance of adulthood and Chicago. That distance was a well-advised one, as Anderson (like Masters) was largely unforgiving to his characters, as he ruthlessly explored their ugliness, frailty, hypocrisy and anger - qualities which we all share to some degree and which make us so very human. This cycle of stories, most of them anchored by the ubiquitous presence of George Willard, draws in a wide range of characters into a marvelous and emotionally moving narrative which is surprising cohesive from beginning to end. Winesburg, Ohio is a fairly slim book which speaks volumes, and a very impressive literary achievement.

Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville is best known, of course, for the lengthy, ponderous and meandering Moby Dick, which I have not yet read. But this much shorter tale, effectively a novella, deserves just as much attention as his magnum opus. Melville vividly describes mid-19th Century Manhattan in telling the tale of Bartleby, a talented but oddly reluctant legal clerk and his rather prickly dealings with the other employees of the law firm which employs him. Though not a comic piece per se, this great story still made me smile, even while I was exasperated by Bartleby's refusal to work ("I would prefer not to") and even more exasperated by the way his boss kept tolerating the pathetic little ingrate.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
I must confess to being disappointed by this one, a novel which I would consider to be very good but far from great. Fitzgerald's setting - among the old money and nouveau riche of Long Island during the Jazz Age - is impeccably described, but none of the characters ever seemed real to me. Not that they were necessarily caricatures, that is, but that I never really connected with any of them. That lack of empathy prevented my ever being full drawn into and absorbed in the story, which for me is always a prerequisite for exploring the big themes which Fitzgerald wished to tackle.

Knut Hamsun: Hunger
Funny, profound, dizzying, provocative, mesmerizing - Hunger is all of that, and much more. Words cannot adequately describe the experience of reading Hamsun's great novel. All I can say is that you must read it yourself.

Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt
Lewis' great satire of middle-class life and city boosterism made me laugh just as hard as the first time I read it, twenty years ago. And somehow I even felt a touch of sympathy for George Babbitt, despite his generally unsympathetic and infuriating qualities.

Edgar Lee Masters: Spoon River Anthology
At its best, Masters' poem cycle is a fascinating look at a small Midwestern town of a long-bygone era. But after the first hundred poems or so, Masters starts repeating himself and grows somewhat tedious in his condemnations. Which would be fine, except that the collection runs on for about 250 poems in total. Okay, Ed, you love Lincoln and the "wet" contingent, and hate the corrupt banker who looted his bank and lead to its collapse, along with other assorted hypocrites. Hear you loud and clear. Now, move on.

James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice
After reading something as weighty as Spoon River Anthology, I like to figuratively cleanse my palette with my next book, which often has me turning to the simple pleasures of noir - and Cain's novella is certainly among the best of the genre. Of course Frank and Cora aren't going to make it to their intended happy ending - not that either of these miscreants deserved anything that pleasant anyway - but the twisting journey the two take as they speed toward their fate makes for a very invigorating read.

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
I read this one online, via DailyLit.org, a choice which might have influenced the mixed feelings I have about the story. Online, the thick 19th Century verbiage was a bit hard to follow. But I also had issues with some details of the story itself, most notably the rather ludicrous premise that most of the story (roughly 39,000 words) was narrated aloud by Marlow to several colleagues on the deck of ship, almost without pausing, over the course of a single night. But most importantly, while the "steaming up the Congo River to retrieve the legendary Kurtz" portion of the narrative was very vividly described and maintained a nice degree of tension, this very promising buildup ultimately only lead to a mostly unsatisifying climax. Boat arrives, dying madman Kurtz is encountered, Kurtz dies, Marlow returns to Europe to dispose of Kurtz's effects, Marlow tells Kurtz's grieving fiancee a comforting lie about his last words. Ho hum. The narrative imparts little evidence of Kurtz's purported brilliance and genius, those elusive qualities which compelled Marlow to risk the voyage in the first place. Tension without decent release. Maybe I need to read this story one more time, in print, to fully grasp what's going on here, but my first impression is one of considerable disappointment.

Despite a few missteps, I greatly enjoyed my Summer of Classics, and have already begun plotting out the 2008 version.

September 14, 2007 in Books | Permalink


I think the Gatsby thing might be generational. My father, who died at 80 this past January, actually met them and I'm certain that has something to do with why he swears it's the best book ever written!

But with Anderson, you said ugliness, frailty, weakness. He was unafraid to write about the true nature of man--and in so doing, he illuminated life for all of us. None is so alone in their feelings as he or she likes to believe.

Posted by: Sherwood Fan at Sep 25, 2007 1:23:23 AM