Writing Right with Dmitri: The Not-So-Great American Novel
You know how people are always waffling on about writing 'the Great American Novel'? Apparently, they all want to do this. These people imagine that they will win fame and fortune by committing superbly crafted prose. Bah, humbug. What kinds of literature make the all-time US best-seller lists?
Well, the Bible, of course. It's a bit hard to top that. Although a few Americans have actually tried, we don't recommend the attempt, unless you're ready to take on the burdens of religious leadership. If you really want to study the art, though, you might consult the works of Joseph Smith, L Ron Hubbard, or Herbert W Armstrong.
Leaving religion out of it, the first 'all-time best-selling novel', from 1852 to 1880, was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. This exciting story had it all: ripped-from-the-headlines political activism, violent passions, and edge-of-your-seat action. What it did not have was…well, you be the judge:
Mrs. Shelby was a woman of high class, both intellectually and morally. To that natural magnanimity and generosity of mind which one often marks as characteristic of the women of Kentucky, she added high moral and religious sensibility and principle, carried out with great energy and ability into practical results. Her husband, who made no professions to any particular religious character, nevertheless reverenced and respected the consistency of hers, and stood, perhaps, a little in awe of her opinion. Certain it was that he gave her unlimited scope in all her benevolent efforts for the comfort, instruction, and improvement of her servants, though he never took any decided part in them himself. In fact, if not exactly a believer in the doctrine of the efficiency of the extra good works of saints, he really seemed somehow or other to fancy that his wife had piety and benevolence enough for two – to indulge a shadowy expectation of getting into heaven through her superabundance of qualities to which he made no particular pretension. – Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin.
If this sample leaves you with a thirst to read the rest of the book, then you have stamina, is all I can say. And yet, this book was the all-time best-seller: until the next big thing came along…
Which was…wait for it…Ben Hur. From its publication in 1880 until the mid-1930s, General Lew Wallace's 'Tale of the Christ' dominated the book scene. In 1912, Sears and Roebuck sold a million copies by mail order at 39 cents a pop. The US reading public hungered for this tome. You want to know what it was like? Why, of course you do. Here's a sample:
"There is an idea that war is the most noble occupation of men, and that the most exalted greatness is the growth of battle-fields. Because the world has adopted the idea, be not you deceived. That we must worship something is a law which will continue as long as there is anything we cannot understand. The prayer of the barbarian is a wail of fear addressed to Strength, the only divine quality he can clearly conceive; hence his faith in heroes. What is Jove but a Roman hero? The Greeks have their great glory because they were the first to set Mind above Strength. In Athens the orator and philosopher were more revered than the warrior. The charioteer and the swiftest runner are still idols of the arena; yet the immortelles are reserved for the sweetest singer. The birthplace of one poet was contested by seven cities. But was the Hellene the first to deny the old barbaric faith? No. My son, that glory is ours; against brutalism our fathers erected God; in our worship, the wail of fear gave place to the Hosanna and the Psalm. So the Hebrew and the Greek would have carried all humanity forward and upward. But, alas! the government of the world presumes war as an eternal condition; wherefore, over Mind and above God, the Roman has enthroned his Caesar, the absorbent of all attainable power, the prohibition of any other greatness." – Lew Wallace, Ben Hur.
This, too, no doubt whets your appetite for a reading binge. You really want to read about all these high-minded people, right? Especially those Hellenes. Besides, you just know there's a chariot-race in there somewhere.
One thing you can say about Ben Hur. The author did an awful lot of research. You can tell, too: each page reads as if he wrote it with a map in front of him. (He did.) According to Wallace, he was inspired to write this piece of historical fiction by a long train ride he took with Robert Ingersoll, the famous agnostic orator. Now, listening to Robert Ingersoll would probably have that effect on people: they'd want to spend the next year writing a book, just to be able to disagree with him.
You'll notice that Ben Hur has this in common with that other US best-seller: it's full of high-minded thinking and ethical reflections. Which makes it even more interesting when you realise what book knocked Ben Hur off its perch. In 1936, the next 'all-time US best-seller' came along, from the pen of Margaret Mitchell. Yes, children, it was that deathless doorstop effusion, Gone With the Wind.
Kiss me, Scarlett. We can't quote the novel at length here – Ms Mitchell's heirs are busy suing Gutenberg – but we can give you a fair-use quote:
Vanity was stronger than love at sixteen and there was no room in her hot heart now for anything but hate.
Yep. That's insightful. Fiddle-dee-dee. US tastes had, apparently, changed a bit. After all, Mrs Stowe would have loathed Scarlett O'Hara and all she stood for. She would have sided with Prissy. And Lew Wallace, Yankee general that he was, would have burned down Tara in a heartbeat. And we suspect that Scarlett was more or less allergic to Bible reading.
There is one constant in a century and a half of US novel reading, though: the love of really, really bad prose. As long as the sentiments are the ones the public happens to approve of, and the action is satisfactory, why, you've got a winner. Eliza on the ice floes, Jehuda Ben Hur in the arena, and Scarlett swooning before a flaming Atlanta…why, that's the stuff the Great American Novel is made of.
You want to write one? Go ahead, be my guest. In the meantime, where's my copy of Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane1.