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      •  Sunday Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag

The one of us who handles the weekend posts is temporarily sick, hence this weekend's mini-posts. Sorry about that. Tomorrow's post will be a full-length one.

We've read over the responses to yesterday's question about the great American novel and, as you might expect, a number of books were named a bunch of times. Today we're going to give you some responses about the book that was also chosen by original questioner J.E. in Boone.

Note that the symptoms here are entirely consistent with kidney infection and not at all consistent with COVID-19. Plus, a COVID test on Saturday morning came back negative. Also, under normal circumstances, the non-sick one of us (a.k.a. the understudy) would take over. But enough of the work was already done that handing it off would be messy.

The Great American Novel, Part I: The Grapes of Wrath

J.E. in Boone, NC, writes: My choice is The Grapes of Wrath. It involves, history, social and political movements, theology, family dynamics, and probably many more areas of study. On top of all that, I believe it engages the heart and mind on a deep level. If I were to teach a multidisciplinary course using a "great books" approach, it would definitely be on the list.

B.A.R. in South Bend, IN, writes: My choice would be my co-favorite book (along with The Stand): The Grapes of Wrath. It's a great lesson in the haves and have-nots in America as well as the devastation of climate change. There are elements of inhumanity, injustice, and great compassion. Reading it helped me understand the contrasts in America and the need to fight against injustice. I find it a deeply moving novel.

May I also weigh in on the rock and roll song? My choice for NASA would be "Sympathy for the Devil." It is my all-time favorite song, for many reasons. I never tire of hearing it and I always hear something new in it. It is full of history, religion, politics, and it has one hell of a groove. It is understated at first and builds to an apocalyptic crescendo. I'm a sucker for clever lyrics and it doesn't get much better than, "I shouted out 'Who killed the Kennedys?' when after all it was you and me." I could write much more about it (and have) but that's my brief reasoning behind that song.

V & Z respond: (Z)'s pick is "My Generation" by The Who. The most common choices by the students are "Hey Jude" by The Beatles, "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen and "This is America" by Childish Gambino.

W.C. in Walpole, ME, writes: First, it's a trick question. "Do you think that this country is headed in the right direction?" Seems like a reasonable question until you realize that it is one of the few questions you could ask that everyone can agree on the answer to: No, we don't. Everyone to the left or the right of center who is not Pollyanna will agree that it's not. Also, it's a "If you could be any kind of tree, what kind of tree would you be?" question: It cannot tell you anything about trees, only about the person answering the question.

If you pose it as an historical question, "What was the most influential novel in history," then there is an objective answer: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. ("So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war," said Abraham Lincoln.) Though its great influence was not just as a novel but also as a play; in America, it was the most-produced play of the 19th century. (During my 40 years as a history teacher, I would periodically become aware that I've never actually read the book, so I'd get a copy, only to rediscover that the book is unreadable. The prose style is the most dreadful imaginable. To call it "amateurish" would be a great insult to all the talented, hardworking amateurs this nation has produced.)

Historically, these are the long-standing nominees: Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and, most recently, Toni Morrison's Beloved. Those are artistic choices. The leader is Morrison because Gatsby was a hundred years ago, let's move on; Finn has certain issues with plot, characters, and word choice; and who wants to read a long, boring book about whaling?

We would probably be better off with a top ten list.

But OK, I'll play: Wrong direction, Georgia Hackberry tree, and The Grapes of Wrath.

M.Y in Hilton Head, SC, writes: An impossible task. But if forced to pick, I choose The Grapes of Wrath. I do think Mark Twain is the greatest American writer, although I could probably be convinced otherwise over and over.

J.K. in Portland, OR, writes: I cannot really consider the choice of Tom Sawyer as greatest American novel to be incorrect if a person has to pick only one book. But underlying that request is an assumption that American history/culture has been consistent enough in the past two and a half centuries to be able to make such a choice. I would certainly agree that Mark Twain is the greatest American novelist of the post-Civil War era and that Tom Sawyer is arguably his best novel, for the reasons you cite. But there are other authors who qualify for other eras of American culture/history who are candidates for writing the greatest novel of their era, always, of course, keeping in mind de gustibus non disputandum est.

I will plead ignorance and pass on the pre-Civil War era, but offer the following:

Post-post-Civil War to circa 1920: I'll go with Edith Wharton and The Age of Innocence for capturing the dominant culture of the era. Like Twain, she has a grasp of what she writes about, but does so in her own style. Henry James deserves honorable mention.

Mid-20th Century: John Steinbeck captured the Depression like nobody else, and in some sense could be considered the successor to Mark Twain's ability to depict America. The Grapes of Wrath seems to be his best known and most accessible work, although for me it was a tough choice between that book and Cannery Row.

Late-20th Century: I will go with Kurt Vonnegut for his ability to open the window to his mind and capture through the "genre" of science fiction his grasp of contemporary America. My favorite of his novels is Cat's Cradle, but especially if you want a take on how America ham-fisted its way to superpower status, Slaughterhouse Five has to be considered.

Contemporary: We don't have durability to use as a criterion here, so I'll just have to go with the novel that has most struck me to date: Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife.

T.B. in Leon County, FL, writes: There are movies you've recommended which I have not yet seen (not on Netflix), and now there's a book which I probably will read. Of books I have read, I'll choose John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.. When I was headed off to graduate school overseas, my father said, "You have to read this book before you go. People will ask you about it and you should have something to say." I did read the book, and although nobody ever asked me about it, it helped me understand a little more quickly (a little, anyway) people I met in far-flung places like Crossroads, South Africa; Jakarta, Indonesia (especially in a slum with houses [floors, walls and ceilings] built of transport pallets [with corrugated iron roofs and cloth wall coverings]); Takaparawhau (Bastion Point), Auckland, New Zealand (during 1977-8 occupation); and New York City (street people: abandoned building squatters).

L.G. in Thornton, CO, writes: I certainly agree with your choice of Tom Sawyer (who wouldn't), but since you have already honored it, I submit Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as another excellent choice. It also tackles and illuminates significant American themes such as class struggle, labor wars, right vs. left political ideology, overcoming obstacles, the Western migration movement, as well as demonstrating the indomitable American spirit of acting with integrity in the face of overwhelming adversity ... all set in the backdrop of the Great Dust Bowl and Great Depression era.

I look forward to reading the submissions of your other readers in the hope of discovering novels I've not yet had the pleasure of reading.

A.B. in Wendell, NC, writes: Tom Sawyer was a great pick... but for my money, the winner is The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It speaks of struggle and survival—something we have known about all too well throughout our history. It speaks to hope and resilience, only to see those hopes dashed when the migrants, the Joads among them, find themselves exploited (once again) in what they thought was the land of hope.

Of course, if aliens did read The Grapes of Wrath, and got a good look into the human character from that book, they might well not want to visit us! I sure wouldn't.

Do you have a book to add that isn't The Grapes of Wrath or Tom Sawyer? Let us know!

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