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A Response to David Handlin’s “One Hundred Best American Novels”

By Sandra M. Gilbert

August 14, 2014


 

“List, list, O, list!” intones the spectral Hamlet père as, in a nocturnal visit to his grieving son, he begins a famous narrative of murder and mayhem that will lead to even further murder and mayhem. And, because we do list to lists (the very word is rooted not just in “enumerate” and, as it happens, “lust” but evidently also in “listen”), any list of the best anything may well also lead to mayhem, or at least to on- and offline strife. Certainly the climactic moment of David Handlin’s ambitious “One Hundred Best American Novels,” with its frankly confessional account of the 10 very best, will raise the hackles of readers who may or may not be more adventurous than the author himself. Yet I should begin by observing here that I deeply admire the energy, commitment, and learning with which Handlin has compiled his controversial list. He tells us that he has read–and dismissed–many more books that he allowed himself space for, and I believe him. He assures us that he has scrupulously appraised all the works he has so diligently studied, and I believe him.

Anything I offer as part of a response will be more tentative and provisional, partly because I haven’t schooled myself as intensively as Handlin has but also because I am far less clear on what criteria I should use as I attempt a process of selection–or should I say election? What do we mean, for instance, by the word best? And indeed, by the word novel? (Perhaps I could even challenge, here, the word American–the label of a history that has lately come under considerable revisionist scrutiny, for does American mean simply Anglophone or more specifically WASP American or does it also mean all kinds of hyphenated writings?)

But as an introduction to the to-read list I present here, let me begin by querying best. True, Handlin himself meditates on the word, proposing not only aesthetic but cultural criteria. He cares about good writing, he explains, but adds that he is also interested in the ways the writings he selects represent not just “people and places” but more specifically “our country and our culture.” And indeed, he has produced an overview of the history of American fiction that unquestionably represents much of the finest writing ever done in our country. From Hawthorne to Hemingway, from Cooper to Faulkner, many of these are the texts we studied (and still study) in school. I’m not at all inclined to demand deletions, but prefer instead to suggest additions that would make this mini-narrative of our literature (for a narrative it is) more representative of the culture we’ve inherited.

“In each period,” Handlin declares, “there are really no more than two or three writers of the first rank.” But is that in fact the case? What timeframe is meant by “period”–indeed, what is meant by “first rank”–and who does the ranking? Readers, other writers, literary critics, professors, historians? In this statement, Handlinbrings to the surface his determination to end his indiscriminate reading habits by amassing a set of texts in which he discriminates against his own earlier reading practices. And of course why not discriminate? Every anthology, every teaching syllabus, every work of literary criticism, even every personal or public library is the product of a discriminatory process. I know this well because I am myself an anthologist, a teacher, a literary critic, and the possessor of a home library, all roles that have involved me in continual projects of selection.

Perhaps, though, we should discriminate in different ways as we (and our society) grow, learn, change. Perhaps we should even reimagine what Gilbert and Sullivan’sReginald Bunthorne calls “the high aesthetic line” that supposedly produced the big guns of the canon so many of us grew up with. In recent decades, for instance, we’ve come to understand the force of women’s writing throughout American history, and we’ve come to understand, too, the emergent power of those hyphenated literary traditions, traditions shaped by African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, as well as Native Americans, Chicanas, and Chicanos. Too, we’ve come to appreciate the generic range and diversity of American fiction. Not every great American novel is what we now call a “mainstream” publication. Formerly subordinated genres–science fiction and fantasy, detective and crime fiction, horror stories, children’s literature–have left lastingmarks not just on our culture but also, arguably, on all kinds of writing. Handlin’s list acknowledges these points: he includes, for instance, Little Women, Looking Backward, and The Long Goodbye, among other comparable works. But most of the books he includes would fall into any publisher’s mainstream (even, dare I say, male-stream?) category.

What kind of list do I offer here, then, not as an alternative to but as a provisional expansion of Handlin’s list? I should stress that word provisional because I’m not sure I believe in lists at all. To be frank, in my roles as a teacher, an anthologist, and a literary critic I am always changing them. And really, why do we lust for lists? Probably, I’d venture, because they reflect our needs for guidance, even certainty. But the most urgent lists–shopping lists, to-do lists–are usually temporary: my refrigerator is missing one thing today, was missing something different yesterday. Nor are my fridge’s needs easily enumerated; they might encompass eight items today, seven tomorrow. And what–to pursue the simile–is the reason for lists of one hundred? Because there’s something magic in that number or simply, rather, because we use a decimal system and think in terms of centuries and dollars?

Despite such misgivings, however, I append here a list of a hundred more works that I’d like to add to any selection of important, influential, culturally significant fictions composed in the United States from the late 18th century to the late 20th century. I include novellas (Life in the Iron Mills, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Goodbye, Columbus, Tell Me a Riddle), books meant for children but loved by everybody (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Charlotte’s Web), science fiction and fantasy (Fahrenheit 451, The Left Hand of Darkness), detective fiction (The Maltese Falcon, The Red Right Hand, The Haunting of Hill House), modernist experiments (The Making of Americans, Bid Me to Live, Ushant), fictionalized memoirs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Woman Warrior)and a range of other texts that may seem eccentric in the standard “one hundred best” context. But I think they are works that have changed many lives, at least many reading lives. To point to the very problematic nature of this project itself, I also include William Carlos Williams’s parodic The Great American Novel. And finally, as a kind of lagniappebut really because I can’t bear to leave it out–I add one title that falls outside Handlin’s chronology: Toni Morrison’s Beloved. This last novel, along witha few others (for example, The Awakening, Summer, and The Left Hand of Darkness), would probably be on my personal shelf of favorites–but I’ll keep that list secret since it’s probably even more eccentric than this public accounting.

To be sure, as Marianne Moore so famously observed, “Omissions are not accidents”–or, in my view, they’re only sometimes accidents. I’ve surely omitted a few works that had or even now have great public significance. But I invite you to add them! Our list can and should be longer than it already is if it is to reflect the vitality and range of what Handlin calls the American experiment. And I must confess that between studying Handlin’s list and compiling my own I’ve learned more than I had earlier grasped about the genius of that experiment.

 

Susanna Rowson, Charlotte Temple (1791)

Lydia Maria Child, Hobomok (1824)

Susan Warner, The Wide, Wide World (1850)

Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton), Ruth Hall (1855)

Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig (1859)

Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills (1861)

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, The Morgesons (1862)

Louisa May Alcott, Work (1873)

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward, The Story of Avis (1877)

William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance (1882)

Sarah Orne Jewett, A Country Doctor (1884)

E.D.E.N. Southworth, The Hidden Hand (1888)

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1903)

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)

Gertrude Stein, Three Lives (1909)

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

Mary Austin, A Woman of Genius (1912)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (1915)

Edith Wharton, Summer (1917)

E. E. Cummings, The Enormous Room (1922)

Jean Toomer, Cane (1923)

William Carlos Williams, The Great American Novel (1923)

Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925)

Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy (1925)

Ellen Glasgow, Barren Ground (1925)

Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)

Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans (1925)

Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (1925)

Edna Ferber, Show Boat (1926)

Nella Larsen, Quicksand (1928)

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (1929)

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon (1930)

Ellen Glasgow, The Sheltered Life (1932)

Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)

Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1934)

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (1936)

Pietro di Donato, Christ in Concrete (1939)

Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939)

Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies (1943)

William Saroyan, The Human Comedy (1943)

Joel Townsley Rogers, The Red Right Hand (1945)

Anne Petry, The Street (1946)

Jean Stafford, The Mountain Lion (1947)

Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)

Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951)

J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Conrad Aiken, Ushant (1952)

E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952)

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (1953)

Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution (1954)

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (1956)

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

H.D., Bid Me to Live (1960)

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle (1961)

Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools (1962)

Mary McCarthy, The Group (1963)

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965)

Richard Fariña, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966)

Bernard Malamud, The Fixer (1966)

Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection (1967)

N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn (1968)

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Joyce Carol Oates, them (1969)

Alice Walker, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970)

Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

Eudora Welty, The Optimist’s Daughter (1972)

Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead (1973)

Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)

Toni Morrison, Sula (1973)

Diane Johnson, The Shadow Knows (1974)

Alison Lurie, The War Between the Tates (1974)

E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime (1975)

Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior (1975)

Bharati Mukherjee, Wife (1975)

Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975)

Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977)

Meridel Le Sueur, The Girl (1978)

Helen Barolini, Umbertina (1979)

Octavia E. Butler, Kindred (1979)

Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters (1980)

Tina de Rosa, Paper Fish (1980)

Joyce Carol Oates, A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982)

Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)

Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

Edmund White, A Boy’s Own Story (1982)

Paula Gunn Allen, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983)

Cynthia Ozick, The Cannibal Galaxy (1983)

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (1984)

Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (1984)

Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John (1985)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

 

Sandra M. Gilbert is distinguished professor of English emerita at the University of California, Davis, and the author of eight collections of poetry. Her most recent books are Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions and The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity.


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