Which led to this question: Which novelist is the American Trollope?
I put this question to my colleagues in American literature, asking for their gut reaction. Their responses are helpful and fascinating, though not quite the answer I was hoping for. The first wrote:
Gut reaction: We don’t have a Trollope.
I assume you mean writes about family and community life from a generally optimistic perspective. The first name that comes to mind is Howells, but even in him there’s more darkness than there is in the Trollope I’ve read.
Yes, that is exactly what I was looking for, though I did not know that until my friend put it that way.
Well, I was going to give you Updike, but I’m sure you’ve read the Rabbit books. His life deteriorates—his family’s full of dysfunction. You could try Harold Fredericks’ The Damnation of Theron Ware (Updike rewrote it for his In the Beauty of the Lilies), but that’s (not surprisingly) about disintegration too. Do try Howells: if you haven’t read The Rise of Silas Lapham or A Hazard of New Fortunes, you should—you’d appreciate, if not necessarily like, them.I have tried William Dean Howells' The Hazard of New Fortunes, which I found rather stuffy (and I like Victorian novels) - I will give it another go.
There are more contemporary social realists who love their characters too much to let them come to any real harm.
A second colleague offered this theory of why there is no American Trollope:
Our rather different culture doesn’t have a Trollope—or an Austen, for that matter. Which is exactly why I usually listen to either of these (right now, I’m in the middle of Emma) whenever I’m in the car alone. Both are so wonderfully sane and intelligent and basically comic in outlook, comedy always having to do with community. We’re too goddamned individualistic. No Brit could ever have written “Self-Reliance” or “Huck Finn.”
Our best stuff is darker, more philosophical, and more profound than Trollope or Austen were capable of. America is a great place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live here.
I do appreciate Trollope for his optimistic comic sanity. As a sociologist I am especially drawn to his portrayal of social types as they interact, which he does with remarkable even-handedness. I think an American novelist could write in all of those ways. Optimism is a famous American trait. Comic and sane writing about family and community should be within any culture's reach.
I am halted, though, by the idea that American individualism really does make it hard to write about social types within the stable social institutions of Trollope's world.
What I am wrestling with now is whether American social structures have always been so fluid that a Trollope could not have set his eternal dramas of marriage and status in them, or if this fluidity is something that afflicts all late-modern or post-modern societies.