Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Is There an American Trollope?

Anthony Trollope is my favorite novelist. I enjoy his Barsetshire novels very much. I am now working through his Parliamentary novels in sequence.

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.

There are more contemporary social realists who love their characters too much to let them come to any real harm.
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.

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.


Michelle said...

What about Barack Obama... The Audacity of Hope.

charlotte said...

Have you read Eudora Welty? She is both comic and affirming.

gruntled said...

Michelle: I am looking for a novelist.

gruntled said...

Charlotte: I do like Welty's tone. I would have to read a set of her stories to see what her take on the community, the whole social world, adds up to. I haven't read enough at this point to say.

Michelle said...

Dreams of My Father: a Story of Race...

Michelle said...

Sorry I'm still getting over Mr. Obama winning a Noble Peace Prize ahead of time.

Bob Davis said...

How about Richard Russo?

Katie said...

Only Jan Karon's Mitford series comes to mind. But, the series just barely counts as real literature...and, they're kinda' girly.

gruntled said...

Of Russo I have only read Straight Man. While I like campus novels, the world depicted in that one is rather grim, I thought.

I have read the first of the Mitford books. I thought it was a little syrupy for my taste, though I suspect she was also trying for a Trollopian vibe.

Peter Hoh said...

I've never read Trollope, but when you ask for an American novel that's about family and community and mostly optimistic, Raintree County comes to mind. Unfortunately, Ross Lockridge didn't write any more novels.

Whatever you do, stay away from the movie version. MGM was desperate to turn the book into the next Gone with the Wind. I've never seen the movie, but I've heard that's it's awful, and can sour one's perception of the book.

And ignore the cheesy cover art, too.

gruntled said...

"Raintree County" was filmed in Danville, KY. I have, however, not been able to make it through the film.

Anonymous said...

I think Tom Wolfe comes closest - in A Man in Full at least. I don't think all of Trollope is nearly as optimistic as the Barsetshire novels - for example, some of The Way We Live Now is pretty dark, and so is some of the Eustace Diamonds.