Saturday, February 04, 2012

Reading American Epics

I'm reading novels -- I guess auditioning novels might be the right word for it -- for the American Epics class I'm planning to teach this summer. Right now I'm in the middle of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a novel I read about fifteen times between the ages of 12 and 19 and not since then at all.

It's a book that formed me, in other words; but at the time I thought of it as history. I was already, then, mostly a SF writer at heart -- I always read every kind of book, but I've always read thinking about the SF novels I was writing or planning to write, and how this book I was reading might help or inform that.

So Grapes of Wrath, well, I looked at it mostly for what it could tell me about structuring big fat novels and building novels with multiple characters. I don't think I was paying much attention to its politics at all (at least consciously) in those days. Because, you know, we'd fixed that problem.


Reading it now, as with Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, it's a gloomy trip. Romantic to have expected Americans to have learned anything from experience, I know, or to have been paying attention at all -- but these books, they might have been written a month ago. Same arguments. Same issues. We've got food stamps instead of soup kitchens, unemployment and prisons instead of chain-gangs, but other than that.

Like none of the gains we made made any difference. Like no one has been paying attention.

People are even making the same arguments -- the market has to decide; if we divide things more fairly, the rich will have it all again within ten years; poor people just like not working, that's why they're poor; well, poor Americans aren't really poor, I mean, not compared to the poor in OTHER countries; you can't tax the rich, because they'll just take their money and leave!

I've heard every one of those arguments within the past two months. They're in Lewis and Steinbeck, novels written in the 30s, the last time rich thieves broke our country.

As I said, it's a been a gloomy ride.

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