All this talk about Historical Fiction and I realize that I recently finished reading the first part of John Dos Passos’ excellent U. S. A. trilogy, The 49th Parallel. It’s so good and compelling that I can’t believe I didn’t read it years ago. Of course, my true but oft repeated excuse is that I was trained to eschew American literature and have only tried to catch-up in my waning years. My work was always Keats, Joyce, Wycherley, and Milton; who knew there was great writing in America? … and Dos Passos is a great writer. Reading his fiction makes writers like Hemingway even more disappointing.
But it’s not just Dos Passos that I have been immersing myself in lately; there is also the equally great American writer, Henry Roth. If you haven’t read Call It Sleep and the later (much later) works collected under the titles, Mercy of a Rude Stream and An American Type, what are you waiting for? Dos Passos and Roth both build a somewhat disjointed, highly episodic narrative, which provides the reader with a vivid and unforgettable picture of life in the early part of the 20th century, and especially in Roth’s case, a detailed examination of the difficulties faced by ethnic immigrants.
I suppose that, like Bellow’s Augie March, you could consider these works less as novels and more as modern examples of the Picaresque. Plot, if it exists at all, is broken up between the various characters striving to get ahead in the world. But does it matter? Are they fiction? Of course. Are they historical? Without a doubt. Are they great literature? Very much so. Are they recommended reading? Do you have to ask?
But for now I remain silent, upon a peak in Darien, opening my copy of 1919 and putting my feet up on the hassock.