Ever since it was published 50 years ago critics have described Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the great nonconformist novel, but Nathaniel Rich writes that the novel’s true message is about the militarization of American society—and the trauma of war.
When a novel becomes a “classic”—when it is digested by critics and English teachers and study guide authors into bite-size morsels that can be slurped with a spoon—it undergoes a peculiar type of transformation. For one, it ceases to resemble a novel. Even the messiest, most obstreperous books are reduced to a litany of bullet points, or a single bullet point. Moby-Dick: Obsession devours. Crime and Punishment: Guilt corrupts. White Noise: Technology numbs. It can be disorienting to actually read the damn thing, and find out the epitaph is no more descriptive than a chapter title, and a misleading one at that.
Ken Kesey in 1966. (Ted Streshinsky / Corbis)
It’s even worse when the novel is adapted into a film, especially a good film, as is the case with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Since Milos Forman’s adaptation, the line about the novel has been that is an “antiauthoritarian fable” (Larry McMurtry), a “nonconformists’ bible” (Pauline Kael), “a metaphor of repressive America” (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt). This view is accurate—Kesey is certainly interested in conformity and its discontents—but incomplete. What Kesey has to say is larger, and far more subversive.
Kesey is not the first author to write about lunatics who appear saner than those who seek to lock them up. The trope dates back as far as Don Quixote, continues through Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, published a year before Kesey’s novel. The nature of the oppression is different in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, however: the inmates in Kesey’s mental ward, with one or two exceptions, have asked to be locked away. “Guilt,” says Harding, one of the patients, when asked to explain his decision:
Sixty years after Ralph Ellison’s 'Invisible Man' was published, we still haven’t woken up from his nightmare. By Nathaniel Rich.
“I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest,” said Ralph Ellison in his 1955 Paris Review interview, but it is impossible not to recognize this dichotomy in Invisible Man. In Ellison’s novel, art pauses for protest, which usually takes the form of sermons, speeches, and lectures about race and American history. Saul Bellow, an early and vocal champion of Ellison’s, made the point in a private letter: “I myself distinguish between the parts of the novel that were written and those that were constructed as part of the argument; they are not alike in quality.” The sections to which Bellow refers—the speech of the blind preacher, the narrator’s work for the political group known as the Brotherhood, his seduction of Sybil—have aged the least gracefully. But Invisible Man remains a terror. Ellison dramatized, as forcefully as any novelist of the last century, Stephen Dedalus’s vision of history. In Invisible Man we experience American history as a nightmare. Sixty years after the novel’s publication we still haven’t woken up.
The most succinct synopsis of Invisible Man comes from Ellison himself, in a letter sent to his literary agent in 1946, just as he was beginning work on the novel:
The invisible man will move upward through Negro life, coming into contact with its various forms and personality types; will operate in the Negro middle class, in the leftwing movement and descend again into the disorganized atmosphere of the Harlem underworld. He will move upward in society through opportunism and submissiveness. Psychologically he is a traitor, to himself, to his people, and to democracy … He is also to be a depiction of a certain type of Negro humanity that operates in the vacuum created by white America in its failure to see Negroes as human.
Ellison held true to this mission, though Bellow could have gone a step farther in his criticism: Ellison’s argument is strongest when he abandons the essayistic mode entirely and plunges into the realm of imagination. We enter this hallucinatory sphere in the opening paragraph of the prologue. The voice of an invisible man emanates from a dark basement that “is damp and cold like a grave.” The imagery is ghoulish and carnivalesque:
'A Time To Be Born' doesn’t have a single gun, yet Dawn Powell’s novel captures the madness of World War II. By Nathaniel Rich.
Dawn Powell’s A Time to Be Born is one of the most enjoyable novels written about World War II despite the fact—or is it thanks to the fact?—that not a single battlefield appears anywhere in it, nor any weapon more deadly than an ice pick. This is because Powell takes as her subject the war as experienced not over there, but over here. More specifically, A Time to Be Born is populated by the type of people who plotted the war from the safety of oak-paneled conference rooms, wrote searching essays about military strategy in the nation’s popular magazines and newspapers, and debated its finer points in the most exclusive Manhattan restaurants and hotel bars, over the best martinis. In Powell’s novel, the war serves as a brilliant excuse to throw a party.
The life of this party is the pretty Amanda Keller, the young second wife of a great newspaper magnate named Julian Evans. The Evanses are loosely based on the Luces—Clare Booth and Henry, publisher and founder of Time, Life, and Fortune. They knew “every one,” writes Powell, in a rare address to the reader, “and by ‘every one’ I certainly do not mean you or me or any one we knew.” Amanda, with the assistance of the best writers Julian can buy, publishes a diverting “sword-and-lace romance” designed to “comfort a public about to be bombed.” This novel, praised wildly by all of Julian’s newspapers, becomes a massive bestseller, and Amanda is transfigured by her success into a sober intellectual authority on all matters geopolitical and economic. “She made a heyday of the world’s confusion,” writes Powell. “She rode the world’s debacle as if it was her own yacht.”
Amanda delivers lectures at ladies’ clubs and publishes essays in Evans’s publications, with titles like “What’s Wrong With England,” “What’s Wrong with Russia,” and “What is the Future of America”—her copy again provided by assiduous staffers. She hosts lavish dinner parties and poses for photographs in dripping emeralds and barebacked gowns of silver brocade. And at night, after all the diplomats and movie stars have left the Evans’s graystone mansion off of Fifth Avenue, she tries, with great ingenuity, to avoid having sex with her short, ugly old husband.
But Amanda has a secret. Though her biography in Who’s Who suggests she has royal blood, and lists France and Switzerland as the scenes of her early education, the truth is that her father was a haberdasher with a gambling problem, and she grew up in an apartment above a store in the inconsequential burg of Lakeville, Ohio. Amanda is presented with a reminder of her humble past at the very beginning of the novel, in the form of Vicky Haven, a floppy, downtrodden childhood friend who has moved to Manhattan with hopes of finding love. Vicky soon does find love, in the form of Ken Saunders, Amanda’s own secret lover. This creates an awkward love triangle, which later turns into a quadrilateral, then pentagon, before settling into a love hexagon—the multiplication of sexual partners a byproduct of the countless parties, and the countless cocktails.
Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road” dramatizes a Georgian sharecropper family made cruel and vile by debilitating poverty. Nathaniel Rich writes that it shows just how much the intellectual preoccupations of the ’20s were swept aside by the Great Depression.
As a comedy, Tobacco Road is a modest failure; as a tragedy, it’s an abject failure. And yet Erskine Caldwell’s novel, 80 years after its publication, remains a giddy, obscene joy. It as indelible as a freak show or car crash. Nobody knew what to make of Caldwell in 1932, and nobody much talks about him now, but his legacy persists. He is a progenitor of what could be called the degenerate school of American fiction. Descendents include writers like William S. Burroughs, Harry Crews, Katherine Dunn, and Barry Gifford. Tobacco Road is crass and deranged and irreducibly American.
Erskine Caldwell, the author of “Tobacco Road,” in 1958 (Bettmann / Corbis)
The novel received censorious reviews upon publication, but after it was adapted into a play in 1935 and became the longest-running show in the history of Broadway, it went on to sell 10 million copies. It is not surprising that critics were made uneasy by the story of the Lesters (rhymes with festers, molesters, and incesters), a family of cruel, illiterate savages in west-central Georgia. In the early years of the Great Depression, the intellectual preoccupations of the ’20s were swiftly discarded. No longer did artists and critics gripe that America was a mechanized, standardized, puritanical country, governed by Babbitts, prudes, and dimwitted businessmen. As Frederick Lewis Allen writes in Since Yesterday, his history of America in the ’30s, the conversation had turned, with a thud, to economic reform. It was held that “the masses of the citizenry were the people who really mattered, the most fitting subjects for writer and artist, the people on whose behalf reform must be undertaken.” Writers needed to depict conditions as they were for the most unfortunate members of society—that was the only way to bring about social change. It was an innocent time in America, and writers still believed that fiction could bring about change.
The Lesters, at first glance, seem the ideal heroes of a Depression-era novel. They are poor; “dirt poor” is no exaggeration, for their land has been depleted by cotton farming and untilled for seven years. Seventy-five years earlier, grandfather Lester had owned a great tobacco plantation, but the property has long since been sold off to creditors. The Lesters only remain on their small parcel thanks to the pity of its new owner. Their house, which has never been painted, is sagging and rotted and porous. Sections of ceiling fall away every time it rains.
What do 'Gone with the Wind' and 'The Hunger Games' have in common? A new installment in the 'American Dreams' series, by James Hall.
Some 75 years before 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) fought to the death against teenage rivals, another teenage young lady captured the hearts of millions by doing pretty much the same thing. Scarlett O’Hara is every bit as jaded and calculating as Katniss, and her battle for survival takes place against a similarly grim panorama that was as close to a real apocalyptic nightmare as our nation has ever known, the Civil War. Though Scarlett’s survival skills are the coquettish ones of eye-batting flirtation, not archery or hand-to-hand combat, the stakes are every bit as grave.
Death and violence and the dissolution of the old order stalk Scarlett throughout this 1,000-page epic, and she must flout every rule of decorum and the ladylike restraints of her age to achieve a modicum of physical and economic security. She even kills a Yankee soldier who is invading her war-ravaged home of Tara, an act that barely ruffles her petticoats.
Whether people will still be reading The Hunger Games 75 years from now is debatable, but the future of Gone With the Wind seems assured. The novel held the No. 1 spot on the bestseller list for two years starting in 1936 and sold a million copies in its first year.
If only we had a man like George F. Babbitt today. Sinclair Lewis's satirical 1922 novel Babbitt became a national phenomenon. Nathaniel Rich says its comedy is still profound when read today.
If only there were a Republican on the ticket who could combine the pro-business boosterism of Mitt Romney:
Chicago History Museum / Getty Images
“What we need first, last, and all the time is a good, sound business administration!”
with the prideful anti-elitism of Rick Santorum:
In the second installment of the American Dreams series, Nathaniel Rich reads a seminal African-American novel about crossing the color line, ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man’ by James Weldon Johnson. On its 100th anniversary Johnson's novel deserves recognition for its rich American themes and influence in the next generation of African-American writers.
Set with the challenge of humanizing his race for white readers, James Weldon Johnson realized that it was not enough to create a hero who was shrewd, intelligent, and valiant. His hero also had to be a conceited ass.
James Weldon Johnson. (Corbis)
The anonymous narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man has never encountered a skill or trade that he cannot instantly master. As a 12-year-old he discovers, after several piano lessons, that he is not merely an “infant prodigy,” but “a true artist.” Later, thanks to this “natural talent,” he becomes “a remarkable player of rag-time,” “indeed…the best rag-time player in New York”—a distinction that would place him ahead of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. Language comes to him as easily as music. After spending a year at a cigar factory, he can speak Spanish “like a native”—“In fact, it was my pride that I spoke better Spanish than many of the Cuban workmen.” In Paris, after “an astonishingly short time,” he acquires “a more than ordinary command of French”; a few months in Berlin and he’s fluent in German. The narrator enjoys flagrant successes in love (“I say, without any egotistic pride, that among my admirers were several of the best-looking women”) and money (“Concerning the position which I now hold I shall say nothing except that it pays extremely well”). There is nothing the man can’t do, in the post-Reconstruction South—except, of course, be seen on the street with a white woman, eat at a white restaurant, or be acknowledged in public by his white father.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is the first African-American novel written entirely in the first person, but Johnson did not have literary innovation in mind. He sincerely hoped that the book would pass as nonfiction. For this reason Johnson had to publish the book anonymously, since by 1912 he was already a hugely successful popular songwriter, Broadway celebrity, and the U.S. consul to Nicaragua. A cigar was named after him.
In the first installment of American Dreams, Nathaniel Rich finds in the 1902 novel "Brewster’s Millions"—the amusing story of man who has to blow $1 million—a parable about the emerging America of the time.
1902: Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
Actor and manager Gerald Du Maurier (1873 - 1934) in a scene from the play, 'Brewster's Millions.' (Hulton Archive-Getty Images)
Brewster’s Millions, a novel about a bet, was written on a bet. George Barr McCutcheon was visiting his publisher when the subject of bestselling novels came up in conversation.
“The name of the author is what sells the book,” remarked the publisher.
What American novels best tell the story of the 20th-century? In a new monthly series, Nathaniel Rich sets out to chart the history of the American Century through its novelists and their work.
If history is written by the winners, who tells the story of the losers? Who sings of the strivers, con men, lechers, failed artists, degenerates, alcoholics, barbiturate poppers, neurotics, depressives, hustlers, cranky intellectuals, dissolute heirs, and whores? The novelist—that’s who. These losers are the heroes of most of the greatest novels of the 20th century. With apologies to Howard Zinn, the people’s history of the United States has been written by its novelists. And it’s a living document.
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2012. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.
The whole project will be extremely subjective and idiosyncratic, like all reading of fiction. Some of the novels will have been, at the time of publication, the most-discussed book of the year (Catch-22, Valley of the Dolls, The Bonfire of the Vanities come to mind); in other cases I’ll choose novels that were ignored initially, but discovered later (The Great Gatsby, say, or The Day of the Locust, which sold 22 copies in Nathanael West’s lifetime). There will also be books neglected both at their birth and today, but deserving of attention. The hope each month will be to find a novel that defines the age in which it was written with an intimacy and nuance unmatched by any history book, newspaper article, or film.
What American novels best tell the story of the 20th-century? In a monthly series, Nathaniel Rich sets out to chart the history of the American Century through its novelists and their work.
The perfect gift for any crime and mystery lover this season is a new omnibus edition of Dashiell Hammett’s work. Allen Barra on the enduring greatness of his work, even when there are no crimes.