American Dreams: The 20th Century in Novels

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.

To avoid being mired in any one era, the columns will advance a decade every month. In other words, 2012 will be devoted to novels published during the years ending in 2: 1902, 1912, through to 2012. (And 2013, if we get that far, will be devoted to years ending in 3.) Readers are encouraged to send in, or post below, any suggestions for those years; the less obvious, the more appreciated. First up—in January—will be Brewster’s Millions, a Gilded Age ode to the edifying qualities of wealth. One hundred ten years after its publication, the novel still reads as if it were written, if not yesterday, then sometime shortly before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.