February 10, 2010


I was struck by this same thing--Gatsby to Catcher covers a pretty small slice of life and experience. From the Regarding blog, the accepted idea that while male experience, heroes, protagonists, stand in for the universal:

"In Adam Gopnik's eulogy for J.D. Salinger, he's talking about how Salinger managed to tap into the way Americans talk, nailing it brilliantly in page after page of wonderful dialogue. Then he starts talking about how "Catcher in the Rye" is timeless--how he recently gave it to his own 12 year old son and the son loved it as much as had the father, 30 years ago. Okay, that's great! I love that book too, it's completely mind-blowing, obviously. Then he says:

"In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: 'Huckleberry Fin,' 'The Great Gatsby,' and 'The Catcher in the Rye.'"

What he means is that those are three really great books that should be called "classics." But he claims this status by arguing--or, not even arguing, just POINTING OUT, like it's self-evident--that these books are somehow universal, that they somehow speak to "every reader and condition." And I find that amazing. That a group of books in which each protagonist is a young, white man somehow contains all conditions. I'm not harshing on those books, which are all totally genius and beloved by me. And, Gopnik is of course not a jackass; he doesn't MEAN it like that, really...and yet, that's the way he thinks. That's the way we ALL think, basically. He would probably agree that something like "Beloved" or "Invisible Man" should be considered a "classic," too, that those are similarly Great (with a capital 'g') books, but he would never describe them as "speaking to every reader and condition." Those books speak to the AFRICAN AMERICAN condition, or to the AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN condition, and no other. By reading them, we gain insight into a different condition from our own ("we" being "white men"). They are great because they provide that insight, not because they are universal. Yet somehow freaking "The Great Gatsby" IS universal.

The apparent belief that a young Maya Angelou would read Catcher in the Rye and think "My god, it's like he's known me all my life" is pretty depressing."

Posted by jessica hopper at February 10, 2010 04:08 PM | TrackBack