Paperbacks Ride Again, or what is American(a) literature?
When our learned Books Editor asked me to step into Gordon Sharpe’s unfillable shoes, I started wondering what American literature actually was, how it connected with the music we feature at AUK and what does it, in fact, all mean? Especially given that everything we do at AUK can at times feel like a search for a definition of Americana, whether that relates to the music or a wider cultural definition. So, I looked it up, in Merriam Webster naturally, where it says: “materials concerning or characteristic of America, its civilization, or its culture, broadly: things typical of America.”
So that gives us a starting point. What books help us understand and appreciate America? Both for us in the “old world,” we are after all based in the People’s Republic of Liverpool, and for those resident on the left side of the pond. I have, by the way, taken “America” to mean the USA at least for the purposes of distinguishing the wood from the trees. As with every other country, America seeks to explain itself in words and pictures. There isn’t room in this column to look at films and TV as well as books and magazines, but the two areas do cross over, with so much of the best American writing being very cinematic in its use of places to spotlight aspects of American life. Having been listening to and writing about the band The Delines recently, their songwriter Willy Vlautin is a good example of how keenly observed and illustrated worlds can be built into a four-minute song or a short story through focusing on their setting. The influences on his writing include John Steinbeck, and Raymond Carver. Carver especially made huge contributions to short story writing in the US, and Vlautin’s books and songs continue the thread he started.
But it’s not all going to be fiction. There are some great thought-provoking books on music. Greil Marcus with Mystery Train, which examines key artists from popular music and according to a reviewer starts from “the “democratic assumption” that Presley and Herman Melville are already cultural and political equals, and are, therefore, “in conversation with one another – having a dialogue about freedom and limits, innovation and tradition, American dreams and American obsessions.” And that may be the key to what makes American culture unique and so dominant in our world. There is no separating music, from books, or films and art. They are all feeding off each other in an attempt to understand the diverse people, cultures and landscapes that make up America. So, in the words of another American cultural icon. “Let’s see what’s out there”.