or, A Case for Modern American Literature

I’ve been hearing about “The Great American Novel” from the time I was old enough to know I wanted to write, which was around 1976 when I was 12 or so. For a very brief time I tried to read some of the candidates for the title, like Hardy, James, Conrad, Roth, Styron, even Hemingway and Steinbeck (the last two of which I really tried to like,) and much of the rest of that madding crowd. For some reason they’ve always left me cold, failed to move me even the slightest bit. I was drawn to and captured by the likes of, at first, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Heinlein’s complete oeuvre (but especially Stranger in a Strange Land,) and other sci-fi and fantasy works. Granted, that could have been a function of being an adolescent male in the mid-70’s/early 80’s (or any other decade.) I later expanded that introductory circle to include adventure and espionage, crime thrillers, and other popular novels as well as healthy doses of non-fiction and reading-to-learn-stuff, mostly centered on Eastern and other religions and philosophies, with the odd bit of science (mostly Pop Physics) thrown in to cover any gaps.

I quickly realized, though, that anything recommended as The Next Great Thing by the NY Times or other equally august bodies was not anything I could (or likely ever would) relate to. That incomprehensibility persisted into and after the college years, dispelling the “it’s an adolescent thing” theory, and I’ve been reading voraciously and across genres almost since I finished the first book I read by choice when I was around 8 or 10. That’s not to say that these suggested works and their creators weren’t great by the recommending entities’ standards, or that students won’t be reading them (by force or otherwise) hundreds of years from now, just that they weren’t and aren’t for me. I remember going through the list of 100-ish recent Pulitzer prize-winning novels with pen in hand to mark the ones I’d read and the ones I’d liked, and being slightly dismayed to find I could have ditched the pen and used the fingers of one hand to count each. (Though the ones that did make both lists – theirs and mine – were good ones. To Kill a Mockingbird, anyone?)

So the so-called Greats of the dim and distant held little appeal for the 13-year old version of me (or the 40+ version of me,) with very few exceptions. Melville? Massive yawn. Hawthorne? Slightly less massive yawn. The previously mentioned Hardy, James, Cooper? Impossible. Poe? Twain? Hey- wait a second. . . there may be something with those last two.

While the many scribes in that dusty stable used language so stilted and archaic as to make it completely inaccessible to me – even today – Twain and a very few others managed to do something different. Sure, the sentence structure and some of the vocabulary gave it away as being from the previous century, but it was funny. It was thoughtful. It was thought-provoking and evocative, words I would never use to describe any of the others. I began to read some of the letters, journals and other missives from Twain and some of his contemporaries; Emily Dickinson was another who seemed to get it, even that long ago and even though such an outlook was at least partially responsible for her crushingly solitary life, one that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

This amateur sleuthing quickly confirmed that Twain (and to a lesser but still powerful extent Poe) wrote, to my unschooled sensibilities, like a modern. In fact I suspected more than once that, like his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he was a modern who’d been thrust (accidentally or by design) into the past, and who then had to survive the only way he knew how: by writing in such a way that people laughed while he stealthily slipped in some life (and other) lessons gleaned from his glimpses into the future. After learning more about his life, though, and his many disastrous business decisions, I decided that probably wasn’t the case, though it made his work no less compelling.

From that discovery onward Twain became the “real” Great American Writer for me, and his has remained the standard for such a distinction. Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, and very few others since have been similarly lauded – in my limited view, anyway. (I haven’t included the poets I’ve enjoyed, like Billy Collins, which may be a more valid comparison and which probably isn’t fair – but I’ll correct that omission sometime in future. Maybe. This did start out as an examination of the Great American Novel after all.)

All of that was a long way of saying that if there is a Great American Writer or collection of writers around today, and if they’re not the stuffy “you MUST read these writers because EVERYONE says they’re the quintessential American literati. . .” I think I may have found them.

In, of all places, modern music.

I know, it’s no major revelation that great writers, American or other, have existed in Music for as long as there has been another person to listen to a finished work, and that truly great writers of Rock & Roll and Pop have been around since the late 50’s and 60’s forward. (So have the bad ones.) In the last several years, though, a disparate collective of smart, witty, and/or deep writing has emerged, and – more surprisingly – been embraced (by an admittedly small subset of admirers.)

This idea emerged whole-cloth last night as I was submerged in a cross-generational crowd of seething bodies enraptured by the onstage antics and output from Death Cab for Cutie, the PNW band who has been around now for a decade or more but who have been reaching worldwide audiences for roughly half that time.

Again, no surprise that pogo-ing crowds crossing multiple demographics would enjoy rock concerts. But to have teens and pensioners alike not only bopping to but quoting – loudly – lines like this, made me pause and wonder if maybe the Great American Novel might actual be the Great (Insert Nationality Here) Song. Or Band. Or Work.

December’s chill comes late.

The days get darker and we wait for this direness to pass.

There’s piles on the floor of artifacts from dresser drawers

that I’ll help you pack.*

Or

She holds a smile

Like someone would hold

A crying child

(Just two of many examples I could have cited, mainly because I remember them each striking me during last night’s show with specific impact.)

Songwriters like DCFC’s Ben Gibbard, Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, Bright Eyes’ predominant pen Conor Oberst and many, many others are embracing the difficult phrase, the literate reference, the longer and larger ideas – and people are responding. True, not to the same degree as to whatever happens to be in the Top 10 at any given moment, but when has anyone that likes their jam with a side of brain cells ever used that particular barometer?

Meloy, in particular, seems to revel in the obscure, almost challenging us to decipher his arcane references, seeing how esoteric he can get before someone calls his bullshit. So far nobody has, and with good reason. Who else would title one of their album-length efforts “Picaresque?” (Though the phrase was familiar I had to look that one up when I first heard it, and I consider myself to have a fairly deep and broad-ranging vocabulary; for anyone interested in that sort of thing, it means “pertaining to, characteristic of, or characterized by a form of prose fiction, originally developed in Spain, in which the adventures of an engagingly roguish hero are described in a series of usually humorous or satiric episodes that often depict, in realistic detail, the everyday life of the common people: picaresque novel; picaresque hero.”) Or create a folk opera complete with shapeshifting princes, maternal witchcraft, rake-ery, and true love conquering all, but only in death? Or use the quasi-Shakespearean technique of stressing the last syllable of a word that would normally be unstressed (“drown-ed” instead of “drowned,” for example?) And don’t even start me on “The Crane Wife” – there’s not enough space here to dissect that one. . .

The Decemberists have the highest body count of any popular band that I’m aware of, (not always a decent register for intelligence, I realize – 70 or more through Hazards of Love, or .92 deaths per existing track at the time of the tally, not counting all of the soldiers in the several wars of which he’s written,) and their songs range from countless historical musings to gangland violence to just plain odd combinations of character, situation and result – all done with interesting word combinations and cadences, and each done in such a way that fans new and old will inevitably experience at least one head-scratching moment of, “Hm… that was strange.” Followed quickly by, “Can I have a little more?”

Gibbard, too, never shies from the deeper thought or the pensive turn. (“Like a book elegantly bound, but in a language that you can’t read. . . just yet.”Ω) Immersed in all things Kerouackian not so long ago, both in penning a recent album with Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt) using Kerouac’s novel Big Sur as its underpinnings and by writing most of Death Cab’s penultimate album in those very surrounds, walking in Jack’s metaphorical footsteps Gibbard’s writing can be as stream of consciousness, as soaringly poetic, and as starkly real as anything Kerouac hammered into the endless amphetamine-fueled screeds that launched a generation of hippies onto their destinationless paths. Let’s hope he won’t have the same vitriolic, raging alcoholic end as did his temporary spiritual mentor.

These writers are not alone. The Singer/Songwriter subset of the broader Indie genre, in large part due to the Internet’s ubiquitous ease-of-publishing and virtual rebuilding of the old music production model (labels? What are those?) is flourishing, and rightly so. Many or most of these troubadours are mixing smart lyrics into the fun, bar-friendly ones that are the backbone of most of their sets. (Sometimes in the same song.)

It’s not like this is the only time in the history of music when lyricists have used deep thoughts and multisyllables to express their thoughts and feelings. This sort of writing has always been available to the patient and diligent listener. This does seem to be a particularly fertile time, though, for the niche-popularity of those Indie bands and artists who are not afraid to challenge their listeners to think while they crank.

Of course, the best, deepest, hookiest and most clever lyrics would be nothing, would have no listeners at all, without buoying them with kick-ass music, be it loud, soft or some combination of the two. The marriage of these lyricists and their lyrics with the musicians and music that sets them off perfectly and in the best light is the statistical equivalent of discovering several needles in the same haystack – it’s so rare as to be celebrated ecstatically (if not always fully appreciated) by the very people best suited to receive it: willing listeners.

(Another note about what I’m describing as smarter music: for some reason even the instrumentals from these bands sound like more thought has been put into them than their more popular counterparts. But that’s another discussion completely. . .)

Then again, I may be noticing this and spouting off about it because this is the kind of music that’s always interested and intrigued me, whether it’s been popular or not. For many of the early years, in fact, popularity was a guarantee that I would not pay any attention, and certainly not any money, to partake of whatever was being offered.

But I don’t think that’s the case.

It could also be argued, rightly, that fans and especially casual listeners of this sort of music may never even notice, or care, that the music swimming into their ears is accompanied by more intelligent-than-usual lyrics, meanings or philosophies. They just know it sounds good, and maybe it rhymes, and it makes them want more. And that’s totally OK.

The most popular forms of music, art, TV and cinema today could never be accused of being very high-brow; most would be hard-pressed to make it to middle-. That’s not a value judgment – it may be neither good nor bad, just indicative of whether or not it will register with the ever-increasing demands for my attention and appreciation – but fact.

Indie music, by its nature and definition, will always be a niche market, and that IS probably a good thing.

And I’ve read enough (maybe more than enough) to know that there are authors out there whose works can be equally moving and thought-provoking, and that some of these are wildly popular while some are struggling in obscurity. Writers like John Hart, Stephen King, Michael Connolly, John Sandford, Dan Simmons, Jonathan Carroll (expat though he may be,) and countless others successfully walk the fine line between commerce and quality, and I’ll trust them to take me on a worthwhile journey any time. My point is that such a list is, at least for me and at least for today, less emotionally and intellectually compelling than one comprised of the type of songwriter I’ve described here.

So back to the original premise of all this rambling: are the Ben Gibbards and Colin Meloys and Those-Who-Have-Not-Yet-Been-Named the inheritors of Twain’s mantle? Are they the ones that truly bear the torch for Great American (or other) Literature?

I think they are.

And I’ll keep listening, and noticing, and wanting more for as long as they’re willing to experiment, stretch their mental muscles and put it out there for us to appreciate, denigrate or ignore.

(Note: I fully realize that there are many, some of my closest friends included, who don’t care for Death Cab, The Decemberists or others I’ve named here, but I’m also positive that they could fill any blanks with artists of their choosing who could easily illustrate the same points – most are as passionate about great music and its creation as I am. I’m equally sure that there are authors out there banging away on stuff that would likely blow me away in ways similar to those I’ve described here, but none have – as of yet – had the same visceral impact as the primal connection produced by the strength of an electrical thrum, a pounding drum, or an acoustic strum. I’m open to opposing arguments, though, so feel free to try to convince me otherwise, or to make a case for your own favorites in any medium.)

* = “We Laugh Indoors,” Death Cab for Cutie

= “Cath. . .” Death Cab for Cutie

Ω = “I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab for Cutie

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Comments
  1. Bebo says:

    Very cool article. I concur (even though Hemingway was the fok shizz greatest writer of my past); there is much poetic brilliance to be mined via several veins (musically, bloggage, etc.). Good job, Michael!

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    Wham bam thank you, ma’am, my questions are asneewrd!

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