Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Founders Of National Literatures

In some cases it's very easy to spot the first great figure in the literature of a nation -- "great" not in the sense that they were bettter writers than others, that's a subjective call, but in the sense that they formed a reference point for the literature that followed, great in the sense that the writers and readers of that nation looked at each of them as a kind of founder of their culture.

In some cases that figure is very easy to spot: in Greece it's Homer, in post-Roman Italy it's Dante, in Spain it's Cervantes, in England it's Shakespeare, in Russia it's Pushkin.

In ancient Rome, some would say, it's Vergil. Others would say it's Cicero. I, and perhaps a few others, would say that Horace and Sallust and Ovid write rings around those two. (Then again, by my own criteria, that's not the point.)

The situation is quite murky in Amurrka, because after the mediocrity of Irving and the so-so melodramatic novels of Cooper came Melville, the most accomplished writer in our nation's history, but dishonored in his own time, and always an outsider. He even founded an Amurrkin tradition of outsider-writers: Emerson, Faulkner, Gaddis, the Beats. The fucked-upness of our literature is world-famous.

Who's the first great German writer? Luther, Grimmelshausen, and Goethe, the top 3 choices, are about as different from one another as 3 writers can be. Is that bad for Germany, or nice for Germany?

(Or is this all incredibly meaningless and beautiful?)

France just simply doesn't have one. Maybe because the field is more crowded with geniuses that the literature of any other nation.

And when I think that there must be similar sitchy-ashuns in the literature of Portugal and Lithuania and Mexico and hundreds of other nations, discussions including thousands of writers whose names I have never heard, my mind reels at how much bigger the world is than my mind.

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