‘State of the Art:’ Yardley’s opinionated survey of modern American literature (The Washington Post, 14.7.02).
What one must first understand about American literature is that it is un-American… because literature is something with which we as a nation are inherently uneasy. The first European settlers were can-do men and women, more inclined to action than reflection… We borrowed our language from the English, but we have little patience for polishing our prose as they do and none of their quaint affinity for bookishness.
… I am positive that it was [Ring Lardner’s] You Know Me, Al: A Busher’s Letters Home, as well as the many Lardner short stories that followed over the next decade and a half, that showed other American writers how to get the American vernacular down right.
… [William Faulkner’s masterful novels are] the noblest individual achievement of American literature.
… Bellow and Malamud are among the most important writers of the 1950s, a far more productive literary decade than is often acknowledged. A lot of noise was made over writing of little weight—J.D. Salinger’s immensely popular, vastly overrated The Catcher in the Rye, James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the entire oeuvre of the Beats…
… The intellectualization of American fiction produced one indisputable giant, Vladimir Nabokov, and a great deal of work—always ambitious, sometimes brilliant, often obscure and self-indulgent—by Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Stanley Elkin, William H. Gass, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo and others less widely known, almost all of them white men and many of them academics of one sort or another.
…that echt minimalist, Raymond Carver, the Jehovah of the writing schools…
…it has been a half century since an American writer published a novel that indisputably deserves to be called great: The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow. It is one of only 11 American novels published in the life span of this newspaper [ie, from 1877] that, in my judgment, warrant the same distinction: Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, Ellison’s Invisible Man and Nabokov’s Lolita.