Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The American Voice

A lot people, when first introduced to the works of William Shakespeare, are turned off by the language. Many of the words and phrases are obviously dated, but also the tenor and cadence are unfamiliar. (Also, it's often not taught very well, but that's another issue entirely!)

A friend today made reference to Jack London's A Call of the Wild and noted that he really liked both it and its sequel (of sorts) White Fang. I read both books a few years ago and, while I could see why they're considered great novels, I didn't get much out of them. Something about London's literary voice that didn't strike me as engaging.

But as I thought on things for a bit, I realized that I actually don't really care for any American authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, L. Frank Baum... Again, in all these cases, I can see why their works are considered good, but I just don't really care for them personally.

As I thought a bit further, it dawned on me that it really can't have much to do with the language specifically, as might be the case with Shakespeare. I actually do like many of their contemporaries... from other countries. Lewis Caroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, George Orwell... I don't really start enjoying American authors until the mid-to-late 1930s and, even then, it's primarily limited to science fiction and pulp novels.

What's striking about that is that it roughly coincides with the rise of comic books as we know them. So what is it about the American voice that's resonates with me at that time that wasn't there before?

Well, the obvious answer is that the Great Depression happened in there. That had a HUGE impact on the country that lasted for decades and, somehow, the lessons Americans learned during the Depression worked their way into their writing.

I have to wonder about that, though. Because I do respond well to comic strips like Little Nemo and Krazy Kat which clearly pre-date the Depression by at least a decade. And Art Deco, which also pre-dates the Depression, is one of my favorite styles regardless of the artist's country of origin.

I do note that early American novels tend to have themes surrounding man's self-reliance, but that's not exclusive to America certainly. Indeed, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland features a more self-reliant protagonist than just about any other author's work I've cited here. As do some of those later American works I enjoy like, say, Detective Comics.

Maybe something about agriculture and wilderness? Those early American novels focus on man's self-reliance because there was just nothing else around anywhere. London's books are set in middle of frickin' nowhere. But here again, that idea doesn't hold up unilaterally. Oz is a pretty bustling place, and The Great Gatsby takes place in New York City.

The only thing I can think of so far (which, admittedly, has only really been for a couple hours tonight) is that there's something about the tone those early American authors use. Something about the level of informality, perhaps? Or maybe that it comes across as a forced informality?

Anyone out there study that era more deeply and have any other ideas?

1 comment:

DeBT said...

I don't know if it counts, but in Gerard Jones' comic history book Men of Tomorrow, he points out that most of the most popular comics at the beginning of the Golden Age were Crime comics. In essence, they were extensions of the often put-down Crime Pulps that were so beloved by a wide-reading audience.

So, the comics companies wanting to expand upon that readership had their comics filled with verbose prose that cluttered up the pages and slowed down the action, forcing you to read the (usually unnecessary descriptions) There was even a 70's Wonder Woman comic that sounded more like a Private Dick story than an S-hero story.

A lot of comic writers such as Frank Miller and Bendis have probably picked up on that and applied it appropriately to their S-hero titles, even if it didn't thematically make sense. That may be why so many current S-hero comics are so unidentifiable to the average reader - they're pandering to an audience that hardly exists today.