Monday, September 21, 2015

Writing America

Having recently spent a week exploring some of the literary landmarks of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, I was intrigued by Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Writing America as soon as I heard about its scheduled publication.  The book’s subtitle, Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee (A Reader’s Companion), led me to believe that it would serve as a good planning tool for more trips of a similar nature to the one I had just completed.  As it turns out, I was right.

As Fishkin puts it in the introduction of Writing America, E.L. Doctorow once said that a novelist “endows places with meaning.”  But Fishkin goes further than that when she says, “And if literature endows places with meaning, places can help us better understand how works of literature came to be what they are.  Writing America examines intersections between public history and literary history”…And that makes it a perfect companion for those who enjoy extended road trips across America. 

My own trip found me visiting cities and small towns that influenced, and were influenced by, such writers as William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Richard Wright, and Tennessee Williams – all of whom are among the most well-known authors this country has produced.  Fishkin, however, does not limit herself to the better known of America’s writers.  Instead, she gives equal attention to lesser-known writers produced by several minority populations living and thriving in America: African-Americans, Americans of Asian descent, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans. 

Author Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Each chapter of Writing America includes a study of several related authors, a few seldom-seen photos of authors and landmarks, excerpts from the work of the various authors being highlighted, a detailed list of historic places relating to the authors in one way or another, and two or three pages worth of references for “further reading.”  There are chapters dedicated to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglas, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Sinclair Lewis.  But there is also a chapter highlighting a number of Native American writers who were highly influenced by what they (or their ancestors) saw and experienced at Wounded Knee, and another on Asian American writers that focuses largely on the impact of the Japanese internment camps of World War II.  There is also a full chapter dedicated to the impact that the Harlem neighborhood of New York had on multiple generations of African American writers, and a particularly eye-opening one on the wonderful Mexican-American writers produced along the border that Texas shares with Mexico.

And finally, Writing America finishes with a chapter on how Hollywood, particularly in its heyday, both influenced and used the work of so many of America’s best known writers, writers such as William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, Nathanial West, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and Lillian Hellman.  Fishkin’s book can certainly be enjoyed by the more sedentary among us, but it is sure to be particularly relished by those who enjoy getting out on the road to visit America’s hidden (and not so hidden) treasures. Writing America is a little treasure chest filled to the brim with literary treasures; it is a fine traveling companion for those with a little time to wander – and to wonder about America’s literary past. 

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like it might work for a little armchair traveling?