Happy Independence Day, dear American readers. Almost two hundred and forty years ago, you picked up the ball and ran with it. As the dust settled, you produced the Declaration of Independence, one of the best pieces of aspirational prose ever produced. The lovely, the startling, the truly revolutionary, thing about it is its unqualified commitment to the human right to happiness. If we were only to acknowledge the indivisible relationship between happiness and kindness and have a go at living up to the Dalai Lama’s rigorous instruction to us all, ‘be kind whenever possible. It is always possible’, well, to quote another great American icon, Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world.
On this your sort-of-birthday, America, I’m not going to say a word about some of the less praiseworthy things you have brought to the party (but that does not mean that I am condoning your really extraordinary continued espousal of killing people as a method of justice). No, today is a day for celebrating what you have done with the English language and how American literature has added to the sum of human happiness.
Thank you for your poets. From Walt Whitman to the Beat generation and beyond, they have spun and whooshed into the language store with verve and energy and freedom and fun, and we are all the better for it. I’m choosing just three for this week’s bookshelf. The first is Don Marquis. Journalist, humorist (please note American spelling in honour – can’t go too far – of the occasion), novelist and playwright, Marquis is best remembered in the NorthernReader household as the poet behind Archy the cockroach who had been a vers libre poet in a previous life. Using Marquis’s typewriter (lower case only: it is tough to be a cockroach), Archy writes poems of great humour and poignancy about Mehitabel, the great love of his life who happens to be a cat – as in feline, although jazz culture and argot underpin Archy’s world. And that’s why I love the Archy and Mehitabel poems: they are the voice of NewYork, every bit as distinctive and authentic as Woody Allen, reminding me that the modern era started at least a decade before we tend to think it did (Marquis created Archy in 1916) and that by the end of the First World War the baton had already passed from tired old Europe to up-and-at-‘em America.
My second poet (I’m taking it for granted, by the way, that we already have the usual suspects on the bookshelf: Whitman of course; Longfellow – although a little of that relentless tum-ti-tum-ti rhythm goes a very long way; Pound and Eliot) is Robert Frost. Friend of Edward Thomas, which is accolade enough, surely, Frost was in many ways an old-fashioned poet; perhaps, even, the last of the old-style poets. Long-lived and prolific, his poems use colloquial language and, very often, a New England rural location to set out, scene by scene – he is, I think, a particularly visual poet – a careful exploration of the human condition. To my mind, Frost is second only to Auden as a poet of the twentieth century with the knack of coining perfect phrases. As a taster, let me remind you that Frost gave us ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ (perfect for us here in the debatable lands of the North) and ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.’ Exactly, now I come to think about, what America herself did, and something for us all to check our actions against from time to time.
And my third great American poet (all of the twentieth century this week, you’ll have noticed) is E E Cummings, another celebrant of the typewriter’s lower case (although not for his own name: e e cummings was an orthographic imposition of his publishers later copied by critics). The Fourth of July is the day to remember his sonnet, ‘next to of course god america i’. Fiercely critical, satirical and unswervingly ready to call his country’s failings to account, Cummings is a splendid figurehead for the necessity for free speech (please don’t forget the Al-Jazeera journalists today, by the way: there is an Amnesty International petition here that you might consider signing). Cummings didn’t so much eschew the capital letters and punctuation in his poetry as play fast and loose with them, and one of the pleasing consequences is that you really do have to read his work aloud. His work is free-wheeling, exuberant and musical, and as American as they come.
We must have novelists too. Another trio, then, chosen pretty much at random from another crowded field: how about Henry James, Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway? The lives of all three overlap, and James and Wharton were chums. I do rather long to discover that Hemingway dropped round for tea and gossip with them both, and it would in strictly temporal terms have been possible, as he was sixteen by the time James died and I’ll bet he was precocious. But, whatever the vast chasms of difference between them – and the idea of James wrestling with lions is almost as enchanting as that of Hemingway getting to grips with Upper East Side manners – all three share the distinction of being indispensably great. If you have never got round to reading Henry James, you might not be expecting his dry observational humour. Granted, The Turn of the Screw isn’t terrifically
comedic, but, by and large, trust me. If Edith Wharton has so far passed you by, you’re going to love her acid and astute analysis of the power of money. Try The Custom of the Country. Think of her as an American, early twentieth-century, Jane Austen. And if you didn’t think Hemingway was your sort of thing, try Across the River and Into the Trees, not least because it made me cry and I don’t see why I should be the only one.
This birthday reflection has thought only of America’s past, dominated by white men. The present and the future are different, gloriously different. The land that said (through Emma Lazarus, a woman from an immigrant family) ‘give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’, has often lived up to such magnificence. America the generous, America the advocate of happiness, happy Independence Day.