I’ve started rereading Dreiser’s The American Tragedy. I wonder how many times I’ve read it so far. Definitely more than 10.
I first read it when I was 7 or 8, I’m not sure. Then I reread it in Russian many times. And the first book I bought when I came to the US was a cheap paperback copy in English. I’m thinking it will last me a couple more readings, after which I’ll have to get a new one because it will fall apart completely.
If I had to explain America to students very far away – say, Ukraine – who only need the basics, I’d use this novel and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And that would be enough.
Not that there aren’t other great American novels. Obviously, there are and I probably read all of them, except for some postmodernist crap I will be tortured with in hell. But they are not as complete. Take Grapes of Wrath, for instance. It’s a brilliant novel but it has nothing like the scope of Dreiser’s. This one has the factory workers, the farmers, the wealthy bourgeoisie, the Evangelicals, the lumpenized gig workers, the Midwest, the East Coast, the criminal justice system, and so on.
If anybody knows American novels I haven’t read that aren’t postmodernist or fantasy, I welcome suggestions. And yes, Beloved is obviously postmodernist. But she’s a genius so she pulled it through. Curiously, I don’t like anything else either Morrison or Dreiser wrote. I don’t hate their other stuff but I wouldn’t reread it unless somebody paid me to do it.