cover image American Writer

American Writer

Jack Cady, Cady. St. Martin's Press, $27.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-312-20274-3

With the lusty, slightly stumbling zest of an aging hipster, novelist Cady gives his own highly opinionated, occasionally off-putting account of the history of American literature--an attempt, the author says, to tell ""things I wish someone had told me."" Written in a jazzy, finger-snapping style, the book races erratically through the great writers and themes of the nation's history. The longest consideration given to an author is to John Dos Passos's USA trilogy (12 pages dense with quotations), while Whitman, Melville, Hemingway and Bellow are confined to a half paragraph or, at most, two pages. Cady asserts that American literature shares more with Russian and Japanese literature than with our European counterparts owing to an emphasis on the concept of sin and an absence of Roman influence. Much is then made of the familiar thesis that American writing stems from ""three great ideas: Original Sin, Original Possibility, Original Good."" The ""new mythology"" of the 19th century--feminism, race, economics--is superseded in the 1920s by an obsession with automobiles, Prohibition, Freud, evolution and jazz. Cady sees much cultural anxiety and social instability arising from an inadequate mythology, that of the cowboy and of individualism. What's required, he believes, is a mythology ""that allows people of many cultures to live happily cheek by jowl."" It is characteristic of both the book's strengths and faults that Cady provides no sense of how this task could be accomplished. He cautions against America's affinity for easy answers but then amasses a series of hackneyed notions about American culture and history, as if the sum total of simplicity were complexity. (Nov.)