Writing the American Classics

Writing the American Classics

Writing the American Classics

Writing the American Classics

Synopsis

This collection of essays describes the genesis of ten classic works of American literature. Using biographical, cultural, and manuscript evidence, the contributors tell the "stories of stories," plotting the often curious and always interesting ways in which notable American books took shape in a writer's mind.
The genetic approach taken in these essays derives from a curiosity, and sometimes a feeling of awe, about how a work of literature came to exist -- what motivated its creation, informed its vision, urged its completion. It is just that sort of wonder that first brings some people to love writers and their books.
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Excerpt

At the Academy of Fine Arts in FlorenceMichelangelo's David stands at the end of the gallery. As one approaches this masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, one passes the Prigioni, or "Slaves." These are four unfinished pieces commissioned for the funeral monument of Pope Julius II, a project that was begun again and again for some thirty years before it was finally abandoned. The Prigioni now serve as muted introduction to the David—figures unreleased from the stone yet suggestive of the forms they would have taken had circumstance conspired in their favor. And in the distance stands the masterwork, the David, serene and accomplished.

In a sense this collection of essays is meant to convey this sort of approach to certain masterpieces of American literature. For these are the stories of stories. They describe the genesis and circumstance of several important American books—how they were conceived and reconceived; how they were created and how discovered; how, often, an author's ambitions enlarged as the project grew in the imagination and therefore forever outran achievement in a way that made many writers believe their finished works, works we accept as classics, to be failures. This was the case with William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. For it was not until he believed that the doors of publication were closed to him that he began to write for himself and attempted to tell the story of Caddy Compson four times over and from four different perspectives. Each time, he thought he had failed to tell her story properly. If Faulkner believed that his novel was ultimately a failure, still it was written during a "matchless time," when the resources of talent and energy converged and conspired to produce a book for which he always had a special fondness. The same was true for F. Scott Fitzgerald , who kept extending the deadline for completion of Tender Is the Night until the writing occupied nearly a decade of the writer's short life and the book had changed and matured in ways that paralleled the author's own artistic and emotional growth. What had begun as the story of a young man who would kill his mother in a drunken rage altered its course several times before it took the form of its publication in 1934. By that time his wife, Zelda, had had her own . . .

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