Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Friday, September 18, 2009

Literary Anemia

     I keep encountering these anecdotal reports about the reading habits of people in just about every country and how they differ from those same reading habits of people in the United States. In other countries there are more diverse titles readily available than here, people tend to read books containing more substantial subject matter, there is a better awareness and appreciation of a particular country’s national literature, people still read the works of poets and authors even after they’ve died, you’re more likely to find more waitresses and truck drivers reading books more closely resembling literature than pop fiction, and so on. One indication of this phenomenon is when, on occasion, I see film footage or photographs of sidewalks in other countries where books are displayed in profusion for sale, or I hear of international cities that have more bookstores than do our cities.
     I don’t see anything wrong with people reading the latest romance or vampire fad novel, or latest MFA formula novel on some national bestseller's list, but I wish there were a few more folks like me who find better books to read from a really good library, like the one at the University of Delaware, or good books that must be ordered because so few people know about them.
     Reading sensibilities, especially for literary art, really strike me as being anemic in my community here in my part of Delaware. I suspect the same is true in many parts of the United States. Yet I know we are surrounded by a rich presence of both past and current locally produced literature. It’s just that it’s invisible. I’m convinced we’re not alone in our affliction with literary anemia. This condition is, I’m almost certain, a national affliction.
     Perhaps ever since the advent of television, American literature has become the nearly exclusive playground of insular academia. Pop fiction has largely supplanted literature, but good literature is also deserving of public appreciation. The implied message is if one wants to be exposed to real literature, then go to college. For me, as one who would rather write literature than pop, hack, or pulp fiction, I find this situation unacceptable for any number of reasons, notwithstanding the belief that people deserve access to our national literature as a normal part of our cultural life.
     A good solution to this problem is to begin to rebuild our national literature by rediscovering our regional or local literature. Past literary artists from Delaware had connections to national figures like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Paul Laurence Dunbar, H.L. Mencken, Hart Crane, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name only a few. These connections can certainly enhance the appreciation of the literary lives of these notables as well as of the literary contributions of John Lofland, Robert Montgomery Bird, Victor Thaddeus, James Whaler and John Biggs, Jr., who were not only the formers' counterparts from Delaware but who shared influences with them and, in their own right, once garnered national literary reputations in their own times. The latter still have important things to tell us through their literature; their literature still holds up under literary criticism and their works can still enhance not only local literary and cultural environments but also better our understanding of our national literature. After all, isn’t one of the true meanings of literature its timelessness in the context of today’s social and cultural dilemmas?
     The way to begin the process is to first create an awareness of local and regional literature, pointing out all the crosscurrents and shared influences with notables from our national literature. This is what Delaware's Dreamstreets project attempted to do since 1977 with its many publications, radio and television broadcasts, and public readings. I firmly believe that some pleasant surprises will be discovered in some far-flung corners of our country that will result in filling out the portrait of who we are as a country. Beyond this, we need to make sure examples of past local literature remains in print, even if only in a local or regional market, maximizing the public’s access to it.
     Finally, we need to make sure our local literature is taught in schools and colleges so it can be better appreciated and understood. Perhaps, as a result, we’ll discover our national literature is not anemic, that we can build a marketplace for more literary art, and in the process, learn a little bit more about ourselves as a nation.


  1. Leech has hit the mark. What is universal and profound in the human community is only realized in the place where each individual lives and breathes. In the national market, that universal is often displaced by the lowest common denominator. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “[e]veryone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.” When that community is offered no cultural life other than the alien homogeneity of the corporatized marketplace, how can everyone freely participate?

  2. Mr. Leech's social literary concerns ring a parallel bell for me in American culture: the politics of food. I remember the '70's well for its food co-op movement, which proposed that we could move into a better future by harvesting the best of the past: locally and seasonally grown, organically sound food that's better for us and the Earth. Today we still enjoy this impetus in such manifestations as Michael Pollan's "Botany of Desire" and "Omnivore's Dilemma." The parallels with Leech's literary issues are telling. Agribusiness highly processed food from far away corresponds to mass pop lit. Elite restaurant and TV food show displays correspond to Literary Academia. And "green" food production and consumption corresponds to traditional local and grass-roots verbal art. Mr. Leech may be tapped into more than he knows.

  3. In my very advanced age, I have stopped judging the habits of others, finding it unproductive and filled with criticisms of our own, - maybe earnest, maybe arrogance. A few years ago I decided I would read no more novels because my time on this planet is limited. I've probably read thousands of novels, mostly forgotten in my old age, but I love history and its accompanying biographies by authors such as Robert Caro and Michael Beschloss plus all those other fine historians. If I am any example (I don't claim to be), my reading started as soon as I could decipher words. My sheer joy was found in bookstores and libraries. My mother warned m to put down the book and play outdoors.
    I in no way feel superior to those who find pleasure in other pursuits. This is an unfriendly planet, uncaring about humans and other living things. Nature can be brutal and I doubt that the human race continues to improve. We can not be ministers to the world, - they are usually pretty boring anyway. Let's read our books, direct our own lives and enjoy all those wonderful books that are available to book lovers

  4. From what I've heard at writers' conferences the consensus in the literary world of the U.S. is that there aren't any regional literatures left in American literature. The literary editors believe this. There's outside Academia poetry, it doesn't have regional distinctions.

  5. Of particular interest to me concerning what Delaware can offer is the much more direct connection Delaware has to the history and mythology of the American frontier than the rest of the East Coast. Olson's starting point for his poetry of the frontier was his New England fishing port hometown. William Carlos Williams' starting point was Paterson. The Delaware "Forest Finn" settlers from Sweden had much more direct impact on the West than people of those regions. The trick in this is that Delaware needs to be seen as part of the democcratizing Western U.S. rather than the conventional efforts to fit Delaware into the East Coast rigid class hierarchy. Delaware poetically is far closer to Gary Snyder, and can never, no matter much many Delaware poets might wich, satifsy the demands of Helen Vendler. Delaware is the only state along the Atlantic seaboard that has never had an Ivy League level higher academic institution, and not even close, so it has never had an academic poetry.

  6. Albert,
    That's quite a mix of assumptions: Delaware a frontier, a singular East Coast Rigid class hierarchy, Delaware poets are like Gary Snyder but can't satisfy Helen Vendler, (who demands what - that artists complete human existence with their art?), and finally, not being Ivy League means Delaware never had an academic poetry.
    The Delaware Frontier: That's a good emblem for how the class hierarchies, rigid or not, first manifested themselves in Delaware. Subsequent waves of Europeans expelled the indigenous, paving over communities from Hopocohacking where the Swedes put down to the West Side Wilmington cleaved by I95, to the neighborhoods that once housed everything from the underground railroad to a thriving jazz scene now buried by the nation's credit card banks. Our Gary Snyders have to be archeologists to dig up that frontier and revolutionaries to reclaim it and build what should have been.
    As for Delaware having or not an academic poetry, it depends on how you define it. Recently UD Press published On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers, but that was a rarity. The issue is, how much is that book or any other work by Delaware writers disseminated and read? UD press may be the only opportunity for publication by a house of any note, but there are a certain number of hoops to jump through that any academic press implies. How accessible is that to those stirring under the Delaware midden heaps?

  7. Dear Recent "advanced age" anonymous, thank you. You sound more advanced than I am, and I am old enough (old enough for what?) myself already. While your loss of faith in the world saddens me, I find it all too understandable. Still, you take heart in the printed word. Your mother shooed you out from reading a book? What a cool child you were! Maybe Mom read your book on the sly while you were out playing?