Monday, June 15, 2009


Fathers reading.

The New York Review of Books has an article about Patricia Highsmith this week. Included in the article is a quote from D.H. Lawrence. "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer."

Certainly Ripley is the prime example. Lawrence himself though was talking about Natty Bumpo. You can see this play out in real life with men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. But what about in fiction?

Do you agree with Lawrence's assessment? And if so, what are some good examples in fiction and in real life of this rather scary figure?


John McFetridge said...

Another criticism that's often levelled against America, though, is that it's too sentimental and soft.

(I've been reading O. Henry lately, so I see the sentimentalism everywhere).

But I don't think something as diverse as America could have an "essential soul." That just seems like a 19th century European idea.

pattinase (abbott) said...

American detectives stories are heavily populated with these iconic figures though. Maybe more in fiction than in real life. And maybe in real life when the frontiersman was seen as the ideal "American."

Iren said...

This from a writer who saw the peak of the British Empire as it rampaged across the globe killing and destroying-- setting the stage for the horrors of the modern world. As to his charges: Hard- somewhat, Isolate- not so much we seem to have forgotten the founding fathers advise on minding out own bees wax, Stoic- depends where you are, and Killer- We learned from the best, the british, ok, ok, the Spanish were the real killers, just ask the Aztecs.

the walking man said...

"The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer."

I don't think the statement is true anymore. I think we have become a nation of to have this, can't live without that. The soul of America has been pounded for decades by a variety of cultural elements and we lost something in the beating.

The only real life American example that I can think of that fits still is an American service person, who unwillingly goes where their government has sent them and does what needs be done unflinchingly according the orders given them.

Fiction...Although I haven't seen the Gran Torino, it seems like from what I have read the Kowalski character may fit the ideal.

pattinase (abbott) said...

YES! Kowlaski is a perfect example in every way.
The slaughter of the American Indian may have brought on his comments more than any essential "American sout." Yet you still find this personna in detective fiction as I said. And look at the average serial killer: his description too.

George said...

Mike Hammer fits the bill. But my favorite cold-blooded American killer is "Richard Stark's" Parker.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Why does the P.I always seem to be isolated? Is it to free him up to solve crimes or engage in romance?

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, as my husband reminds, me Lawrence is an outsider and his observations come almost entirely from U.S. literature and history books. Not observation.

Dana King said...

I think PIs are so often loners for two reasons:
1. The genre demands it, as the PI must be free to follow the case wherever it goes, and not care whose applecart is upset. Too many attachments make this impossible, if the author wishes to remain credible.
2. PI stories are the 20th/21st extensions of the Western. Much is made of the similarities of PIs to knights--especially in Chandler--but there's a lot of Shane in Philip Marlowe, too. Marlowe came first, but it's the archtypes I'm referring to. Depending on the author, PIs (crime fiction heroes in general) bear many similarities to characters like those found in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, or John Russell in HOMBRE.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, the westerns I've read by Gorman and Reasoner could easily be detective novels. Or mainstream novels for that matter. But they do tend to feature these iconic figures.

Cormac Brown said...

What, Lawerence never made it over to Germany? I'm not talking about WW II and everything that led up to it, I mean the collective soul of Germany could easily fit that quote.

If you live in an apartment? You will not vacuum between such and such time of the day. Your lights will not be brighter than the designated wattage. They have thousands of laws governing the minutae of everyday life with severe penalties for not conforming.

If ever there was a society that lives up to the Japanese saying "the nail that sticks out, must be hammered down," it's Germany. It's not a coincidence that the words "angst" and "schandenfreude" come from there.

If they didn't have Oktoberfest and beer halls, they would implode.

Todd Mason said...

Well, Patti, if one is a one-person operation, or even an agent of a larger agency, dealing with criminals and psychopaths, one is not likely to be too touchy-feely in one's professional dealings, at very least.

As for Ideal Americans, never confuse hype with reality. You are as representative an American as any other American. So am I. D. H. Lawrence was, in several ways, a fool, and this is certainly evidence.

You have to take into account the kind of writer who drawn to a field, and the kind of audience (real and perceived), as well...loner PIs scratch several kinds of itch.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We can go back and examine Tocqueville who said Americans vacillate between eagerness and apprehensiveness due to the middle class's fear of falling and expectation of rising-- economically.

TM said...

Sounds like the human condition in any rich country, not solely the opposed to the resigned acceptance of misery in a poor one.

John McFetridge said...

Why does the P.I always seem to be isolated? Is it to free him up to solve crimes or engage in romance?

I think the main difference between the PI and the cop is that the cop searches for evidence that will be admissable in court and lead to a conviction, but the PI can search for "the truth" that will satisfy his/her client.

Knowing who did it and proving who did it are sometimes very different.