It’s sometimes said that realism and social commentary are at the heart of British and Continental literature—Flaubert, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy—while American literature is replete with haunted Romantic seekers, loners and existentialists of various sorts, including some who yearn for a greater connectedness and others who are merely destructive. The causes for America’s early fascination with such characters may be obvious. For the first two hundred–some years of our existence as a colony and nation, we were in the process of settlement—underdeveloped and continually being both repopulated and threatened by waves of immigrants.
Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years describes the first century of America’s occupation by Europeans as a tumultuous time that was very nearly overwhelmed by flux, confusion, illness and mortality. Perhaps it’s natural that we should have latched on to the long-popular British genre of Gothic literature, with its ghosts and loners. However, by the late 1800s, when Americans yearned for nothing so much as cultural stability and gentility, our great “social realists” continued to wander into the bizarre or ghostly or to follow Romantic yearnings. Characters became alienated even in a realistic world. In some of their most intriguing work, writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton didn’t seem to be just questioning the “real” but to be inviting Nietzsche into the drawing room.
This was even more the case in the twentieth century. The madness of the century couldn’t help but affect literature and most other art forms. [End Page 5] And so J. D. Salinger writes about the lonely, haunted Holden Caulfield, grossed out by American materialism and phoniness, envisioning himself standing at the edge of a field of tall rye where children play, hoping to catch them before they fall off the cliff; or Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beat writers after World War II shun materialism in return for a cheap bottle of wine, a tank of gas and raw experience lived in the present moment; or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, at the end of his quest for an identity, finally gives up and lives in a basement room lined by 1,369 lightbulbs, listening to jazz music and seeking visibility within himself rather than in the outside world; or Joseph Heller’s bombardier Yossarian of Catch-22 malingers in the hospital and goes AWOL, trying every way he can to escape the absurd world of even a “just” war. One could go on with examples: William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Paul Bowles, Ray Bradbury, and Thomas Pynchon, who envisions the whole twentieth century as something between a paranoid’s nightmare and an amusement park of mass destruction. And as was the case a century ago, even our high realists can go to some pretty dark and metaphysical places: Vladimir Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx.
The authors of this issue present us with several loners and characters caught in existential dilemmas. In Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize winner Rachel Swearingen’s story “How to Walk on Water,” the protagonist, Nolan, has come back to live with his mother after a series of failures, beginning with dropping out of college. His parents divorced years ago, following his mother’s brutal rape and mutilation by a serial killer she met in a bar; Nolan has discovered copies of the old police reports, the details of which he can’t get out of his mind. As the story plays out, we see an ever scarier character who lives in self-inflicted sociopathic isolation, unable to discover whether the blame lies in the violence against his mother or somewhere else.
In “Miniature Lives of the Saints” by Anthony Wallace, Kathleen is a recovering alcoholic, mother of a young child, with a husband in prison. She works as a waitress in her mother’s luncheonette and tries to find stability. She has been sober for eighteen months, but the story catches her at a moment of crisis, during and after an AA meeting. It is a sensitive and insightful portrayal of her fellows in the storm and of Kathleen herself, who suffers from isolation and anger...