Thursday, April 12, 2018
April 12, 2018: Great American Novel Studying: Ceremony
[On April 10th, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Gatsby and other contenders for the elusive Great American Novel crown, leading up to a special weekend post on some recent contenders!]
[FYI: this post will be spoiling the heck out of the climax to its focal text, Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1977). If you haven’t read it, well, go do so ASAP and then meet me back here!]
On the climactic decision and its aftermath that together exemplify everything I love about America and American literature.
There are lots of reasons why we read fiction: to see aspects of our identities reflected yet also to connect to experiences and lives different from our own; to learn about dark and painful realities yet also to be inspired by what can be; to be entertained and comforted yet also to be challenged and forced to grow; to remember and to imagine; and so many more. When I think about the American novels that I’d put at the top of my list—an ever-changing category, but certainly including The Marrow of Tradition; The Awakening; My Ántonia; Absalom, Absalom!; and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—what tends to link them is that they achieve many of these goals and effects. And I’m not sure any American novel comes closer to achieving all of them than Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), a work both specific to its worlds and contexts (Laguna Pueblo Native American culture, World War II veteran experiences, the Southwest United States) and universally relevant, both traditional and postmodern, both historical and supernatural, both tragic and inspiring.
Every element and moment of Silko’s novel contributes to those aspects and effects, but I’d say they all coalesce in one climactic and amazing three-page section. As I wrote in this post, the section begins with the protagonist, Tayo, making a utopian choice: faced with a situation in which it’s practically impossible for him not to respond with violence (particularly since he has done so in an parallel yet not as extreme earlier moment), Tayo instead courageously resists that impulse, and the forces of evil, prejudice, and destruction (within his community, nationally, and spiritually) that lie behind it. Having done so, he comes over the next two pages to a series of powerful and crucial epiphanies and revelations: about history and heritage, his family and his identity, the reservation and the nation, his long-lost mother and his own life and future, about, in short, every central character, setting, and theme in the novel. I’ve taught Silko’s novel at least ten separate times now, and I’ll freely admit to getting choked up each and every time I read this section.
It’s a beautiful and powerful moment on many levels, but I suppose if I had to boil it down, I would do so through a quote from another inspiring American scene in a work I love: President Andrew Shepherd’s climactic speech in The American President (1995). The speech is full of great lines, but I’m thinking specifically of this one: “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight.” To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Tayo, or any Native American, has to “earn” his or her American citizenship any more fully than any of the rest of us. Quite the opposite, I’d say that Tayo here exemplifies a concept both Shepherd and I would apply to all Americans: that if we hope to reach our ideals, our best selves—as individuals, as communities, and as a nation—well, to quote my favorite line from this section in Silko’s novel, “The only thing is: it has never been easy.” It’s far easier to give in to the worst of what we have been or can be, whether that means meeting violence and hate with the same, getting cynical and pessimistic about the future, settling for far less than we can be, or any other understandable but limiting and ultimately destructive choice. But as Tayo and Silko demonstrate in this amazing section, the hard way is the better, and the American, way.
Last novels tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other nominees for the GAN?