Classics are more important today than ever before. But to treat this accurately, I’m of the opinion that it must first be clarified why a particular work is blessed with “classic” status.
Someone said to me once that any writing of yore was considered a classic if it made it to publication. As ridiculous as that might sound at first pass, it’s probably not too far from the truth. However, the first Ango-Saxon epic–as it’s so credited– BEOWULF, is probably the only book other than the Bible that achieved “automatic” classic status. In practicality, there were likely many books published around the time frame of BEOWULF, give or take 500 years in either direction, that were simply lousy, either from the content or the ability to place the text on sheepskin or whatever.
So, what’s a classic? Was everything that Dickens wrote a classic? Or my big four of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Hemingway? What about George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) or more current writer/scholars such as Virginia Woolf and E.L. Doctorow?
First, everything Dickens wrote isn’t great. For example, anyone reading OLIVER TWIST will see just how far Mr. Dickens’s skill advanced when parsing GREAT EXPECTATIONS and then to the magnificence of A TALE OF TWO CITIES. But has anyone not heard of the Artful Dodger? It really wasn’t Peewee Reece. And for all of the flaws in OT, the character Fagan was also inculcated into society’s psyche. Hence, OT achieved classic status, and it continues to be taught for its value as a medium for character development.
For many years I read about this or that book’s having a character or scene that was Kafkaesque. Or that there was a quixotic element to a story. I was 30 before I learned what Kafkaesque meant when a critic referred to a scene in this way, as I always followed the dictionary definition, which was essentially “disorienting.” The reference of course implies to a drastic change in a person’s physical appearance from one day to the next.
As for quixotic, I assumed it mean “comical,” since I found the Cervantes tale quite funny. But in literary parlance, quixotic refers to something that is too fantastic or exaggerated to be real. You may have your own inflection for the word. What matters is that “quixotic” made it into our lexicon and immortalized Cervantes. However, after reading the book, does anyone not remember Sancho Panza equally as well or maybe even better than Don Quixote?
In looking at my big four, was everything Faulkner wrote great literature? He’s my favorite writer, but often those reading SANCTUARY, and enjoying it, had a much lesser opinion of REQUIEM FOR A NUN, its sequel written 20 years later. I found the latter’s storyline awful, but the character Temple Drake impossible to ignore. And who hasn’t read Caldwell’s TOBACCO ROAD or GOD’S LITTLE ACRE and not come away with a head shake for one reason or another when analyzing a character’s actions?
Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, THE GREAT GATSBY, was never equaled, but many, and I’m included, believed the first third of TENDER IS THE NIGHT just as mesmerizing. Yet even as TITN fell apart, who can ever forget Rosemary Hoyt and Dick Diver? Of Fitzgerald’s other two novels, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE is remarkable if nothing else for being written when the author was in his early 20s. A classic, no, but damn good writing. And his last novel, THE LOVE OF THE LAST TYCOON, was never finished and I frankly thought it was abysmal in the way it was structured. So, Fitzgerald had one and a third “classics” to my way of thinking, along with one other fine book and one other disaster.
Steinbeck’s oeuvre, or a part of it I should say, is the hardest for me to find fault with. But for as great as THE GRAPES OF WRATH and East of Eden happen to be, I can hardly place THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT in the same category, even though I very much enjoyed the latter. The Joads and the Trasks were impossible for me to forget, and this is decades since I read either book. To be fair, there were great lines in both TGOW and EOE, but the characters were enormous since they were the ones who spoke the words. And while I’ve always been amazed at the clarity in OF MICE AND MEN, I hated the obscurity of THE RED PONY.
As for Hemingway, he’s perhaps the easiest of the four to say this was great and this wasn’t. I’ve written forever that I believe he wrote THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA to show the world the way MOBY-DICK should have been written. I am just as impressed with FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS and A FAREWELL TO ARMS. Can anyone who’s read either book not remember Robert Jordan and Maria and Pilar or Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley? Yet I found THE GARDEN OF EDEN and A MOVEABLE FEAST perfectly horrid reads.
If it seems as though the common thread is the strength of the characters, this would be correct. Jane Smiley did it in A THOUSAND ACRES, as did Colleen McCullough with THE THORNBIRDS and Barbara Kingsolver with THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. It’s impossible to predict what current literature will reach “classic” status 50 years from now, but THE GOLDFINCH might be something the grandkids or their kids will be asked to read by their instructors.
To take a further look at what propelled a book to reach “classic” status, each of the works I cited for excellence contained great character studies that readers could either identify with or want to aspire to become, even if this is purely a vicarious ideal. Who wouldn’t want to drink ale and ride next to Sancho and Don? Or sit with Robert Jordan in a cave and plan the sortie that would turn the tide of the revolution? What heterosexual boy on the planet wouldn’t want to court Rosemary Hoyt? Who wouldn’t want to be friends with Paddy? Has anyone not felt Tom Joad’s frustration, if only for a moment?
With rare exception, a “classic” teaches a story of life and offers a clear perspective of the people who make something happen for good or for bad. The “classics” show this through characters and characterizations that stay with us like memories of our first real love as a teenager–or at least as real as one can believe it at that age. For some if not most, first love wasn’t a big success. Still, I can’t imagine anyone saying that lessons weren’t learned. Lessons that were “practiced forever” in a figurative sense and “learned forever” in a literal sense.
If we view what makes a book a “classic” in the context of a narrative that leaves an indelible impression, I’m then of the opinion that determining candidates for this exalted perch is not that difficult. Sure, we can think something is fabulous right after we read it. Yet how many stories do we remember a year later, or ten, or thirty? Withstanding the test of time in large measure portends greatness in almost everything. literature is certainly at the top of the list of what influences a society. THE ILIAD has made it for around 3,000 years, the Bible has been around a couple of thousand, Shakespeare’s works, or those attributed to him, have been with us for 400, Dickens’s for around 200, and the big four’s material for essentially 50 years, give or take a few decades.
For anyone who might wish to challenge my assertion and offer an alternate position, I welcome the dialogue, but I also ask anyone to discuss GONE WITH THE WIND and not mention Scarlett or Rhett. Or Dick Heldar in THE LIGHT THAT FAILED. Or maybe Quasimodo depicts my position in its clearest sense. Whose eyes didn’t tear up at the book’s last line when the crippled man’s bones turned to dust at a single touch? Regardless of the characters we choose for illustrative purposes, the way we bring our creations to life is what determines the “tiering” between one writer and another. What constitutes a “classic” is writing that influences the masses in one way or another by the actions of its characters.