The Adventures of Augie March: great or Great American Novel
One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life: that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is is half the time greedily seeking, and half the time pulling away from them. – Willa Cather
One of my favorite barroom topics is the Great American Novel. This usually results in me and whoever is around listing their five or so favorite American novels. What starts as a simple project, ends in a cacophony of “what about X?” followed by: “he’s not American” (Lolita – Nabokov); “that’s not a novel (Leaves of Grass – Whitman); or “it’s good, but is it great?” (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey). By the end of the night we can hardly agree on a list of top five contenders let alone a single, definitive novel.
So what might the Great American Novel look like? At the most basic level, the Great American Novel must satisfy three requirements: 1. it must be written by an American; 2. it must be aware of its place in the American canon; and 3. it must, in some way, aim to give greater definition or shape to what it means to be an American.
Please allow me to put forward Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as a candidate for the Great American Novel.
The Adventures of Augie March was published just a year after the other major novel of the 1950s, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Like Invisible Man, Augie March was written by a minority–a black man on the one hand, and a Jewish immigrant on the other. However, both had a singular goal: to use the novel as a place for examining the gap between the ideal American and the actual America. In his Introduction to Invisible Man, Ellison writes: “a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.”
Put simply: America is a work in progress and it is the job of the artist to give voice to the voiceless, and work to find the “snags” that prevent us from achieving the “democratic ideal.” One of the ways a novel reveals those “snags” is by making the world a little bit strange and unfamiliar.
Both novels begin in remarkably similar ways. Invisible Man: “I am an invisible man”; and Augie March: “I am an American.” These novels both begin with a declaration of self: I am X. Each novel then spends the next 600 or so pages explicating and expanding upon X. Already we begin to see one of the defining features of American literature: the transcendental notion that to understand the world, one must begin with the self. Both Augie and the Invisible Man are writing retrospectively and, in doing so, attempting to make sense of themselves as they literally create their respective narratives.
“I am an American,” begins The Adventures of Augie March, “Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way.” “Freestyle,” “taught myself,” “make the record in my own way”: these are, if nothing else, purely American ideals. The rest of novel is a recounting of Augie’s path to becoming himself, to becoming an American.
Of course, nobody said it would be easy. While making “the record in my own way” offers freedom, it also requires persistence, sacrifice, and unwavering commitment. Throughout the novel, Augie meets many who failed to find their calling–whether from distraction, pure laziness, or simple bad luck. But Augie also finds people doing the best they can with what they’ve got and realizes that happiness comes not from money or objects or even love, but rather comes from a recognition of the role each person plays in his or her own life–that one’s failure or discontent can be traced back to poorly made decisions.
For example, Augie’s older brother Simon, after growing up in poverty and struggling to make ends meet, decides pretty early on that he has one simple goal in life: to be a rich man. After brokering a deal to marry a daughter from a wealthy Chicago family, Simon’s dream is realized. However, Simon (and Augie, too,) quickly realizes that the compromises he made with himself to achieve his goal had prevented him from achieving any sense of happiness and comfort (the thing he actually wanted). In other words, Simon believed money and happiness were the same thing. Instead of happiness, Simon finds himself struggling to deal with his misrecognition between the man he wanted to be and the man he became. In a crucial scene toward the end of the novel, Simon’s wife, Charlotte, recounts to Augie the story of Simon’s affair–with Simon at the same table forced to listen to his own failures. At one point, Charlotte claims Simon had said to her “I might as well get knocked off. I’ve wasted my life anyhow.” To which she responds:
“And what did I do, if he wasted his life? […] If he didn’t have such an abnormal idea about being happy in the first place it wouldn’t have happened. Who told him he had any business to expect all that? What right has anybody? There is no such right.”
“Who told him he had any business to expect all that?” By “all that,” Charlotte is referring to the expectation of a fulfilling life–or at least something better than the petty, joyless, self-destructive union that Charlotte and Simon had made. In Charlotte’s mind, it was Simon’s unrealistic (to her) expectations that led to the destruction of their marriage. The logic goes something like: if Charlotte is miserable, so too must Simon be miserable. Of course, Simon is miserable, but he was unfaithful not because he intended to hurt Charlotte (as she believes) but rather he cheated because he was already miserable. Money, he realized too late, is not sufficient for a fulfilling life. As Augie sits listening to Charlotte eviscerate his brother, he realizes “all [Simon’s secrets] were about was his mismanaged effort to live. To live and not die. And this was what he had to be ashamed of.” Augie stops Charlotte’s tirade by pretending to have a coughing fit–a harmless lie to save his brother from further humiliation.
What strikes me about this scene is that Augie realizes both Simon and Charlotte are right. Charlotte is correct when she claims there is no right to an expectation of happiness. While Simon may not have a right to expect happiness, he certainly has a right to pursue happiness. In making this distinction between expecting and pursuing, Augie acknowledges the extreme pretentiousness associated with judging anyone’s efforts “to live and not die.” It is one of those trite points that is obviously true: living is hard and we do the best we can. We all do the best we can to manage our lives. We make mistakes, sure, but the best of us learn from those mistakes and try to do better.
Learning from our mistakes–the possibility of a better life through self-improvement–is perhaps the purest distillation of the American Dream. On the very first page of the novel, Augie quotes Heraclitus: “a man’s character is his fate”; but by the end of the novel, Augie adds the corollary: “fate, or what he settles for, is also his character.” A man’s fate is molded by his character, but it is also true that a man’s character must be placed in the context of where he ends up. Augie appends the corollary to his initial quotation because throughout his adventures he encounters people who have given up. Where, when, and why a person decides to stop the process of self-improvement is as good a measure of character as anything else. Simon’s decision to settle for misery and despair is a defect of character, but is also, importantly, a self-made misery.
There’s a moment midway through the novel when Augie’s friends and family turn their backs on him and he finds himself utterly and completely alone. Rather than disappear inward, he looks outward: “The days have not changed, though the times have. The sailors who first saw America, that sweet sight, where the belly of the ocean had brought them, didn’t see more beautiful color than this.” “America, that sweet sight,” both humbles and strengthens him, just as it did for the first explorers of the New World and for the immigrants who came after. But America is nothing more than a concept. It is a country that believes it can improve upon itself not because it is great in and of itself, but rather because it is a country populated by people obsessed with self-improvement and the hope of a better life.