So many great options, why can I pick one?
November 14, 2009 1:43 PM   Subscribe

[Overly broad project topic filter] Works of fiction or scholarly articles on American places? Help me find a work about or set in an American place that was written at the time.

In a class I am taking this semester, we have been assigned a final project. We are supposed to examine a creative work (novel, poem, painting, scholarly article, movie, or even a blog) in terms of how it describes the character of an American place.

In class so far we have discussed
Tales of the City (Los Angeles in the 1970s),
Winnesburg, OH (for the Midwest),
Home to Harlem (for Harlem in the Jazz age) and
Sunset Blvd (for Hollywood in the 1940s).

For the final project we are supposed to do something similar. Pick a work, and analyze how it describes the setting in order to determine the "Americaness" of the place. It doesn't matter if we argue if its American or Un-American. Preferably created at the time it depicts. The problem for me is there are soooo many possibilities. But I can't seem to find one I'm interested in. It's like I have a mental block there, so I'm turning to you MeFites.

What is a great work that you love that is set in an American place? Anything interesting from any American time period. Please give me the best and most interesting works you can find. Extra points for things that aren't movies. I am bad at writing about movies.

Options I have considered (but am not thrilled about): A Christmas Story for 1940's midwest. Farewell to Manzanar for Japanese internment in during WW2.
posted by BusyBusyBusy to Education (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For a similar graduate course, we studied Saul Bellow for Chicago and William Kennedy's Albany Cycle. The books of the latter author are set in an earlier time than that in which he was writing but Kennedy's nonfiction work O, Albany! may provide a useful resource on background.
posted by Morrigan at 2:01 PM on November 14, 2009

Best answer: The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner--Washington, DC in the 1870s-1880s.

Gentleman Jigger by Richard Bruce Nugent--gay Harlem during the Jazz Age.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:01 PM on November 14, 2009

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton -- early 20th century New York City

It'd be helpful to know, however, what kind of books you generally like.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:10 PM on November 14, 2009

Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt. It describes the life of a cattle ranching family living in rural Northern Montana in the 1950s and '60s, existing decades behind the rest of the country, culturally and technologically speaking. The book is a memoir with a feminist angle (full disclosure -- the author is my aunt). The book chronicles the changes that the land and its people go through as they struggle to catch up with the rest of the country.
posted by hermitosis at 2:20 PM on November 14, 2009

Best answer: The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten is set in a (1930s? 1940s?) New York City night school for adults who want to learn English. These immigrants struggle with grammar and spelling and reflect on the process of becoming an American. Might be interesting to let the characters talk about American-ness as well as analyzing the setting. It's also very funny, at least for readers with roots in New York/Jewish/Eastern European culture.

Tales of the City was set right here in San Francisco, and introduced me to a few neat places around town when I first moved here 20 years ago.
posted by Quietgal at 2:38 PM on November 14, 2009

Richard Russo's Empire Falls
Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn
posted by thomas j wise at 2:41 PM on November 14, 2009

Since I read a lot of mysteries, the first thing that comes to mind for me are Laura Lippman's novels--all set in Baltimore, very strong sense of place. The Dennis Lehane novels I've read have are strongly and obviously Bostonian.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:59 PM on November 14, 2009

Annie Proulx's western books (eg The Old Ace in the Hole - Texas panhandle, or Close Range and her other books of short stories set in Wyoming)
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:11 PM on November 14, 2009

Mysteries in general tend to have a strong sense of place, going back at least to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Laura Lippman is a great example (as is her husband David Simon's work on The Wire), but I would say the same thing of George Pelecanos about D.C., Sara Paretsky about Chicago, Carl Hiaasen for Florida... there are a ton of them.
posted by craichead at 3:14 PM on November 14, 2009

A tree grows in Brooklyn. Or something by Willa Cather?
posted by Coaticass at 3:26 PM on November 14, 2009

Best answer: The classic example that immediately came to mind for me is Our Town by Thornton Wilder. It's set in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, during the first decade of the 20th century -- the town itself is fictional, but was based on a number of real NH towns in a particular region.

Also, a number of John Steinbeck's California/Dust Bowl novels, which cover the time period after WWI up to WWII: Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, etc.

For early 20th century Chicago (written at the time), Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is classic. If graphic novels are OK: Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan could be cool. It's set in Chicago/the midwest, alternating between the 1990s and 1893 (during the World's Fair).

For a contemporary, decidedly non-glamorous side of Los Angeles/SoCal, Richard Lange's collection of short stories, Dead Boys, gets it right, as does his recent novel This Wicked World. (full disclosure: Rich is a friend of mine. I receive no royalties from mentioning his books, just the pleasure of knowing someone else may be reading his work.)

Richard Ford's Rock Springs is another story collection, this one capturing the more hardscrabble side of life in the Wyoming/Montana landscape.

It's very light and so might not fit the bill, but Bill Bryson's Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is an evocative memoir of growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s.
posted by scody at 4:00 PM on November 14, 2009

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions! Thank you and please keep them coming. I have about a month before the project is due, but still I'd prefer shorter items since it needs to be a "close reading."

As far as my taste goes, I like very much Kurt Vonnegut (as my screenname suggests) as well as Jonathan Safran Foer and Gunter Grass. But really anything goes! Again, thanks everyone for the great suggestions!
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 4:19 PM on November 14, 2009

Response by poster: I also really like Joan Didion.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 4:20 PM on November 14, 2009

Sweet Land is one of my favorite movies of all time, and it is based on a short story by Will Weaver called "A Gravestone Made of Wheat." I haven't read the short story, but it could give you a deeper perspective into the setting of the story/movie. It takes place in western Minnesota right after WWI, and it is beautiful beautiful beautiful. Stunning cinematography and sense of place (both modern day and in the 1920s).
posted by Maarika at 4:21 PM on November 14, 2009

Sweet Land also focuses on the immigrant experience, which could play nicely/interestingly into your assessment of the American-ness or un-American-ness of the setting.
posted by Maarika at 4:25 PM on November 14, 2009

Best answer: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, with photographs by Walker Evans, is very much a work about a place, about the sense of place, and about the way people and places shape one another. Published in 1941, it tells the stories of three sharecroppong families in Hale County, Alabama.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:00 AM on November 15, 2009

Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend by Peter Matthiessen. Great Plains by Ian Frazier.

Really, too many to list!
posted by Haruspex at 8:13 AM on November 15, 2009

Mine Okubo's Citizen 13660 is a graphic novel that describes the artist's experience going from San Francisco to a WWII Japanese internment camp. A very quick read in some ways, but also incredibly rewarding for close reading/looking -- my seminar students easily spend multiple weeks with it.
posted by obliquicity at 12:07 AM on November 17, 2009

William Faulkner, too, for the South.

I would say that parts of The Corrections capture the late 1990s suburban Midwest very well. As a matter of fact, I grew up in the same suburb as Jonathan Franzen, went to church as a kid where he went to church as a kid, and even went to the same college. When it comes to describing these locations or fictional ones like them, Franzen nails it.
posted by tss at 10:22 PM on November 17, 2009

« Older Etiquette? What's an etiquette?   |   Who are "Bob and Terry"? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.