Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Guest at the National Book Awards by Marc Conner

Life in Lexington, Virginia can give one a narrow understanding of what it means to be American. While I think our region is more diverse and complex than it might appear, nevertheless it’s a big world out there, and it can be a good thing to journey out and encounter the broader cultures that, perhaps, we cannot so easily see from our valley enclave. When I journeyed to New York City a few weeks ago to attend the National Book Awards Ceremony, I was reminded of the ways in which the America of the 21st century is a complex world of stark contrasts.

The journey from the Shenandoah Valley to New York is always a bit of a surprise. I flew out of Richmond, which means an easy drive to the airport, a short flight, and before you know it you’re in a taxi screaming across the Triboro bridge into the Bronx and then Manhattan. My hotel was in the heart of the theater district, and Times Square has more lights these days than Dominion Power could count. But the culture shock was pleasant, the moreso because I knew I was in this strange land for just a short visit.

The ceremony was a black tie event, and I hadn’t worn a tuxedo since my wedding 19 years ago. Thoreau’s words were whispering into my ear: “beware of any enterprise that requires new clothes.” But, I thought, it’s for a literary cause, so maybe Thoreau would be OK with that.

The award ceremony was most exciting when the winner for the year’s best American novel was announced. The list of past winners is a who’s who of American literature—Hemingway, Faulkner, Warren, Oates, and—my own personal favorite—Ralph Ellison, for Invisible Man in 1952. That novel sounds the very definition of “American-ness” when it declares at its end: “whence all this passion for conformity anyway?--diversity is the word.” The winner this year was Colum McCann, for his novel Let the Great World Spin. McCann was obviously the people’s choice, as shouts and applause greeted the announcement. And his novel is fabulous—rich, inventive, moving, going into many characters’ minds, a terrific New York city novel—as is Invisible Man. And what’s really interesting is that McCann is an Irishman, born in Dublin, and living in New York for the last decade. His novel was published in America, which makes it eligible for the award, but he himself straddles different cultures and nations.

And it strikes me that this is a very appropriate recipient of our National Book Award. In the age of Obama, when national, ethnic, and racial identities are re-inventing themselves and all our boundaries have become more fluid, it is right and fitting that we celebrate a great American novel by a writer whose very American-ness is a new invention. Indeed, McCann is most American in not being American. He joins the ranks of other great writers—one certainly thinks of Ellison—who also wrote Great American Novels about the very challenge of being American. On this night, an Irishman showed the world that being American has become a very intriguing identity, after all—one that encompasses equally the great city of his novel, and the small valley town that I call home.

Marc C. Conner is Professor of English and Director of the Program in African-American Studies at Washington and Lee University.

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