This year I started on a personal journey through American literature, trying to understand people who are not like me, people with different journeys, because they are of different races, different socioeconomic backgrounds, all of whom have something important to teach. I’ve listened to these books, so essentially someone has read them to me. Here are the titles:
“Black Elk Speaks” by Nicholas Black Elk as told to John Neihardt.
“A Place on Earth” by Wendell Berry
“The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
“Native Son” and “Black Boy” by Richard Wright
“Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories” by Sandra Cisneros.
“The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair
“The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck
These books have taken me places and taught me things that I’ll never forget. As a twenty-first century American white male, a thirty something happily married father in a good job, a safe place, raising sassy comfortable children I can honestly say that I’m in a very privileged position. Granted, I make very little annually and I’m not insured, but I’ve got it pretty good compared to what’s described in these books. And yet these writers have a noble wisdom, a strength about them, a blessing that, in hearing makes me feel richer. I call this American literature, but Pearl Buck writes about China, and to say that these authors are American is to realize that they write about a country we’ve scarcely known. Their sense of personhood, home and place seem like a distant memory now. Their confidence about what life should be is something we hardly hope for anymore. And yet, their narratives are true ones, true to their persons, desperately honest and hopeful for a place that God intends: a place where people can have what it means to be human.
The only book among these that I’ve needed secondary literature for is “Black Elk Speaks.” This book, says other recent scholarship, needs the original notes as dictated, and the knowledge of the man Nicholas Black Elk at the time of the telling. Nic became a devout Catholic catechist and missionary, and this is not widely known. His biographer hints strongly that this knowledge is more than many people want to know. If you read or listen to “Black Elk Speaks” I recommend reading “Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala” by Michael F. Steltenkamp. The story in its entirety is well worth knowing. I was first made of aware of it by Richard Twiss in his seminar at Cornerstone Festival available here.
My journey is not over. I’m now tapping the Blues. Robert Johnson, Blind Willie, Mississippi John Hurt, and the list goes on. I awake in the mornings with their rhythms hammering in my head. Their stories are at times obscene, embarrassing, and utterly profane. At times they have more hope than I can bear. There’s a lot of good stuff in Martin Scorsese’s series “The Blues” for PBS.