What characteristically American book of the past that is still available in print has, in your judgment, been most egregiously neglected or ignored? Why is it important?

The Great Ignored American Book

July 04, 1999

Linda Mielke has worked in public libraries for 25 years and has been director of the Carroll County Public Library for the last five years.

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a novel written in the 1890s, explores the mistreatment of a young wife by her neurologist husband for the problem of depression. Kept isolated and in absolute confinement, she quickly spirals downward into mental impairment; this profound indictment of the medical treatment of women still has much to teach us in our so-called modern society.

Vince Fitzpatrick is the Curator of the H. L. Mencken Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. He is the author of "H.L. Mencken" and co-author of "The Complete Sentence Workout Book."

John Dos Passos' remarkable "U.S.A." trilogy (1938), which includes the novels "The 42nd Parallel," "Nineteen Nineteen" and "The Big Money," remains underappreciated. With its mix of fiction, history and biography, the book is technically innovative, and with his fine ear for the American idiom, Dos Passos conveys "the speech of the people," the conversations held in freight cars, bedrooms and in bars. The novelist depicts a once-magnificent country that has lost its way and, with his huge concern for life's unfortunates, captures the pathos of broken dreams and shattered lives. He offers us a cache of Americana -- Wobblies and railroad bulls, hoboes and capitalists and all sorts of quacks -- and the novel, a sprawling volume for a sprawling country, repays another reading.

Clarinda Harriss, chair of the Towson University English Department, has published three collections of poetry and contributed to two scholarly works on poetry. Her work appears in many U.S. magazines including Touching Fire: Erotic Writing by Women. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

Ernest Gaines' "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" never got as much attention as it deserved because Alex Haley's "Roots" came out a short time later and took over the spotlight. Leave aside his insightfulness, his poignancy, his moral passion and his narrative genius for a minute, and there's still this: nobody writes dialect/dialogue like Ernest Gaines -- no apostrophes, no funny spellings, just perfectly attuned word choice and rhythms.

Ronald S. Kozlowski has administered the Anne Arundel County Public Library for six years. He is CEO of the library system with 15 branches. He is a former teacher of English and journalism.

"Sea of Grass" by Conrad Richter. This novel is the story of the classic conflict between the old and the new; it depicts change as negative and positive. Richter's short novel is a beautifully written piece of American fiction.

Ray Jenkins has been a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger. In 1954 he was one of two reporters who covered the Phenix City, Ala., upheaval, coverage that won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, the New York Times in Alabama, the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, and The Evening Sun, for which he was editorial page editor. His book "Blind Vengeance" was published in 1997.

"The Devil in Massachusetts," by Marion L. Starkey. Published 50 years ago, this was the first modern inquiry into the reign of terror over "witchcraft" that swept Salem Village in 1692. This haunting chapter of American history has been distorted -- and hence diminished -- by Arthur Miller's pseudo-documentary play "The Crucible," and the record sorely needs to be set straight by a book like Ms. Starkey's.

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun and a fiction writer. His new book, "Hometown Boy," collects 20 years worth of his articles for this paper. Woodholme House will bring out a new collection of his short stories this fall.

I believe the work of William Saroyan -- particularly the novel "The Human Comedy" and the short story collection "My Name Is Aram" -- has been unjustly ignored and denigrated following its popularity at mid-century. Sentimental? Yes. Willfully naive? Certainly. Yet Saroyan's simple prose sparkles with wonder and possibility, an enduring American quality available to anyone willing to work. Why is joy and innocence considered middle-brow in the Information Age? Pope John Paul I wrote that "joy can become exquisite charity." William Saroyan gave at the office for more than half a century.

Paul McHugh is Henry Phipps professor and the director of the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. He, along with Phillip R. Slavney, M.D., wrote "The Perspectives of Psychiatry," a standard text used in American medical schools. He has also written for the American Journal of Psychiatry, Medicine and Nature Medicine.

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