Selection of the Books for the Literary Circle 2023 ©Amerikahaus München

The Literary Circle Archive 2023

The U.S. Constitution

In 1789, the Constitution of the United States superseded the Articles of Confederation to become the country’s supreme law, which remains today much celebrated for its design that separates governmental powers to protect both majority rule and minority rights. Originally comprising seven Articles that delineate the national framework, the Constitution has since been amended just twenty-seven times in its long history—the first ten of which, known as the Bill of Rights, enshrine freedoms cherished (as in the First Amendment) and controversial (as in the Second).  Our discussion of the Constitution will begin by looking at the promise of its Preamble, reading through the Articles detailing the organization of the government, and reflecting on the history of its Amendments.

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

For some forty years, the novelist William Maxwell served as the short story editor at The New Yorker, where his mentoring nurtured the nascent careers of many writers, including Eudora Welty and John Updike.  Set in a small midwestern town, They Came Like Swallows depicts the bygone idylls and subsequent terrors experienced by an affluent family during the influenza pandemic of 1918.  Told through the artful narration of three characters, this short novel's lyricism and pathos are telltale marks of Maxwell's style.  Needless to say, our own collective reckoning with COVID-19 will add a decided poignancy to our discussion of the book.

The Europeans: A Sketch by Henry James

Serialized in The Atlantic Monthly from July to October 1878, this early novel by Henry James demonstrates two of his lifelong passions, observing transatlantic relations and beautiful writing.  The Europeans sets its sights on the contrastive ways between those of the Continent and New England while underscoring the interpretive perils of class distinction.  Though James' famous brother, William, confessed in a letter that he found the novel "slight," most readers have sided with the redoubtable F. R. Leavis, who deemed The Europeans "a masterpiece of major quality".  The venue of the Amerikahaus itself, also known as the Bavarian Center for Transatlantic Relations, makes our discussion of this thoughtfully-penned tale of intercultural manners especially apt.

The Master by Colm Tóibín

Henry James, the author of last month's book under discussion, is the protagonist of The Master by Colm Tóbín.  The 2004 novel, which has garnered a host of prizes, depicts James at the end of the nineteenth century.  Though rich and famous, he resolves to remove himself from the public eye by buying a home in remote Rye, East Sussex, where, reflecting on his relations in America and Europe, he reckons with the social and psychological costs of a writer's life.  Tóbín, who identifies as gay and deliberately employed Jamesian techniques of composition (such as channeling silence and writing the novel by hand in an uncomfortable chair), channels the Master as he defty plumbs the perennial mystery of James' sexuality in this deep and meditative work.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This work of non-fiction is comprised of two appositional essays, whereby the literary gifts and moral compass of James Baldwin are woven deftly into a singular strand of reckoning.  The first and shorter essay, "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation," is an epistle, ostensibly to a fourteen-year-old boy, delineating the central role of race in American history.  The second and longer essay—"Down at Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind"—is a study on the intersection of religion and race that draws heavily from Baldwin's own experiences with Christianity alongside the Islamic ideas of fellow Harlemites.  Published separately (in the The New Yorker and The Progressive, respectively) and then together in 1963, these two essays have been cited as seminal texts of the civil rights movement.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

When published in 1940, this first novel by a then twenty-three-year-old Carson McCullers created a literary sensation, quickly rising to the top of bestseller lists; it is now ranked seventeenth by the Modern Library of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century.  Set in a run-down mill town in the southern state of Georgia, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter tells the story of John Singer, a deaf man, and centers its sights on the struggles of his friends and acquaintances.  As an intensely moving gallery of the downtrodden—wherein McCullers gives voice to the disabled, rejected, forgotten, mistreated, and oppressed—this is a reading experience like few others.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton's second (and perhaps best-known) novel follows the story of Lily Bart, a youthful and well-born socialite in New York City, who descends from an enviable perch of privilege to a tragic and lonely existence on the margins of society.  Serialized in Scribner's Magazine for eleven months in 1905, where it found an avid readership among both women and men, The House of Mirth has been described by scholar Carol Singley as "a unique blend of romance, realism, and naturalism, [thereby transcending] the narrow classification of a novel of manners".  The novel's legacy has continued well into the twenty-first century, as the 2000 film adaptation by Terence Davies and the 2020 novel, White Ivy, by Susie Yang attest.

Mid-Air: Two Novellas by Victoria Shorr

As with Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Victoria Schorr's Mid-Air: Two Novellas is literary diptych.  The first story, "Great Uncle Edward," is a tale of a grand dinner party in the manner of Joyce's "The Dead" and Blixen's "Babette's Feast".  An unnamed female narrator hosts the Manhattan event for her husband's ninety-three-year-old uncle, which allows for a conversation that ranges from Edith Wharton, whose House of Mirth we discussed just last month, to the family's curious history alongside Jamesian themes of class.  In the second story, "Cleveland Auto Wrecking," an immigrant arriving to Ellis Island in abject poverty parlays a scrap metal business into real estate holdings that result in the attainment of happiness—or, so it seems.  Taken together, both stories humanize divergent entanglements of the American Dream.

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

Labor Day, a novel by Joyce Maynard, is narrated by Henry Wheeler, a man in his early thirties recounting his first year as a teenager.  Back then, as the Labor Day weekend approaches, young Henry has little to look forward to, for his depressed and divorced mother suffers from agoraphobia, and their lackluster days together are spent wholly indoors.  But, on the Thursday before Labor Day, Henry convinces his mother to go on a shopping trip, during which they encounter an unkempt and injured man asking for a ride.  Astonishingly, they assent and soon learn that the man is a convicted murderer on the run.  In its review of the book, The Washington Post notes that "Maynard's skill [...] makes this ominous setup into a convincing and poignant coming of age tale".

Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

As with Maynard's Labor Day, Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng is a Bildungsroman that transcends the trappings of its genre.  Bird Gardner, a twelve-year-old boy, lives with his father, a linguist turned librarian who finds solace amid the relative peace of bookshelves.  Like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, this novel is set in a dystopian America, where, to keep the peace and restore prosperity, authorities now relocate the children of dissidents, and libraries remove books perceived as unpatriotic, including the works of Bird's mother, a Chinese-American poet who left the family some years before.  Our Missing Hearts is a lyrical exhortation of art's powers (and limitations) to effect change.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises (titled Fiesta in the U.K.) was Ernest Hemingway's début as a novelist, and, though its early modernist style received mixed reviews at its publication in 1926, the book is now widely considered to be his best and most important work.  As a roman à clef, the characters are based on Hemingway's circle of friends, and their actions are informed by the author's sojourn in Paris during the 1920s and, notably, his travels to Spain in 1925.  In a newfound style of restraint, Hemingway plumbs themes of love, death, nature, and masculinity—seeking to rebut Gertrude Stein's epigraphic claim that its characters are all "a lost generation".

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Published in 1953 during the Second Red Scare (and shortly before the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954), Fahrenheit 451 posits an alternative America, one where books are outlawed and so-called firemen are sent to burn any that are found.  Ray Bradbury cited the horror of Nazi book burnings—some of which occurred in Königsplatz, a stone's throw from the present-day Amerikahaus—as the original inspiration for the story.  The clarion call of its allegory notwithstanding, Fahrenheit 451 has been subjected itself to censorship, banning, expurgation, and, yes, even burning.