Good literature is meant to savor. When they are award winners, you expect to be able to remember the taste of the books, both in characters and theme, long after you have retired them to the basement. You will have no problem remembering The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen or A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, two award-winning books, but their harsh depiction of an America empty of value is something you hope to forget. Through setting, character and theme, these two novels mirror a tragic reflection leading to a powerful ultimate message.
The Corrections follows a Midwestern family through the final years of its patriarch Alfred Lambert. This National Book award winner is wrought with sadness, struggle, and isolation as the family members deal with the mental and physical atrophy of their father. The title reflects a term of how the financial markets always seem to correct themselves when they temporary spin out of control. As each member of the family loses control through lack of communication, immoral behavior, or inertia, they strive to correct their lives by locating the sources of their trouble. The great family trait is the ability to blame everyone and everything other than themselves.
A Thousand Acres, 1992 Pulitzer Prize Winner, follows another Midwestern family as the aging patriarch decides to portion away the family inherited farm. Larry Cook is a retired farmer looking to give his daughters what he believes he has built from hard work, solid American values, and stoic behavior. As the daughters fight over the ownership and direction of this farm without the perennial leader, they find that the land and the values were a charade of abuse and manipulation by their father. As Larry loses his mind, the daughters find only pain and loss as they each rip themselves away from the homestead. A heart breaking saga, it leads to the burning of all the old, so maybe something will grow again.
The two novels connect in their treatment of the Midwest as a setting. Often a place of idyllic American values and family, Franzen and Smiley peel away the Puritan values of hard work and savings as the avenue to spiritual success. Whether in Franzen’s St. Jude or in Smiley’s Iowa, the land is incapable of creating fertile and healthy relationships. It is a land based on a myth that spits out inadequately developed adults attempting escape. They escape in affairs, schools in other parts of the country, and jobs that take them far from the heartland’s setting. Both novels explain that it was not us who poisoned the land, but the land that strips away truth, individuality, and passions.
The limitations of men to challenge their environment and remain mostly moral are absent. Larry Cook abused his daughters sexually, physically, and mentally in order to stunt their development. He creates a world where he is God and his word and deeds are rule. He is unlikeable, unforgiveable, and disgusting as much as he is rewarded, respected, and defended by American society. Larry’s loss of mental capacity due to age is not sufficient punishment for his actions, but it is all the reader’s sense of literary karma gets.
In the same way, Alfred is not sufficiently punished for his unkindness to his wife and family, his focus on his isolated world of invention, and his devotion to his railroad management job. He suffers in this novel, but no more for his action as to his age and no more so than anyone else in his family does. He closed his door to his basement when his marriage needed him, failed to stand up for his daughter for fear of ruining his reputation, and was incapable of taking risks in relationships and investments. He exchanged his imagination and pathos for steady direction and stoic pride to get through the day instead of enjoying it. He refused his role as hero too many times for sympathy.
The final connection is both families' inability to deal with aging members with dignity and sensitivity. As the baby boomers grow older, more and more ageism is apparent in our literature. The baby boomers and their offspring seem to hold that same capacity for caring for the unwanted, needy, and the helpless. We expect the pride and security that this generation cloaked themselves in to gently cover them in their old age and a quiet death. Both novels stress that age and death will shatter the baby boomers' notion of independence and strength as they cling on to dignity, unwilling to view themselves as they really are. Both novels hold a powerful caveat that we as a society must come to grasp with nature’s obligations to let go of pride for the aging and to care for them as their children.
The Corrections and A Thousand Acres are two novels that strike at the heart of modern America’s emptiness in economic pursuits and belief in perpetual youth. They call for the imagination and hope never to be abandoned for security and malaise. Good literature can inspire by the sternness of its warnings. When two powerful and award winning novels have close to the same message portrayed by similar characters and settings, it is to our benefit not to forget their lasting impression.