Here I am this holiday season, playing a veritable Santa Claus.  In fact, my own Holiday-themed Amazon Books that I have written are all priced now under $10, with one book priced fewer than three dollars.  So, all this makes it possible to remember more people during the Christmas season – perhaps even 30 or 40 people who have earned a Christmas remembrance from us.  Yet I understand that buying Christmas presents for 30 people at a typical Christmas present price of say $30 dollars will cost a handy base price of $900 with tax and shipping cost yet to be added.

I truly understand that.  And I understand that if we bought a three-dollar gift for each of our 30 friends who deserve at least a thoughtful remembrance from us, that would cost us only $90 as opposed to that $900 for a traditional gift of $30.  But what kind of respectful gift of content can we get these 30 friends for the holiday season?  A big three-dollar bag of potato chips, say?

I wouldn’t do that.  And because I couldn’t do that, I am putting my three Holiday themed books for Christmas present buying to expand the present giving during the holidays. This I am dong by offering this link for a free exhibition of three of my holiday books through this Amazon link, which includes my newest book with attorney Barrie Vernon that came out on Amazon this November – The Bible’s Who’s Who:  https://www.amazon.com/author/sharpchris.

But I am also having some difficulties in this action-oriented Southern California environment we live in to sell the idea of reading books, and especially books that are written by unknown authors.  Who knows what live action a person may miss out on in Southern California while being pre-occupied reading a book by an unknown author?

I surely understand the reluctance to fill one’s brain with the written  words of an unknown author like Chris Sharp when we have not even given the truly great American authors such Mark Twain, Henry James, Herman Melville and Edith Wharton a chance to spend even one warm night inside our minds.

And so to hurry up the process of inviting me and my words into your brains, I would like to invite some other American writers and their words into your minds for the coming year as well.  Here they are:

Who was the real Huckleberry Finn?  

Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” has been credited not only with becoming the transformer of the 19th Century novel into 20th Century fiction, but its colloquial style has also been thought to have changed the entire way we Americans speak to each other.  If Huckleberry’s free and easy way of narrating events had never been exposed to Americans, it is said we would still be talking to each other like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s talking heads.  

“Huckleberry Finn” has always been universally popular, except among some violent PTA groups who share with the Taliban hatred of any art or literature that has been created within the past 1,000 years.  But even the admirers of “Huckleberry Finn” have been mystified over the decades over what they have seen as an incredibly obvious flaw in the novel.  When Huckleberry rescues Jim from slavery, why is it that he doesn’t bring Jim north to the free states?  Why instead does he row south on the Mississippi River with Jim into the very heart of Southern slavery? 

Only recently with some keen historical investigation by  Mark Perry  -- author of the biographical “Grant and Twain” -- has it been discussed that the character of Huckleberry Finn with his slovenly appearance, his ever-present tobacco, his war with his father and alcohol and his funny first name mixed with a simple last name is based on the improvisational genius and unlikely life of Twain’s closest senior friend and business partner, Ulysses S. Grant.  

Like Huckleberry Finn, Grant freed slaves from the Jim Crow laws like the “Jim” in the novel while moving methodically south down the Mississippi River, destroying the Western flank of the Confederacy before moving East to mop up against Robert E. Lee.  His final reward of receiving the U.S. presidency was the equivalent of Huckleberry’s aunt dressing him up like a gentleman in the novel’s final pages. 

“Huckleberry Finn” is called an “episodic novel,” because in place of a plot there is a journey where an isolated new adventure begins and ends with each day.  An equally humorous episodic novel that I believe would serve as a great reading companion to “Huckleberry” is Voltaire’s short novel, “Candide.” 

How young American women kept America going 

A lot of people forget or don’t know that when America lost a half million of our best men during the Civil War, our country was left with a tiny population.  The loss of a half million men then would equal to about 50 million American men lost in today’s proportions of the population. 

It didn’t escape the attention of the novelist Henry James that it was young American women who kept America going after its terrible losses in the Civil War.  They kept up America’s stiff upper lip, they revived our laughter, and they provided for and raised the fatherless children who one day made the United States a super power just in time to save Europe from being taken over by Kaiser Wilhelm in World War 1. 

The men in the novels of Henry James are not as strong.  They tend to be philanderers or con artists as benefiting men of every age who maneuver their ways out of fighting in war.  But the men also serve an important purpose in these books.  As living cues they present the marvelous American women and move them so that we can better appreciate these heroines.

Included in the difficulties of reading the longer novels of James is the amount of filler he packed them with to fulfill contract obligations for lengthier, longer-winded novels.  It is only in his short novels that the real flavor of Henry James comes out, somewhat like how a small grape will intensify its sweetness better than a bigger one.  I would recommend to high school students and parents the smaller novels “Daisy Miller” and  “Washington Square .”  Two other great small novels are a departure.  “The Turn of the Screw” is less like a portrait than a brilliant X-ray of a very disturbed woman.  Finally, probably the least exposed and least championed novel by Henry James is the wonderful “The Europeans,” detailing a refined European woman’s response to trying to fit into the woodwork of post-bellum America.

Writing about a dog’s life 

When Jack London was writing about dogs around the turn of the 19th Century, he was hoping his readers would see the person inside a dog.  The Marxist London hoped his noble dogs would move the reader even further left than did the depiction of “The Noble Savage” by French revolutionist Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  But something funny happened along the road to Alaskan dialectic materialism.  Buck from “The Call of the Wild” was a dog transformed into a wolf, but today we do not see him as a communist.  White Fang from the novel in his name was a wolf transformed into a dog, but we don’t see him as a communist today either.  Surely, communism has had its day when its literature fails its 19th Century symbols so utterly.  What we are left with instead are the stories of two great dogs – or wolves, depending on where you are in the novel – and when you finish these books, you will never see dogs or wolves in the same way again. 

The great U.S. ladies of literature

Misunderstanding has long been the obstacle against the great American woman’s novelist receiving the wider readership they have deserved.  The stereotyping of women’s novelists is practically due to the early English-language novelists like Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott being so effective in creating a championship of manners that protected the women of their age. 

But as Edith Wharton proved in her novels, not every woman writer was interested only in championing manners.  In fact, Wharton – who was not only one of America’s greatest novelists but also one of America’s wealthiest artists – was more interested in testing and failing those protocols that broke down proper relationships between men and women.

Wharton and modern novelist Toni Morrison reign in my list as the great ladies of American literature, Wharton as the first American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and Morrison as the last American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.  They are both teachers of women and men, in that order.

I have to believe that Wharton’s great novels, “The Age of Innocence” and “Ethan Frome,” are really one experiment that underwent two tests.  Wharton tested her man and two women in “The Age of Innocence” in the gilded setting of New York high society.  In “Ethan Frome,” she tested the same kind of man and the same kind of two women in the opposite deprived setting of the Worcester, Massachusetts area.  Both of these books showed how much must be done before the men and women of our country can settle comfortably into the same page.  Wharton takes this theme into an even more dramatic turn in her “House of Mirth.” With its unforgettable heroine Lily Bart, this journey into every major underground canal of Lily Bart’s society would have certainly given Wharton as much credit as Victor Hugo received for creating Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” if Wharton had been at the time an acceptable man like Hugo.  

For my money Toni Morrison as the world’s greatest living writer.  Her “A Mercy” may be also the first novel she has written that I would recommend for high school students, as she has abandoned her characteristic scatology here but kept up all the magic she used to mix with it.  This tale of a young slave woman that has been traded into a 17th Century Maryland household is also the first of her novels I have seen that penetrates a white consciousness as deeply as she represents the African-American experience.

Then I discovered Melville’s other writing side 

I don’t want to recommend “Moby Dick” here, because the novel is such an encyclopedia of language, experience, philosophy, psychology and science.  I really think any high school student is better off waiting until he or she has reached the age that it took Herman Melville to write it.  If it makes anyone feel better, I had tried to read “Moby Dick” since I was a teenager, but I was finally able to move on into completely reading the novel when I was a much older adult.  When I was finished a couple of months later I felt like I had never experienced the same kind of unfolding in my own long reading history. 

But it turns out that Melville was a lot more than just a great American novelist.  He was also a great anthropologist. In this way he bore a deep resemblance to the African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston.  Like Melville, America finally rediscovered Hurston many years after her death for writing a great American novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”  But Hurston – a trained anthropologist – also wrote one of the great non-fiction books in that field, “Mules and Men,” about the lingering traditions of African hoodoo in the African-American South. 

Melville also wrote an anthropological study in his first book, “Typee,” an authentic account of his being stranded as a young sailor on a Polynesian island with the isolated Typee people.  These were truly a Shangri-La people who would have simply disappeared into history if Melville had never written this book about these gentle folk.  His single account of how he had introduced an American song to these people which had left the chief leaping to catch the notes in the air is typical of the things that Melville found magical in the people he wrote about. 

So, what else did Melville write that was wonderful but which everyone in the literary world has forgotten?  I would happily recommend to any high school reader a summer reading of Melville’s early novel “Redburn,” which hypnotically takes you on a 19th Century merchant and passenger ship trip back and forth between America’s East Coast and England, with all the physicality of the ocean that draws out Melville’s best artistry.

Chris Sharp- Commentary

Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . Sharp's latest book is an Amazon Kindle collection of his published short stories, Every Kind of Angel . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon.