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Styles of American Prose: Quotes on War, Rebellion, and Coming of Age

  • Sep 19, 2013

In terms of prose, American Literature is by no means the only tradition with diverse styles. Entire books have been written on the subject. For the sake of brevity here, I’ve picked some of my favorites from the very loosely defined “topics” of war, coming of age, and rebellion. Then, because I couldn’t help it, some random personal favorites.


Jessica’s sister Nancy comes out of the loo to break up what’s becoming a full-scale row between Elizabeth and Claire. Jessica steps away from Roger to blow her nose. The sound is as familiar to him as a bird’s song, ip-ip-ip-ip NGUNNGG as the handkerchief comes away . . . “Oh sooper doper,” she says, “think I’m catching a cold.”
You’re catching the War. It’s infecting you and I don’t know how to keep it away. Oh, Jess. Jessica. Don’t leave me. . . .

– Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Slaughterhouse Five

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

You’re inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age? A half minute before that you were stepping into high school, and an unhooked brassiere was as close as you ever hoped to get to Paradise. Only a fifth of a second before that you were a small kid with a ten-week summer vacation that lasted a hundred thousand years and still ended too soon. Zip! They go rocketing by so fast. How the hell else are you ever going to slow down?

– Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)


TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

– Daniel Quinn, Ishmael (1992)

My mother is a fish.

– William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930)

Blood Meridian

Only now is the child finally divested off all that he has been. His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.

– Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)

If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know, and if you don’t know it’s probably better you don’t judge.

– Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008)

One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.

– Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970)


J.R Novel

How do you think it makes me feel, why do you think we don’t go to parties anymore, because I have too much to drink? Yes why because all of you, you and his friends and these editors asking about his next great book shaking their heads admiring how hard he works to support us, me and David but what a tragedy for American literature how do you think that makes me feel! The great Thomas Eigen’s talent being thrown away in a stupid job because he has to make a decent living for his wife and son…

– William Gaddis, J R (1975)

And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of and old idea the Revelation and the World.

– Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)

i don’t know what’s going to happen, but i cannot see staying here forever. i am writing to you from the bottom of a banyan tree. manman says that banyan trees are holy and sometimes if we call the gods from beneath them, they will hear our voices clearer.

– Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak! (1996)

Invisible Man

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)


I did not care. I wanted a hot bath. I wanted a hot bath in deep water.

– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Infinite Jest

And when he came to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.

– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)

This is a yen of the brain alone, a need without feeling and without body, earthbound ghost need, rancid ectoplasm swept out by an old junky coughing and spitting in the sick morning.

– Willaim S. Buroughs, Naked Lunch (1959)

Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?
Just go to bed, now. Quickly. Quickly and slowly.

– JD Salinger, Seymour, An Introduction (1959)

Eric Pedersen

Eric Pedersen hails from the Midwest, where he studied 20th Century American History in college and 20th Century American Literature in graduate school. He began his bookselling life at Bauman Rare Books’ Las Vegas gallery in 2008 and currently works in the gallery in New York City. Other than Ben Franklin’s Autobiography (which he didn’t finish), he can’t remember the last book he read written before 1900. As those who know him are (sometimes painfully) aware, he does not need a reason to start talking about William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Something Happened, Ernest Hemingway, Revolutionary Road, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, or Kurt Vonnegut, and so on…

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One Response to “Styles of American Prose: Quotes on War, Rebellion, and Coming of Age”

  • ed leimbacher says:

    Any brief section from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” (either the original story or section in expanded novel). Thunderstruck when I read it in Esquire (early ’84), I was about to leave the US on round-the-world, backpack-and-cheap-digs adventure meant to last a year or two; and I vowed to carry the torn-from-mag story with me for some sort of undefined inspiration… and I carried those soon-tattered pages for 20 months and reread them a dozen times or more, whenever the words seemed pertinent for whatever reason–US bombing Libya, no book at hand, trapped by bad weather, feeling lonely, harangued as another ugly American, wanting to write that beautifully. Maybe the single best short piece on the Vietnam War, it’s seemingly “about” that national blunder and attendant horrors, but really depicts what’s best in us–and US.