I have never been able to completely grasp the essence of great American literature. Sure, I have had my brief encounters with Whitman, fancied myself a hero through Hemingway and dreamed of austerity when reading Thoreau’s Walden.

Still, it has always very much felt like tales from a distant land, written by and for a people distinctly different from me; in some ways like reading those history books portraying the people of the past as inherently unfamiliar. At times, it can almost take the form of an anthropological exercise more than an exploration of humanity. I feel some kind of connection, but the foreign elements keep reminding me that this is no ordinary literature; this is written by those born and bred in an entirely different world, with possibilities quite unlike our stale ancien régime:

Mightier than Egypt’s tombs,
Fairer than Grecia’s, Roma’s temples,
Prouder than Milan’s statued, spired cathedral,
More picturesque than Rhenish castle-keeps,
We plan even now to raise, beyond them all,
Thy great cathedral sacred industry, no tomb,
A keep for life for practical invention.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Exposition

I can easily join in on Whitman’s fascination of All Things Mammoth, though it all seems a bit supernatural at times. The allure of the freedom and vast expanses is there, but for a humble european it simply does not seem all that real – is there really that much freedom thrown around, up for grabs for anyone with the initiative to take it?

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
–Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Walt Whitman turned to poetry after having competed for “the usual rewards,” and created an American epic in Leaves of Grass. I read it both as a fascination of what is there and what may be created in the future. European epics have both the scale and glory of Leaves of Grass, but lacks its futurism. His sense of humanistic optimism hardly dominates Der Ring des Nibelungen and its medieval predecessors.

This is not the America of the brute General Curtis LeMay or his compatriots. I can get lost in Hemingway’s dreams and am continually fascinated by Whitman’s enthusiasm, but it somehow fails to act as the earth-shattering experience great literature can be.

Some of the American literature I read all seems to be a bit too confident, to a point where it gets surreal. Can this really exist – a huge geographical and cultural expanse with little time for doubt, no role for anxiety, where the essence of all things can always be summarized in three Key Points? Of course not. Just because some of the obligatory parts of the canon are as robust as a Texan cowboy, condensing the entire American experience into some stereotypically masculine, self-confident pattern serves no more justice to the spirit of the U.S. than does portraying Europe as a sausage-eating, unproductive and tax-loving community of pot-smoking hippies.

In the midst of this cultural confusion, I somehow stumbled upon David Foster Wallace. His stories of excruciating pain, awkwardness and social phobia hit me like a brick wall. His surroundings are as unfamiliar as they get to me – much more so than the Open Road of Whitman; I have never set foot on a cruise ship and his fascinations for the TV medium could hardly seem stranger, as I don’t watch TV at all. Yet for all the differences in circumstance, there is something painfully familiar in every single word he wrote.

“I have heard upscale adult U.S. Citizens ask the ship’s Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the trapshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.”
–David Foster Wallace, Shipping Out, On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise

David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, after a long-lasting depression. He might have been too brittle for this world, but he had so much to teach us. Having to live through such unbearable pain is desperately unfair, and every sentence of his I read makes you want to help him get out of it. Besides being all too late, anxiety is an intensely lonely flight. No social interaction is too small to be feared, every new person a source of nightmares – and every kind gesture an invaluable gift.

“… a whole crew of maître d’s and supervisors watching the waiters and sommeliers and tall-hatted buffet servers to make sure you don’t do something for yourself that could be done for you.”
–David Foster Wallace, Shipping Out, On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise

The tragedy of a suicide blocks out all other sensations – there is only room for grief. As time goes by, I start rediscovering the words that caught my attention in the first place. The seductive language and intense fear – but above all, the great sense of humanity:

And what if she joined him on the floor, just like this, clasped in supplication: just this way.
David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men