The twentieth century will be American. American thought will dominate it. American progress will give it color and direction. American deeds will make it illustrious.
—Senator Albert Beveridge (1862-1927)
The quotation above comes from a toast made to ring in the then-new century. Strong stuff—patriotism shading over into jingoism. And prescient, as history shows. John Dos Passos cites the remark in the opening pages of his epic U.S.A. trilogy, probably the greatest literature produced by the Lost Generation. Yes, better than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al., though that’s a subject for another time.
I remembered the reference as soon as I happened across the latest book by Mark Dunn, and happen across it I did. It’s rare that something like this, a new work by an author I’ve read and enjoyed before, doesn’t show up on my radar until I see it for sale on the shelf. American Decameron was hard to miss at that point—it has a bold red-white-and-blue patterned cover reminiscent of a quilt from Gee’s Bend, and it’s not exactly small. As its title suggests, it’s something of a riff on Boccaccio’s medieval classic Decameron, in which ten characters spend ten days trading stories, one hundred tales in total.
The project here is grand enough to suit the distinguished former senator from Indiana. Dunn has composed one hundred stories of his own, each taking place in a different year of the twentieth century (he correctly starts with 1901 and finishes with 2000) and set in a different location. Every state in the union has its moment in the sun (Washingtonians will take particular interest when two ladies of a certain age observe a dance marathon in a ballroom along the old Seattle-Tacoma Hi Way) and so do some international sites visited by Americans:
A girl in Galveston is born on the eve of a great storm and the dawn of the 20th century. Survivors of the Lusitania are accidentally reunited in the North Atlantic. A member of the Bonus Army finds himself face to face with General MacArthur. A failed writer attempts to end his life on the Golden Gate Bridge until an unexpected heroine comes to his rescue, and on the doorstep of a new millennium, as the clock strikes twelve, the stage is set for a stunning denouement as the American century converges upon itself in a Greenwich nursing home, tying together all of the previous tales and the last one hundred years.
Dunn’s goal is obviously to paint a completely comprehensive portrait of our country, or at least come as close as anyone can. The scope may sound daunting, but the book really isn’t. Other than the first and last stories, which are intended to open and close the volume, the tales can be read piecemeal, in any order, and the prevailing tone is breezy, with occasional gusts of bawdiness in tribute to Boccaccio’s original.
It’s only fitting that such a formally ambitious literary work is actually a populist achievement. When you assemble such a disparate group of voices so artfully, you get a chorus instead of a cacophony. That’s how democracy works.