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The Unkillable (?) Dream of the Great American Novel

The dream of the Great American Novel has outlasted countless attempts to discredit it ever since the idea began to circulate shortly after the Civil War.
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The dream of the Great American Novel has outlasted countless attempts to discredit it ever since the idea began to circulate shortly after the Civil War. Today's media buzz about whether the Great American Novel has or might be written and what the likeliest candidates are mirrors the chatter in the "contributors' columns" of Harper's and other magazines a century ago. So the GAN -- as Henry James of all people was the first to nickname it -- is a national pastime nearly as old as baseball. Competitive sports make a pretty good analogy, too, as Philip Roth backhandedly acknowledged when he made baseball the subject of his own tongue-in-cheek The Great American Novel. The GAN is also part game, part hype, but beyond that a reflection of enduring interest in extraordinary feats by consummately skilled actors that seem somehow to express national identity or national aspiration.

But why spend time fussing about whether Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, or Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn or F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man or Toni Morrison's Beloved is "the" or "a" Great American Novel? What accounts for this seemingly unkillable obsession, unique to the United States with the sole exception of Australia, which has its own GAN tradition? The question of American exceptionalism -- what makes our culture different from the rest of the world -- has riveted the attention of scholars and popular pundits alike since the Revolutionary era, but this instance of it remains underexplored. That is partly because professors of American studies and "serious" literary critics have discounted GAN talk as amateurish hip-shooting froth, and with some justification. But what Henry Thoreau wrote about Economy in Walden holds for the GAN: It's a subject that "admits of being treated with levity but it cannot so be disposed of." As a distinguished reviewer once remarked to me, no self-respecting critic today would tout a new book as the Great American Novel, but it's hard to imagine a major American writer who hasn't given it a shot. Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Norman Mailer, and Maxine Hong Kingston, to name just a few, all confessed at one time or another a hankering to write one. Think too of the spate of pre-millennial novelistic mega-fictions that seemed to try to sum up the century, or half-century: John Updike's Rabbit quartet, Philip Roth's American trilogy, Don DeLillo's Underworld.

The most obvious explanations for the GAN dream say more about its inception than about its durability. First, postbellum excitement about national reconciliation seemed to open up the prospect of a truly shared national identity that could be captured between the covers of a single book. But that was 150 years ago. Relatedly, the mid-1800s rise of nationalist aspirations throughout the western world, plus the broadly shared idea of novels as carriers of national imagination synchronized with America's sense of itself as an emerging world power and its belated acceptance of the novel as a high art form. But today the heyday of the novel as a preferred genre is long since over, and from the get-go virtually all the likeliest GAN contenders have proven to be anything but nationalistic, starting with the first candidate proposed: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Compensatory pushback against lingering anxieties about the nation's cultural dependence on England and Europe was still another incentive for setting the dream in motion. Yet by the 1930s, when American novelists started winning Nobel prizes, the country was solidly on the map of world literature, with nothing to apologize for.

What then has kept the GAN dream going, apart from sheer inertia?

One reason is surely belief in American specialness itself, bolstered by the nation's status as the superpower that remains the diaspora of choice for much of the rest of the world. If the sense of national destiny or the nation's perceived charisma should fade, that might spell trouble for the GAN, but probably not in the lifetime of anyone who reads this article. The fact that so many GAN nominees have apocalyptic plot lines--in Moby-Dick the symbolic ship goes down, Gatsby's death spells the death of the American dream, in John Dos Passos's U.S.A. the nation disintegrates--suggests that the GAN feeds more on anticipation of disaster than on optimism let alone complacency. Two other factors, likely related, are the historic image of the United States as a country of the future, forever in the making, forever seeking to make good on the promises of its Declaration of Independence; and the nation's immense regional and cultural diversity, which perpetually both invite and frustrate "definitive" formulation.

Even more crucial than any of these considerations, however, is the flexible, shifting, and pluriform character of thinking about what the form and focus of a likely GAN should be, in response to the changes and crises both domestic and international that have shaped national life and attitudes during the past century and a half. The GAN is a plural disguised as a singular. In this it mirrors the history of "The United States" in reverse. Before the Civil War, the term was used in the plural, a federation of units; since then, it's been a singular noun. The GAN was initially envisioned as a singular, as a definitive portrayal of national experience in novelistic form. Very soon, however, it became at least tacitly accepted as a goal that would never be fully achieved but only approximated. After all, nobody -- readers, writers, publishers -- ever really wanted that anyhow. What would novelists do for an encore?

Then too, sharply differing recipes or scenarios were generated as structural templates for the GAN. Several of the most important my new book describes, such as the kind of protagonist-centered plot line we find in Gatsby and Invisible Man that tests the limits of the myth of America as a culture of aspiration from humble beginnings embodied by the careers of figures like Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps the most decisive reason why the dream of the GAN has kept alive since the mid-1800s is that American authors have managed to keep updating these templates as the nation itself has become more urban, more industrialized, more heterogeneous, and more complexly entangled with the rest of the world. In other words, the upside of the loose and messy blather with which the GAN has and probably always will get bandied about in public is the nimbleness of ambitious writers and the receptivity of ambitious readers in keeping up with the moving target of national attitudes and experience. Of that ambition of reach and desire, which in itself is anything but sloppy and slapdash, the dream of the GAN is the smudgy but indelible sign.

Lawrence Buell, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature Emeritus at Harvard, is author of The Dream of the Great American Novel, published this month by Harvard University Press.

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