Can the Great American Novel survive?

The end of a centuries-old dream
February 20, 2014

Hunting the big one: great American novels such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick aim to capture the essence of American culture and history BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the novelist John William DeForest suggested that while a national epic—“the Great American Poem”—could not be written until centuries of democracy had passed, “the Great American Novel” could be produced much sooner. Its task would be to “paint the American soul” and to give a “picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” Before too long, of course, another critic was scoffing at this patriotic braggadocio, and protesting that the novel was not a national treasure to be promoted like “other great American things” such as the sewing machine or the sleeping-car. By 1880, when Henry James rechristened it the “GAN,” the Great American Novel had become as chimerical as the Great American Poem. In the 20th century, its critical and cultural stock rose a bit in the 1930s and fell again in the 1960s. By 2000, the GAN, in the view of most scholars and critics, was obsolete, “the brainchild of a bygone era.”

Yet the Great American Novel refused to die. Despite the sneers of academics and the diffidence of novelists, the faith in a novel which captures the essence of American culture and history survives, if only on magazine covers and online. Not precisely a classic, masterpiece, or bestseller, but a combination of the three with an extra dash of moral seriousness, the Great American Novel, in the words of the British journalist John Walsh, “is the big one… a single perfect work of fiction that would encapsulate the heart of the US, interpret its history… unite the private lives of the characters with the public drama of its politics.”

Lawrence Buell, a professor emeritus at Harvard, deserves congratulations for taking on this broad and controversial subject. The Dream of the Great American Novel, however, is not a polemical book. Buell readily concedes that most “GAN talk seems a mishmash of exclamations and pronouncements.” One man’s GAN is another’s boring school requirement, and women have always questioned its preference for male authors and masculine experience. Buell cheerfully admits that the GAN is not an enduring monument, but an arbitrary category that has been revised, expanded, decried and parodied by generations of readers and writers. It’s not even a uniquely American phenomenon; the Australians have a GAN of their own. Although there is no direct UK equivalent, occasionally British reviewers single out a state-of-thenation novel, such as John Lanchester’s Capital, as a candidate for the GBN.

Buell is confident that none of these quibbles should prevent him from exploring what the GAN can tell us about “novels as carriers or definers of cultural nationality.” While many scholars frown upon the imprecision of the term “American” and argue against the idea of a canon that enshrines “great” works and demotes not-so-great ones, Buell gracefully sidesteps these obstacles. He glosses over his decision to use both “US” and “America” interchangeably by calling the terminology an “old-fashioned practice” chosen “to avoid awkwardness.” He embraces the idea that the GAN is influenced by Hispanic precursors, as well as Asian-American and other hybrid, hyphenated fiction. He favours a multicultural, global literary history, and sees the GAN steadily evolving towards fuller inclusion of ethnic and minority groups. He gets around the problem of overly neat divisions of literary periods by grouping novels thematically. Finally, as he declares, “the question of whether there’s enough cultural glue conjoining the disparate parts of the US nation state to make for a nationally coherent fictional tradition doesn’t need to be answered in the affirmative in order to justify taking the GAN idea seriously.”

Although he initially intended to produce “a brisk, short narrative of… a national brag now long since obsolete, and never amounting to more than a parlour game,” Buell had a conversion experience in the course of his research and writing. Now he takes the idea very seriously indeed. He proposes four templates that have shaped the conception of American novels over the last 150 years. In the first group are novels which have achieved such fame that they have spawned a continuous “series of memorable imitations and reinventions.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, for example, has been the source of four novels, four plays, three operas, two musicals, three films, and two dance creations, since 1985 alone. The second group he calls “up-from” novels, which tell the life story of a representative figure—almost always male—who seeks to rise from “obscurity to prominence.” This group includes F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (the shortest novel to be accorded GAN status), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Philip Roth’s “American trilogy.” In the third group are the “romances of the divide,” about divisions between races, ethnicities, or regions, a category featuring Huckleberry Finn, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (both published in 1936); and ending with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which he credits with surpassing its precursors in the intensity of its portrayal of slavery. Template four produces the “impossible communities” of the meganovel, setting a diverse group of characters against the background of “epochdefining public events or crises.” Here we find Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, John Dos Passos’s USA, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

The argument can be difficult to follow. Because Buell wants to show that the GAN rewrites other novels and is itself perpetually rewritten and reimagined, his analysis overflows with literary allusions. He also tries to make the book accessible to “even comparative newcomers to literary criticism,” but I suspect that at this stage in his distinguished career he’s so accustomed to critical terminology that he no longer notices when he is using it. He has a penchant for very long sentences with many qualifications and additions: If Beloved is the most acclaimed novel of slavery, “one major reason is likely to be its deployment of its transculturally recognisable horrific defining scene combined with its ‘textual recalcitrance’ and the attendant psychological and historic insight that this bespeaks in impending access of its readers as well as its characters to the past so dimly glimpsed, so fitfully, painfully grasped and understood.” Buell can’t resist sailing up every tributary of his sentences, clause by clause.

Still, the sometimes arduous journey is worth taking for the pleasure of the destinations. In his discussions of the novels, Buell emphasises large and important questions, rather than confining himself to purely academic territory. He asks whether Huckleberry Finn should be read as a comic novel by a regional humorist, or as a passionate attack on slavery and racism. Arguing that the apparent bond of Huck and Jim is severely constrained by their race, background and self-interest, Buell concludes persuasively that their temporary camaraderie, however moving and appealing, cannot bridge the racial divide. Jim’s “quest for freedom is at cross purposes with Huck’s desire for carefree and comforting companionship,” and Twain artfully employs a comic style to mask his own satiric and subversive agenda.

Buell’s reading of Moby-Dick is equally provocative. In his view, the whaling ship Pequod is a microcosm of “the state and fate of democratic society, American style, as it appears in the era of early industrial capitalism.” It was a “stroke of genius,” he writes, for Melville to have chosen to write about the whaling industry at its peak, when “it was destined to go under within a decade.” In our era of late industrial capitalism, notes Buell in an amusing aside, the founder of Starbucks initially wanted to name the company after the whaling ship, but switched to the first mate’s name instead when his business partner complained that “No one’s going to drink a cup of Pee-quod.” According to Buell, Melville’s Starbuck is “the spokesman for good business sense,” but for scholarly Melvilleans, he is a secondary character—it is Ishmael and Ahab who capture their attention. Ahab is on a quest to hunt the white whale, and Ishmael on a quest “to understand what to make of both whale and hunt.” Ishmael, the intellectual observer, is more interesting to critics than Ahab, the passionate man of action; but in popular culture, Ahab is the centre of the novel, the charismatic and obsessive captain who leads his men to shipwreck and glory. In elections, Americans sometimes nominate Ishmaels, but usually vote for Ahabs.

In his final pages, Buell tells us, disarmingly, that he’s “always hated writing ‘conclusions.’” The GAN, he states indecisively, may be “headed for permanent eclipse,” or “it may be endlessly reinvented and kept alive.” I think that Buell overestimates the possibility of establishing a GAN today, among the many thousands of novels published and self-published in the US each year for a dwindling audience of (mainly female) readers. His anatomy of the GAN may reflect the unwritten criteria of literary prizes. In 2013, the US National Book Award for fiction went to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, a comic novel about John Brown and slavery, very much in the Twain tradition, while other candidates (such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch) would be hard to squeeze into any of Buell’s scenarios.

Nostalgia for the GAN resembles nostalgia for the days before multi-channel TV, when everyone watched the same sitcom or drama. American novels today are being produced in unprecedented numbers, but with so much variety in subject, form, and genre they can’t be broadly sampled even by professional book critics or academics on sabbatical, let alone ordinary readers with jobs and families. Moreover, longhonoured assumptions about the national consciousness and its fictional heroes and representatives can’t stand up in the era of sharply divided Red and Blue states. Whether it survives or has ever existed, the GAN is really just a critical peg on which Buell hangs some fine analyses of canonical American novels. But to bicker over the definition of the GAN or to quarrel about which novels are admitted and which are kept out, is ultimately (a learned friend once quipped) to throw out some rather tasty bathwater for the sake of a very fussy baby.

Elaine Showalter is author of “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx” (Virago)

The Dream of the Great American Novelby Lawrence Buell (Harvard, £29.95)