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Can the Great American Novel survive?

The end of a centuries-old dream

By Elaine Showalter   February 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,…

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