A friend of ours, a fairly clever person, and by no means lacking in common sense on common subjects, has the craze in his head that he will some day write a great American novel. – John W. DeForest
A few weeks ago I was speaking with a friend from overseas and joked that I was going to give up on book history to “drink a lot and talk about writing the Great American Novel.” Rather than scoff at my bad joke his first reaction was, “What is it with you Americans and the Great American Novel?” Caught off guard, I didn’t have much of a response beyond, “Um, it’s just a thing? It’s kind of always been like that?”
Not really good enough for an aspiring historian. So, to the library!
I had a vague impression that the Great American Novel concept originated, like many other American cultural artifacts, in the desire to forge a unique, non-colonial national identity complete with art to compare with Europe’s, and I was partially correct. In The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel: Moby Dick as Test Case, Harvard literature professor Lawrence Buell argues that, while calls for a national literature had appeared since the Revolution, it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the idea of the Great American Novel truly took shape.
With the war behind and completion of territorial conquest and hinterland settlement in sight, so too (for the first time) was the GAN. It was, in short, arguably at once the leading literary edge of the “romance of reunion” between northern and southern whites, and, beyond that, a leading literary edge of the broader push toward consolidation of the nation as a literary, cultural, and political unit.
Additionally, Buell writes, this era saw an important shift in the status of prose fiction in the US in which it was elevated to a high art form. This was combined with a “rising tide of nation-centric theory abroad” which influenced Americans’ desire for a unifying literature.
It was in this intellectual milieu that the term Great American Novel was coined as the title of an 1868 essay in The Nation by author John W. DeForest (which begins with the quote at the top of this post). DeForest reports that his friend (though I assume he was referring to himself) says, “I shall preform a national service, and be hailed as a national benefactor. It will be acknowledged that I have broken another of the bonds which make us spiritually colonists and provincials.”
DeForest goes on to discuss potential contenders for the title of GAN, hashing out the reasons to exclude Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne and a few others, primarily because each is too narrowly focused on a particular region or society. He believes that Harriet Beecher Stowe most closely approaches the GAN ideal, having written a novel with “a national breadth to the picture, truthful outlining of character, natural speaking, and plenty of strong feeling… It was a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait.”
DeForest then asks why no one has yet written a true American novel. First, he argues, a lack of international copyright protection dooms American novelists, whose books are more expensive than those stolen from foreign authors. More expensive and so less likely to be picked up by the American consumer who, “must have his book cheap. He will pay high for his coat, his sofa, his piano, his portrait; but the furniture and clothing and adornment of his mind must be cheap, even if nasty.” The result being that writers are discouraged from investing time and energy in the Great American Novel.
The second great difficulty in creating a national portrait, according to DeForest, stems from the fact that America is changing rapidly across its far-flung regions, leaving behind provincially-minded writers who will never be able to appeal to the majority. He considers the brisk pace of change a special problem of the US compared with what he describes as a petrified European social scene: “When Mr. Anthony Trollope commences a novel, he is perplexed by no such kaleidoscopic transformations and no such conflicting claims of sections.”
There are obvious problems with DeForest’s concept of the Great American Novel. Clearly, it would be very difficult to write a book that touched on every American region and culture. Certainly the great British and French authors he presents as ideals had much smaller nations to contend with in their writing. And why couldn’t a provincial work such as The Scarlet Letter represent important national themes just as well as a book of broader scope? Lawrence Buell also points out the role of literature in actively shaping the country rather than, as DeForest believed, merely reflecting it. For example, the role that Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in the run-up to the Civil War, which DeForest ignored.
Following the appearance of DeForest’s essay, writes Buell, the Great American Novel “soon entrenched itself as a term of reference for publishers, reviewers, and critics, despite the skepticism it provoked.” And we’ve been arguing about it, or dreaming (through an alcoholic haze) of writing it, ever since. (Even our former colonial overlords like to get in on the argument.) I doubt I need to get into the multifaceted debates on the status of the Great American Novel—we’re all pretty familiar with them at this point. But here’s a quick list:
- The GAN will never be written.
- The GAN has already been written and it is/they are… and I will fight you to the death over it (or just ridicule you on a message board).
- For inexplicable reasons the GAN has not yet been written, but it will be in the future! Really!
- The GAN is pure media hype. Why have you added another blog post to this idiotic discussion?
- It’s important for everyone to read the classic GANs to elevate their minds.
- The GAN is an intellectual crutch/populist BS.
- Down with the GAN concept and the imperialist/sexist/racist western cannon.
- And the ever popular: Compared to yesterday’s authors, today’s authors are pathetic and incapable of writing the GAN.
Now that you know a little of the history behind the Great American Novel ideal you can develop a deeper appreciation of all those classics you feel guilty for not having finished. Or just have a laugh courtesy of The Onion.