My new favorite thing: Hark! A Vagrant. Terribly clever comics about literary and historical figures. And pictures of dandies. Really, I can’t do much more than explain that it’s been 24 hours since I discovered Kate’s site and I have not stopped laughing since then. Be sure to check out the archives for all the good stuff. (Click the picture for a larger version of this comic.)
If it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons. – Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, 1404
Sometimes described as an early feminist and also as Europe’s first professional female writer, Christine de Pizan was born in Venice in 1365, the daughter of a highly respected court physician and astrologer who shortly thereafter relocated his family to the French court of Charles V.
The young Christine received an excellent education, becoming literate in French, Italian and possibly Latin, and at fifteen married a royal secretary. The family prospered until the death of their patron Charles V in 1380, and disaster struck in 1390 with the deaths of both her father and husband. Widowed, with three children and elderly female relatives to provide for, Christine eschewed her obvious options—remarriage or life in a convent—and took up the pen. She began by writing courtly love poetry, the positive reception of which earned her noble patrons and allowed her to move on to a variety of literature, including autobiographical works and a life of Charles V.
In 1399 de Pizan initiated the Querelle, “the most celebrated literary debate of the Middle Ages,” when she attacked the second half of the widely popular allegorical poem Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose). Christine objected to the work’s misogynistic themes, primarily its portrayal of women as immoral seductresses. Following this controversy she composed her own allegory, The Book of the City of Ladies, a dialogue that examined the strengths and moral qualities of women and strongly rejected the male-dominated intellectual discourse of the age. She followed it with The Treasure of the City of Ladies, a book of practical and empowering advice directed at women of all social stations.
Christine continued to write prolifically, adding historical and military subjects to her repertoire, until she retired to a convent in 1418. This was where she completed her final book, a celebration of Joan of Arc. The date of her death is unknown, but was probably around 1429.
— Sarah Lawson’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Treasure of the City of Ladies is available in its entirety via Google Books. Definitely check out her discussion of the reception of de Pizan’s works over the ensuing centuries.
— The page above is from the largest of de Pizan’s extant manuscripts, a lavish presentation copy compiling 30 individual works that was commissioned by Queen Isabeau de Bavière of France in 1413. It is currently held by the British Library (BL Harley MS 4431) and is partially available in a digital gallery here. (Watch out, though. The gallery view works well, but the link to “digital images and transcriptions” keeps crashing Firefox for me.)
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.
I’m not sure what it is about Junot Díaz that seems to leave his interviewers inarticulate, (possibly the gentle, self-conscious demeanor through which his wonderful intellect shines,) but he’s done it again in a nice video interview at Slate today. *Caution, there is a tiny bit of spoilage.*
Good timing, too, because I finished The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao just last night, and I think it’s safe to say that a new novel has found its way to my all-time top ten list (possibly top five). Besides being incredibly well-written, creative, and thoughtful, it had a huge emotional impact. Finishing was like a punch in the gut, and I think it might take a day or two before I can get deeply involved in another book. I’m kicking myself now for not reading it last summer, but there were so many other books on my list, and this one never found its way to our library, so I kept putting it off.
Anyway, I won’t waste my meager words with an attempt to describe the plot or themes, but only say that if you haven’t read it yet, do. And check out the Slate interview as well as Díaz’s talk with Terry Gross on Fresh Air last fall. Also available is an email exchange between Díaz and Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke which informs the line of questioning in the video.