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The Big Read: Can a Single Book Sum Up a Nation?


[clock] 12-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2014

<i>The Dream of the Great American Novel</i> by Lawrence Buell. Harvard University Press, 2014. 500p. HB, $39.95.Whenever my father used to see me intently hunched over my grade-​school English homework, he would say, “Looks like you’re working on the Great American Novel,” then pad off to read the news-paper. You don’t hear much these days about the GAN (as Henry James nicknamed it), but that doesn’t mean writers don’t still quest after this literary grail—​or will-​o’-​the-​wisp. Poets may dream that through their work they will achieve lasting fame—​“Non omnis moriar,” as Horace declares in one of his greatest odes. But to capture in a few hundred pages the richness and complexity and sheer cussedness of American life seems an almost impossible ambition. By contrast, a single line—​such as John William Burgon’s “A rose-​red city half as old as time”—​can be enough to confer poetic immortality.

At the beginning of his densely written but magisterial study, The Dream of the Great American Novel, Lawrence Buell lists some of the general requirements for any electable GAN candidate. He settles on four possible “scripts”:

Perhaps the surest guarantee of GAN candidacy is to have been subjected again and again to a series of memorable imitations and reinventions in whatever genre or media, thereby giving the text a kind of master narrative status whether or not it set out to be one. 

He points to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter as such a book, frequently referred to, pastiched, and parodied.

Script number two … centers on the life story of a socially representative figure (conventionally male, but not necessarily so), who strives whether successfully or not to transform himself or herself from obscurity to prominence. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are examples of this type. 

Script three … I call the romance of the divide, or rather divides, plural—​books from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Toni Morrison’s Beloved and beyond, whose plots turn on issues of sectional and/or ethnoracial division. Often they dramatize those divisions through a multigenerational family history or a scene of cross-​divide interpersonal intimacy.

Script four is best showcased by compendious meganovels that assemble heterogeneous cross-​sections or characters imagined as social microcosms or vanguards. These are networked loosely or tightly as the case may be, and portrayed as acting and interacting in relation to epoch-​making public events or crises, in such a way as to constitute an image of ‘democratic’ promise or dysfunction. 

Buell’s examples of this category include Herman Melville’s Moby-​Dick and John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy.


Initially, the nineteenth-​century passion fordefining and creating “national” novels arose from what Buell dubs “cultural legitimation anxiety.” Early attempts at the GAN aimed to portray the distinctive character of the young United States, often celebrating Yankee virtues, such as drive and know-​how, but sometimes revealing how far the country had fallen away from the foundational ideals of liberty and equality. These days, of course, we have grown leery of “exceptionalist self-​imaginings” or grand unitary visions of our ethnically and culturally diverse society. According to critic Mark McGurl, the contemporary American writer often “ ‘disaffiliates from the empirical nation … in order to affiliate with a utopian sub-​nation, whether that be African-​ or Asian-​ or Mexican-​’ or Native.” Buell argues back, however, that American life has always been characterized by “the tension between synthesis and particularism.” Even the lack of glue, “the perceived (non)relation between fractious parts has itself been one of the drivers of GAN thinking from the start.”

Buell, as these quotations should make clear, has thought hard and carefully about his subject. He is, after all, a distinguished (if now emeritus) professor of American literature at Harvard, admired by some of the shrewdest scholars of our literature, including Robert D. Richardson (biographer of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James) and Philip F. Gura, who dedicated his last book, Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, to Buell. Nonetheless, Buell’s magnum opus requires its would-​be reader to pay exceedingly close attention, beginning with a willingness to follow his long, thickly textured sentences. 

Relentlessly exacting in his diction, Buell can summarize an argument or a plot with eye-​opening precision—​and make you suddenly see new things in familiar books. He really is smart. But, oh, how costive is his serpentine prose, how tightly wound and airless. On one page he might drop in a folksy phrase such as “his own sayso” or “do-​gooding,” but on the next he’ll refer to “female-​coded settlement culture.” When he neatly contrasts the “weird intensity” of Morrison’s Beloved with John Updike’s “lower narrative temperature” in his Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, the reader readily nods his or her assent. However, Buell then writes: “Can the weird intensity sustain itself as a credibly integral expression of social derangement under racism without falling into manneristic excrescence?” You tell me. 

Sigh. Bookish words—​“fissiparous” is one example—​and professional jargon such as “scene of creative production” can be deciphered readily enough (by using a dictionary or a bit of thought), yet such academese undercuts Buell’s countervailing instinct for the sprightly and colorful. A man who can imagine “fluorescent zaniness” shouldn’t settle for “prioritizing objective realism at the expense of subjectified narration.” Jargon is unquestionably useful as a kind of technical shorthand, but who really wants to read shorthand? 

As soon becomes apparent, The Dream of the Great American Novel simply isn’t aimed at the common reader or even at many uncommon ones. The grateful audience for this book will be other scholars and teachers of American literature, who will plunder its pages for decades to come.

And plunder it they will because, all cavils aside, Buell proffers brilliant analyses of a dozen or so front-​runners in the Great American Novel sweepstakes, as well as tangential observations on numerous long shots, including Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, VladimirNabokov’s Lolita, RichardWright’s Native Son, SaulBellow’s Adventures of Augie March, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Besides the Stowe, Morrison, and other classics mentioned in his four “scripts,” Buell looks particularly closely at Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Philip Roth’s “American Trilogy” (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain). Buell is no old fogey either—​he mentions as GAN-​worthy such ambitious contemporary works as Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and William T. Vollmann’s unfinished series Seven Dreams

What do nearly all these books possess in common? They are, almost without exception, Big Books (and mainly by men, to boot). For various reasons, some of our literature’s most exceptional writers—​Willa Cather, most notably—​never produced any single, all-​encompassing masterpiece. But if, like me, you are suspicious of bigness in all its forms, you might secretly prefer a small-​scale or more piecework approach to depicting American identity: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, for instance, or the stories of, say, Eudora Welty, Ray Bradbury, and John Cheever. If a Martian really wanted to understand the American psyche, he, she, or it would probably learn far more from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” than from any ten meganovels.

Traditionally, though, the typical GAN candidate requires heft, range, verisimilitude, and—​lest we forget—​popularity. While beautifully written and constructed, both William Gaddis’s demanding The Recognitions and Peter Matthiessen’s Faulknerian Shadow Country have failed to drum up a widespread readership. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is, by most measures, a better attempt at a GAN than Gravity’s Rainbow, but the latter boasts a hundred times as many fans. Similarly, works on the margin, no matter how fine or insightful about American life, seldom make the grade. One could argue strong cases for the GANship of John Crowley’s Little, Big; John Sladek’s Roderick, or, The Education of a Young Machine; Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man; or, with just a slight stretch, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely—​but, even now, they all remain tainted with the dread word “genre.” Yet if Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind can be proposed for GAN honors, why not Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? Not that I’m doing so, by the way.

One could hazard, cautiously, that our true GAN might not even be a work of prose fiction: Is there a better book about the DNA of these United States than Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America? Is there anything more archetypically American than Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp, Leaves of Grass (especially “Song of Myself”), or Thoreau’s drop-​out memoir Walden? Could Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel be bettered as a portrait of our pervasive national loneliness? What about Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town or, in wild contrast, Carl Barks’s retrospective omnibus, Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times? But here we have obviously drifted much too far. The GAN, by definition, needs to be a novel. 

Other nations do seem to have managed, almost without fuss, to produce an obvious fictional summa: For Spain and the Spanish it’s Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote; for Ireland and the Irish there’s James Joyce’s Ulysses. Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, holds a special place in the affections of Russian readers—​despite the competition of, say, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, and Doctor Zhivago. Italians traditionally point to Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), though Sicilians can claim a masterpiece of their own: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Leopard. For the Japanese, the revered text is Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, the serenely wistful memorial to Heian culture. 

Readers around the world have already elected Gabriel Garciá Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as the Great Latin-​American Novel. But is India’s central work of fiction Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children—​or could it be Rudyard Kipling’s panoramic Kim, which captures so much of the subcontinent’s rumbustiousness and variety? In Australia Henry Handel Richardson’s saga-​like The Fortunes of Richard Mahony still battles for top honors against Patrick White’s more intense Voss. Though Goethe remains Germany’s leading contributor to Weltliteratur, his finest prose work, Elective Affinities, may be too Mozartian, too heartbreaking to be called the Great German Novel. I suspect that the GGN’s author is, inevitably, Thomas Mann, though whether for Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, or Doctor Faustus remains open to debate. 

Like the United States, the fiction-​producing nations of Great Britain and France present almost too much richness. Could Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur be the Great British Novel? Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice seems too narrow in focus; J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings too otherworldly. William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair andGeorgeEliot’s Middlemarch docome close, and Charles Dickens’s comic odyssey, The Pickwick Papers, may be the best bet of all—​unless Anthony Trollope’s “Palliser” series is regarded as a multi-​part masterpiece. In that case, Honoré de Balzac’s Comedie humaine or Emile Zola’s Rougon-​Macquart cycle would be hard to beat as the Great French Novel, but that, again, seems to be stretching the definition too much.

André Gide once chose Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma as his nation’s number-​one work of fiction, but most of it takes place in Italy. A brave Princeton professor has argued for the supremacy of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—​and I can see what he means. It’s a human-​scaled national epic. Madame Bovary is too austerely perfect, while Gustave Flaubert’s more obvious attempt at a condition-​of-​France novel, Sentimental Education, comes across as rather stiff and ponderous, aside from those imperishable last chapters. As for Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time may simply be too divisive. Some devotees—​I am one—​cherish every dream-​like sentence; other readers give up after a dozen pages of the first volume, frustrated by the languid pace and digressive meandering.

In his epilogue to The Dream of the Great American Novel, Buell returns to the current validity of the GAN ideal. For many writers and readers today, the all-​American super-​novel must seem, on the surface, utterly outmoded in an age when literature has grown increasingly global and transnational. Yet Buell argues that the GAN isn’t necessarily a representation of jingoist brag, and that its greatest exemplars have usually offered diagnoses of our nation’s fragilities and failures, especially with regard to race and class. Given the fraught nature of twenty-​first-​century American life, whether one looks at the increased stratification of our society or the overall loss of status of the United States in the world community, there should be every expectation that the “national” novel will continue to offer writers a form in which to capture and critique the way we live now. After all, the GAN merely exemplifies a more operatic version of what all art aspires to do: structure the chaos of experience, give clarity to complexity, transform a world of troubles and confusion into a thing of beauty and a joy forever. 

But wait: Surely, I have my own candidate for the Great American Novel. Like all journalists worth their salt, I certainly do. It’s currently sitting in a drawer in my desk, and as soon as I get around to polishing and revising a few chapters… . 

In the meantime, I would cast my vote for Moby-​Dick as would —​I think—​Lawrence Buell and many other readers, except, of course, for the supporters of the other two most popular GAN favorites: Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. Still, Melville managed to put almost everything into that leviathan of a book, except, of course, women. If only he’d called the white whale Daisy instead of Dick, he might be the Great American Novel’s undisputed heavyweight champion. 

32 Comments

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Ted Fontenot's picture
Ted Fontenot · 3 months ago

Rather surprised, and elated, that Thomas Berger's Little Big Man gets a mention.  A very fine and very readable novel.  Both book and novelist have been grievously neglected. I hope to see this change.  Berger's Reinhart series is wonderful, the masterpiece of the series being Reinhart in Love.

Walker Percy's The Moviegoer could have been considered, as well as John Barth's rookie effort, The Floating Opera.  Both are novels of ideas, Barth's is relentless and unyielding in its confounding nihilism without falling prey to despair, which is some achievement.

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Jacob Farber's picture
Jacob Farber · 3 months ago

I loved  Mason Dixon, but I didn't love it. I loved Moby Dick once upon a time, in my teens,  now I like parts of it. 

I think a better candidiate for the great American novel would be "The Sot Weed Factor" by John Barth. It's an easy novel to read but difficult to understand with its 18th c typeplot line.  And it's fun.

Yeap the more I think about it the more I vote for it as the great American novel.

 

I hope the great critic Mr. Dirda will write a review of this most enjoyable novel.

 

 

 

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Frank's picture
Frank · 3 months ago

Interesting essay, except for that silly last paragraph.  why must everything be political.  why must everything be seen within the framework of  class, racism, and in this case, gender?

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MRover's picture
MRover · 3 months ago

While mixing novels and politics is usually abysmal, the whole concept of the "Great American Novel" is politicized by definition.  So while I generally puke at novels being reduced to political prosecution efforts, deciding what is the Great American Novel has to relate to the American people, and that relation requires some sort of debate about who/what those people are and how the novel addresses them.

If the question was "best American novel," on the other hand, then I'd agree that referring to class, racism, gender, etc. is a crude diversion, because "best" in that absolute sense doesn't imply any political context.  The best American novel could be a fierce denunciation of all of the American people; that would be perfectly legitimate.

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Michael Dirda's picture
Michael Dirda · 3 months ago

That last paragraph was meant as a joke. However, Buell's book is heavily invested in examinng race, gender and class.  michael dirda

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James Ashley Shea's picture
James Ashley Shea · 1 month ago

Dirda, if you never did anything more than your introduction to Memorable Days, the correspondence between Robert Phelps and James Salter, you did enough.

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Lyn LeJeune's picture
Lyn LeJeune · 3 months ago

Again, all things seen from the male point of view.  Again the great women writers of America are left out and measured against male works, rather than works in themselves. Flannery O'Connor to begin with...

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Dave's picture
Dave · 3 months ago

Flannery O'Connor wasn't quite a novelist.

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Michael Dirda's picture
Michael Dirda · 3 months ago

Women are not overlooked in Buell's book. He discusses Stowe, Morrison and Cather, among other women writers. You can't change history, though--there simply are more big books by male authors than by women, especially before the 20th century. That's not true now. Witness yesterday's Pulitzer Prize for fiction. md

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Stephen Cowdery's picture
Stephen Cowdery · 3 months ago

The Great Icelandic Novel would be Halldór Laxness' Independent People.

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White Whale's picture
White Whale · 3 months ago

Every time I try to commit to getting through Moby Dick, the prose beats me down. Although I think there's something to be said for "Last of the Mohicans" in the great American novel discussion.

However, I tend to be a fan of historical fiction; read the entire Aubry/Maturin series from Patrick O'Brien and I recommend them highly. Also highly recommend Poland's Great Novel - actually 'novels' as it's usually referred to as "The Polish Trilogy" - by Henrick Sienkiewicz. "With Fire and Sword", "The Deluge", and "Fire in the Steppe" all excellent books, as well as what might be considered a "prequel" to the trilogy - "The Teutonic Knights." Sienkiewicz is more famous outside Poland for "Quo Vadis" but every Pole who can read has tackled the Trilogy.

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Ted Fontenot's picture
Ted Fontenot · 3 months ago

I can't take Fenimore Cooper seriously, having read Mark Twain's blistering takedown years ago.

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Steven Simcoe's picture
Steven Simcoe · 3 months ago

How does one write an essay on the Great American Novel without mentioning The Grapes of Wrath?   

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Michael Dirda's picture
Michael Dirda · 3 months ago

Simple. I've never read The Grapes of Wrath.  This being its anniversary year, though, I may finally get round to it. md

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James Ashley Shea's picture
James Ashley Shea · 1 month ago

I never read it, either. Last year I tried rereading East of Eden. The first few pages were disappointing. That's as far as I got. The movie was cool, but I dunno if I'd want to see it again, except to watch James Dean.

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Wayne Smith's picture
Wayne Smith · 3 months ago

I never understand why Barth's The Sotweed Factor gets overlooked all the time.  Could you respond Michael?

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wbrian1's picture
wbrian1 · 3 months ago

Where would you place Ross Lockridge's (Jr.) Raintree County in your hierarchy of the GAN efforts?

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Kevin's picture
Kevin · 3 months ago

Definitely should be up there. It was a self-conscious attempt, but the breadth of its ambitions and vision of an America past its innocence makes it a worth candidate.

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Jan Sand's picture
Jan Sand · 3 months ago

Admittedly there has been a generous spectrum of literatrure displayed but the essential American flavor, to my mind can be found in the comic strip where Little Nemo and Krazy Kat and Pogo  flush out US insanity at its most zany and incisive. Pogo keeps getting quoted as much as Lewis Carroll but, I must admit, the steamy sex underlying the suppressive asphalt which paves over the nation, is rather neglected in this area.

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Steve Sailer's picture
Steve Sailer · 3 months ago

If you read the newspaper headlines, the most prophetic novel of my lifetime has turned out to be The Bonfire of the Vanities.

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Aldo Tessuti's picture
Aldo Tessuti · 3 months ago

In a wonderful 1958 essay entitled "The Chinese Classic Novel in Translation: the Art of Magnanimity" (online at http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/chinesenovels.htm), the poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth, writing about the 18th Century novel "The Dream of the Red Chamber," which is also known as "The Story of the Stone," called it the greatest work of prose fiction in all the history of literature. (In second place, he has the 11th Century Japanese novel "The Tale of Genji.")

Anyone wishing to read the novel in English should choose the 5-volume Penguin Classics version, "The Story of the Stone," translated by David Hawkes (chapters 1 to 80) and John Minford (chapters 81 to 120).

 

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Chris J's picture
Chris J · 3 months ago

The Great Australian Novel (another GAN) is really My Brother Jack by George Johnston.

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Peter Hayes's picture
Peter Hayes · 3 months ago

Neither The Fortunes of Richard Mahony nor Voss is my nation's Great Novel, which is SUCH IS LIFE by Joseph Furphy, a genuinely great *world* novel.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 3 months ago

Of course it is a rather silly to hypothesize "the Great American Novel," as if every national culture must have one and every would-be American novelist dreams that he will be the one to write it.  OTH, it does make sense to nominate whom we think is the greatest writer of fiction, taking his (or her) entire corpus of work.  My own nominee would be Updike, and not just (or even mainly) because of the four Rabbit novels (though I would rank the middle two, especially the middle chapters of Rabit Redux, as among the highlights of his fiction.  No, to get the measure of Updike you have to include is Olinger short stories, the tour de force which is The Centaur, his two best sellers (Couples and Witches of East Wick), his send-up of Africa (The Coup), his theological exploration (Roger's Version), and his late effort,  The Terrorist.  There are also some very good things in The Village.  In fact only a few of his novels are real failures, among which I would list the one about the Ford Administration and the one about Buchanan.

A much neglected writer of fiction, though perhaps a regional rather than a national writer, is Ellen Gilchrist.  Her stories about Southern childhood are the equal (at least) of the best that Mark Twain wrote on the same subject, and several of her novels about adulthood are also outstanding.  She is of course a prose stylist of the first order.

One major novelist is definitely would not nominate is Henry James, not because he is not a great writer, but because he is not an American in any national sense, rather an Anglophile.  (I suppose you could say the same thing about Thomas Eliot as a poet, though in that case we are talking about a truly major figure, far above James, in fact after Shakespeare probably the best poet in the English language based on the main sequence of his major poems.  The Four Quartets in particular are unmatched as a sustained piece of lyric and dramatic verse.)

But of course there is no disputing of taste.  Wanna fight?

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Charles's picture
Charles · 3 months ago

Lonesome Dove. Before you dismiss it, go to the place where Gus and a companion are riding up a long sweeping hill,  almost near the end of their journey,  just before Gus gets shot with an arrow. Until the arrow puts an end to it, that scene is the greatest evocation of the call of open space, the joy of freedom and the craving for the distant frontier there is in American literature. And that craving is one of the basic defining traits of the American character. 

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Elizabeth's picture
Elizabeth · 3 months ago

The great Norwegan novel is by a woman -- Sigrid Undset's Kristen Lavransdatter. An amazing work.

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grb's picture
grb · 3 months ago

Mr Dirda : "I suspect that the GGN’s author is, inevitably, Thomas Mann, though whether for Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, or Doctor Faustus remains open to debate." My own nomination is Joseph and His Brothers. Whether it is adequately German and Great I don't know. It is a personal favorite however - a delight of a book and a bit of a White Whale itself in it's 1,500 pages. There's also a historical resonance in Mann lovingly immersed in Jewish tales of the Old Testament while his Germany sunk in cruelty and barbarism. I alwaysthought the gentleness of Joseph is the other side of the coin to the bitterness of Faustus.

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Kevin's picture
Kevin · 3 months ago

Love the suggestion of Little, Big. Great nove - genre or none. I have to object to Ulysses as the Great Irish Novel (Gin). It's the great Dublin novel. Not sure what's the GIN, but it's got to be something more than a Dublin novel.

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Dreieinigkeitsmoses's picture
Dreieinigkeitsmoses · 3 months ago

The national work of Germany is not a novel; that is a fatal error here for the legitimacy of the analysis. The idea of the national novel is erroneous in that respect, although Hesse deserved a mention in that invented category. The actual national work is probably Faust, with Wagner and Brecht offering various competing works (I vote Ring). 

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 2 months ago

As a non-American who has lived here for a while (and majored in English lit), I would like to nominate Sister Carrie. For me, it helped me "get" America more than anything else. But Leaves of Grass, a non-novel, also gets my vote. For a Great British Novel, I like North and South. But these two seem very political now that I think about it. Hmmm. I'm inclined to say that a Great (insert nation) Novel doesn't necessarily have to describe every aspect of its society, though. Take for example Don Quixote--its appeal is that it deals with universal themes, it just happens to be set in Spain. Otherwise it would be more apt to pick something epic, or a play from the Golden Age. So I supose it comes down to the definition.

And going back to that last paragraph--even though it's a joke, it actually says a lot about America, or at least her writers, that wish/ambition that to earn the GAN designation, the novel must contain it all, not leave anything out, even though it's so vast and diverse... which brings us to Leaves of Grass :)

 

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