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

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. 


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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous · 8 years 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 :)


James Ashley Shea's picture
James Ashley Shea · 8 years ago

Leaves of Grass is much more than a barbaric yawp. Whitman had seen almost all the plays, read almost all the books, and met almost every famous person who visited New York City. He had also lived through a terrible war and, as a nurse, dealt with the blood and the tragedies.

James Ashley Shea's picture
James Ashley Shea · 8 years ago

Buell’s examples of this category include Herman Melville’s Moby-​Dick and John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. Good Lord! Huckleberry Finn would be the best example of Script four.


Ms Mariposa's picture
Ms Mariposa · 7 years ago

Gatsby? Snore. Bloody proto-yuppies do not speak to the American condition. Better, Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run.  Gatsby is too slight to stand beside Huck Finn. Steinbeck's East of Eden is the most fitting tie for second.  

“When a child first catches adults out -- when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just -- his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child's world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.” 

Further, no mention of Dana's memoir Two Years Before the Mast shows our ignorance of Great American Letters.  He was taught by Emerson and Thoreau, and directly inspired and influenced Melville, Twain, and countless others.  A KEY link in the lineage of American authorship.

“His is one of those cases which are more numerous than those suppose who have never lived anywhere but in their own homes, and never walked but in one line from their cradles to their graves. We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths for the by-ways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought among our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice.” 

Yog's picture
Yog · 7 years ago

This pat compartmentalization of what makes a great novel assumes that greatness can be compartmentalized and categorized, in the arrogant way in which Ivy league professors and writing schools afficiados like to show off their useless, bookish knowledge.

You can't bulletize what makes a great novel, or any piece of art or literature, for that matter.   Such thinks will come swinging and winging at us from some universal perspective that none of us have every expected.   Greatness goes outside the abilities of pat intellectual organization.    It re-defines itself constantly.   So a cheap little outline of what makes the Great American Novel, frankly, does me nor anyone else, any good whatsoever. 

C. D. Voros's picture
C. D. Voros · 7 years ago

"...what all art aspires to do: ...". 

Nicely stated Michael.



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