De Forest argues that though the country was too young and green to produce an epic poem a la the Iliad or the Aeneid,
- Washington Irving: “too cautious”
- James Fenimore Cooper: “shirked the experiment”
- Nathaniel Hawthorne: “staggered under the load of the American novel”
- Harriet Beecher Stowe: “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon”
- Oliver Wendell Holmes: “hampered by his scientific theories”
Since De Forest introduced the Great American Novel as a goal for American literature, many writers have made it the aim of their careers. In a 2009 article for Salon, Laura Miller refers to this preoccupation as the Great Literary American Novel Syndrome, or GLANS. Among its victims:
- Norman Mailer called the Great American Novel “the big one,” says The Independent in an article about his quest for it. He first announced his intention of writing one in 1957, toiling towards that goal for the next fifty years
- Ralph Ellison spent forty years working on a follow-up to Invisible Man, in which he aimed, according to Newsweek, “to do nothing less than plumb once and for all the mystery and dilemma of race and identity in American society.” He died before he could finish it.
- Truman Capote began Answered Prayers in 1958, intending it to be an American À la recherché du temps perdu. Its original publication date, in 1968, was delayed to 1972, then ‘75—when the first of four chapters ran in Esquire—then ’77 and ’81. It was published posthumously, in unfinished form, in 1987.
A Wikipedia list, while hardly definitive, includes twenty candidates for Great American Novel and serves as an interesting starting point for discussion. Tell us what you think—is there, or can there be, a single novel of the type De Forest envisioned, a work that captures the American zeitgeist? And, in her Salon article, Miller highlights the question, “Why can’t a woman write the Great American Novel?” The Wikipedia list includes The Age of Innocence and To Kill a Mockingbird, but are there any candidates by women that have been unjustly neglected?
- De Forest and the Great American Novel (The American Literary Blog)
- “The Great American Novel,” John William De Forest, The Nation, January 9, 1868 (Google Books)