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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

After 150 years, readers and writers still wonder: Is there—or can there be—a Great American Novel?

The Great American Novel, that quixotism of American letters, is an idea originating in the efforts of a young country to define and distinguish both itself and its literature. Perhaps it is surprising, then, to find that the term has a concrete genesis: an article called (what else?) “The Great American Novel” and written by the Civil War novelist John William De Forest in the January 9, 1868, issue of The Nation.

De Forest argues that though the country was too young and green to produce an epic poem a la the Iliad or the Aeneid, America could possibly still produce a Great American Novel. He runs through a shortlist of possible authors:
  • 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”
De Forest asks, “Is there, in other words, a single tale which paints American life so broadly, truly, and sympathetically that every American of feeling and culture is forced to acknowledge the picture as a likeness of something which he knows?” He answers, “Not one!”

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.
In 1973 Philip Roth published his mockingly titled The Great American Novel, a book about a failed major-league baseball league that pokes fun at (in the words of a reviewer in The New York Times) “the decorums of novel-writing and the frailer conventions of the national style.” Thirty years later, when a journalist effusively praised the book, Roth “laughed and said it’s usually the precocious teen sons of friends who tell him that. But he said no novel was more fun to write.”

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?

Related reading:
Related LOA volumes: Philip Roth: Novels 1973–1977


  1. Maybe Huck Finn or Gone with the Wind or my two favorite American novels The House of Mirth or Blood Meridian. And perhaps even American Pastoral or Revolutionary Road. Or the Grapes of Wrath. Kevin

  2. I'm inclined to agree with Martin Amis: "The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further."

    It's true, though. Augie seems to represent America itself--a hopeless dreamer ruled by his passions, starting out with nothing and ending up with that same nothing, though having learned more than a few lessons along the way. It's a novel that's thoroughly American all the way down to its prose, as Amis points out in his essay "The American Eagle":

    "Why is 'loud-played music', in a dimestore, so much better than 'loud'? Because it suggests wilfulness, vulgarity and youth, whereas 'loud' is just loud. Augie March isn't written in English; its job is to make you feel how beautiful American is, with its jazzy verbs: 'it sent my blood happy', 'to close a deal', 'to run [a nickel] into a fortune', 'we were making twelve knots', 'cover the house' (get around it), 'beat a check' (leave without paying it), 'to make time with Mimi' (seduce), 'This is where I shake you, Augie' (reject). Never mind the p's and q's of fine prose."

    Certainly there are other novels on the Wikipedia list that are Great American Novels (and great American novels), but for there to be THE Great American Novel? Maybe the search, as Amis says, is over.

    But then again, speaking as a writer, I might want to say that the search for the Great American Novel will go on. I think all writers might wish that, out of our delusional optimism.

  3. I do think the trick really is to go back to De Forest's criteria. The Great American Novel was a well-defined concept at its inception, regardless of how we have idealized or elevated the concept even further (look at us all capitalized it like a proper noun!). For my own part, I can't help but think that De Forest was either promoting his own writing style - which conveniently followed his own concept of the Great American Novel - or maybe he was just being rhetorical.

  4. Maybe it's saying something about novels, but it strikes me that a lot of the books on the Wikipedia list are quests of one kind or another. Regardless, I go with Moby Dick.

  5. Sometimes I feel like "the Great American Novel" is like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You search and reach for it your whole career/life but while you might get close, you can never actually get to it. It's almost like this beautiful myth - a quest a good writer goes on but can never truly fulfill.

    But it's still fun to point fingers and come up with winning titles regardless this occasional sentiment...

  6. "The Great Gatsby" comes awfully damn close, particularly for Fitzgerald's exposure of the Horatio Alger myth (distinctly American) as rotten at it's core.


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