The Great American Novel

TGANLike the myth of American Exceptionalism, we are routinely belabored by the myth of The Great American Novel. There is no such thing: never was and never could be. Why?

First, the entire idea begs the question that a novel would in some way be the vehicle to glorify America. A novel? Is that actually a serious option? Maybe it should be a poem … Howl perhaps. But the second question is the deal breaker: would The Great American Novel expose everything that is America? Would greed and self-agrandizement be depicted alongside altruism and freedom? What epitomizes the American Way? Is it wage slavery or upward mobility? Is it crime and drugs or bribery and cheating?

If someone actually wrote The Great American Novel and told the true story of America, would we accept it? Of course not. The Great American Novel would have to continue the fiction, expand on the myths, cover up for all the lying, deception, and international skullduggery.

The New York Times has recently questioned whether the work of a woman would ever be considered as The Great American Novel? For me, simply asking that question is objectionable but it is an interesting discussion from two sides of the argument.

Jennifer Szalai makes this contribution to the argument (which was news to me):

The label “Great American Novel” has shown itself elastic enough to include or exclude, depending on who’s doing the labeling. One of the earliest uses of the term can be traced to the 19th-century novelist John William De Forest, who in 1868 equated it with a “picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” He praised only one book for having “a national breadth to the picture, truthful outlining of character, natural speaking and plenty of strong feeling”: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In other words, De Forest decided a novel by a woman came closest to “painting the American soul.”

Mohsin Hamid provides an understanding of the argument which is closer to my own conclusions. In fact, he goes even further and I have added his ideas to my thoughts on literature. Mohsin writes:

The problem is in the phrase itself. “Great” and “Novel” are fine enough. But “the” is needlessly exclusionary, and “American” is unfortunately parochial. The whole, capitalized, seems to speak to a deep and abiding insecurity, perhaps a colonial legacy. How odd it would be to call Homer’s “Iliad” or Rumi’s “Masnavi” “the Great Eastern Mediterranean Poem.”

Elevated fiction reaches for transcendence. “Gatsby’s” beauty, “Blood Meridian’s” beauty, “Beloved’s” beauty don’t lie in their capturing something quintessentially American, for there is no such thing. These novels reveal an America too vast and diverse to support unitary narratives. They split atoms to reveal galaxies. Their beauties lie in attaining wisdom and craftsmanship so exalted as to exceed our petty nationalisms — so exalted, in other words, as to be human.

This wisdom may come from Americans and be set in America, but it is bigger than notions of black or white, male or female, American or non. Human beings don’t necessarily exist inside of (or correspond to) the neat racial, gendered or national boxes into which we often unthinkingly place them.

It’s a mistake to ask literature to reinforce such structures. Literature tends to crack them. Literature is where we free ourselves. Otherwise, why imagine at all? So drop the caps. Drop the “the.” Drop the “American.” Unless you think you’re working on the Great American Novel. In which case, if it helps, keep the notion of it alive in your heart, no longer as a target to hit, but as the gravity you must defy to break from orbit and soar into space.

To be honest, however, I do have a real selection for The Great American Novel: The Awakening Land trilogy by Conrad Richter. Do you have a candidate? What was the title of that book by Philip Roth?

One response

  1. I’m glad you wrote this post, as I too have long had a problem understanding what is meant by “The Great American Novel”. If all that is meant is an American novel that is great, there is no shortage of titles that could fit that description – “The Scarlet Letter”, “Moby-Dick”, “Huckleberry Finn”, “The Bostonians”, “The House of Mirth”, “Light in August”, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”, “Invisible Man”, “Herzog”, etc etc (and that very brief list is even before we get into the last 50 years!) But if the definite article in “The Great American Novel” indicates the *greatest* American novel, then that is just silly: literature is obviously not a competitive sort. And if it means the novel that encapsulates the American experience, then that is equally silly, as it is not possible for any single novel to encapsulate the entire history and experience of a nation – especially a nation so very diverse as USA. So, as I said, I have never understood what the term means.

    If it is a matter of taking pride in the literary output of a country, then USA, which has existed not much more than a couple of centuries, has much to be proud about. But its greatest achievements belong to us all, American or not. It is curious that works that we may think are specific only to a particular cultural background can nonetheless communicate profoundly with people who have no connection with that background. I have, for instance, only been to the Southern States only twice, and on both occasions very briefly on business trips; and yet, when I open something by, say, William Faulkner or Carson McCullers, I feel I am on home ground.

    (I remember once proposing that “Wuthering Heights” be regarded as The Great Yorkshire Novel!)

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