In 1868 a novelist named John William De Forest wrote an essay for The Nation called “The Great American Novel,” wherein he nominated Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for the role. While few would maintain his evaluation of Stowe’s novel and the only reason anyone cares even slightly about De Forest is because of that essay, the notion of the Great American Novel has persisted.
The Great American Novel is, essentially, the idea that a novel can be the definitive expression of its time, capturing a unique American cultural and historical milieu. It’s a hackneyed version of the national epic in the tradition of Homer and Virgil, a work that attempts to unify a nation in a common language. It’s an idea also rooted in American triumphalism and its timid little brother, American insecurity. (I once heard someone say James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was the Great American Novel, because, I think, it’s so consistently ranked as the greatest novel ever that he assumed it was written by an American.) As Americans, we want to be the best at everything, and we want a literature that reflects our magnificence while meeting a certain criterion of greatness.
Most often, people talk of the Great American Novel with derision, and occasionally write an entire novel satirizing the idea. But you can also write a novel, name it after the Great American Idea, splay it across the cover, then get in Oprah’s Book Club (the highest literary achievement) and receive a cover in Time proclaiming you as the Great American Novelist. The GAN oscillates somewhere between absurdity and validity, but it’s time it found a secure home among the former.
First of all, why can there only be one? That’s the single greatest problem with the entire idea. Literary culture isn’t “The Apprentice,” and there’s no Donald Trump — thank God — to serve as a cultural arbiter, deciding the fate of American fiction once and for all. The Great American Novel effectively works to delegitimize important novels by turning America’s literary tradition into a sword fight (not swashbuckling) between dead white dudes like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It’s an obsolete term, also, because it historicizes fiction at the expense of aesthetic value. It’s a convenient idea for historical and journalistic purposes, and it is used most often in these circumstances. But literature isn’t made just to assimilate into a historical narrative, and the best literature squirms out of it’s historical moment. The GAN turns literature into passive historical texts, only relevant for their ability to transport us to a past America so we can understand what it was like to live in that time.
Thus, according to the criteria of the GAN, literature is purely mimetic: Its sole function is to represent the world in which it was created. But all literature, and furthermore all art, is critical. To recreate the world is to critique it — to attempt to perfect it. No writer, not even the greatest, can hold a mirror up to nature without a signature crack.
Every novelist’s vision of America is limited not just by their personal imaginative vision, but by place. Contemporaries Henry James and Mark Twain have markedly different views of and concerns for America, not only for their personal differences, but for the simple fact they lived in different parts of America. America is a gigantic country, and the reality is that its size and diversity of experience make the kind of narrative unity entailed by the GAN, at the very least, unlikely.
Yet valuing the historicity of a novel is problematic not only because it minimizes the efficacy and agency of fiction, but also because the novels that survive getting run over by time’s winged chariot become what we know of their historical moment. To borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot: They are that which we know. Novelists aren’t historians, and we shouldn’t require them to be. We can’t trust a novel for historical accuracy because it effectively creates it’s own historicity. Historical moments are transformed by the representations that survive them. Continuity with the past is tricky. While the past is never dead, it’s transformed into a ghost of what it was. So when you take a novel, for example “The Ambassadors,” and say “This is what it was like to be an American in Europe in 1903,” you apply flesh to a phantom. It’s never going to stick.
Quite often, American novels, certainly some of its best ones, serve as overt critiques of American culture. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” demolishes the idealization of wealth and unfettered capitalism’s excesses and failures; Herman Melville’s masterpiece “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale,” my vote for the greatest work of fiction produced by an American, subtly ironizes the idea of the monomaniacal entrepreneur, the Rockefellers and the Carnegies whom we still idealize, who chase the objects of their desires free of moral concerns; Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” eradicates any ethical justification for racism.
Nothing tells us how full of shit we are more often than our greatest novels. What the fuck even is the American experience? Here’s the grand irony of the Great American Novel. In theory, the GAN would be a celebration of America. But a look at the common candidates (gunpowder for any postcolonial or feminist critic) shows a list of novels that critique the principles and ideas at the very heart of American life and the hypocrisies that lurk beneath the surface.
More specifically, the battle for who is considered an American and what constitutes Americanness is a conflagration that has raged for the entirety of American history, but the novel has always proven to be an essential tool for those ill-equipped for the fight. Fiction continuously redefines who and what America is. Contrary to the logic of the GAN, there’s no America that novelists must strive to express. The novel will never create a definitive version of America: It will continue to create new ones.
The GAN provides critical criteria that don’t really help evaluate the quality of a fictional work. “Moby-Dick” gives insights to what America was like in the pre-Civil War era, but these insights supplement the artistic achievements. They’re not the achievements themselves. “Moby-Dick,” despite its greatness as a work of fiction, can’t be the Great American Novel, because it fails to mirror the cultural milieu in which it was created.
No one will ever write the Great American Novel, but not because it’s a great difficulty. They won’t, because it was a stupid idea from the beginning.