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The Great American Novel


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#1 Christian

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 11:01 AM

We have threads about fiction (for men) and about the decline in literary reading, but I couldn't find a good fit for a thread devoted to discussion of the novel -- specifically the American novel.

Roger Kimball had an essay on the subject in last week's Weekly Standard. It was locked for subscribers, so I could read only the early portion of the essay (open to all site visitors) when the issue was initially posted. That got me thinking about the subject. Then the site made the entire article available. I've read through it but haven't really digested all that it offers. I thought, however, that it might be a topic of interest for A&F.

Kimball's core argument:

There was a moment, an extended moment that lasted many decades, in which some fiction consciously performed a patently moral role quite apart from its value as entertainment. I should stress that by “moral” I do not necessarily mean moralistic or even didactic. Some fiction was indeed patently didactic, but much of the best fiction was moral in a broader, more insinuating sense. Its designs upon the reader—and the reader’s designs upon it—were often laced with equivocation and ambiguity, but were no less imperative for that. It was in this context, perhaps, that we should understand James’s observation (in that same essay) that the novel was “the most immediate and .  .  . admirably treacherous picture of actual manners.” I feel sure that, could we but fully unpack the union of those words “admirably” and “treacherous” in James’s understanding, we would understand a great deal. If we understood also what he meant by “manners” we would be in very good shape indeed.

My point here is to suggest that changes in our culture have precipitated changes in the novel or, more to the point, changes in the reception and spiritual significance of the novel. It was before my time, but not I think much before my time, that a cultivated person would await the publication of an important new novel with an anticipation whose motivation was as much existential as diversionary. This, I believe, is mostly not the case now, and the reasons have only partly to do with the character and quality of the novels on offer. At least as important is the character and quality of our culture.


Kimball also believes that "much of the most beguiling fiction written today is genre fiction: mysteries, for example, or certain species of light comedy—frosting on the serious cake of life. (There are exceptions, of course, but they remain just that: exceptions.)" And he says he does "not deny that there are good novels written today. I think, for example, of the spare, deeply felt novels of Marilynne Robinson, especially Gilead, her quiet masterpiece from a few years back."

But he suspects the culture is shifting away from great American novels, and that our conversation of great American novels will increasingly rely on older novels. (Seems like that's always been the case, no?)

It's worth reading the whole thing. I'm curious to know who here agrees with Kimball's diagnosis.

Also: What's the last Great American Novel you read? I'd go with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Yeah, I know it's designed to be thought of as a "Great American novel" -- akin to the Oscar-bait movies released en masse in the fall of each year. But the book surprised me, it hit me hard and struck me as deeply insightful about the human condition. Maybe I'm just a sucker, or maybe I need to read more American novels.

#2 NBooth

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 11:50 AM

From the article:

My point is that even if a new Melville or Twain, Faulkner or Fitzgerald were to appear in our midst, his work would fail to achieve the critical traction and existential weight of those earlier masters.



Well, Moby Dick was a disaster for Melville and Faulkner didn't get the attention he deserved until well after what critics consider his "best" work was published, so it's not like the great authors of the past got a whole bunch of critical traction, themselves. Hawthorne griped that "serious" literature was being eclipsed by a "damned mob of scribbling women." The number of great novelists who died in poverty of the critical and the pecuniary kind would probably fill an ocean. So while it might be difficult in the here-and-now to point to the next Great American Novelist, it could be that s/he's in our midst right now, walking hidden only to emerge after our moment is past. It's probably some little-read woman in North Dakota or Nebraska whose genius will only be apparent once she's too dead to care.

...And I bristle at the idea that "genre" fiction isn't serious. It might sometimes be trivial, but there's nothing so important as the trivial. Shakespeare and Dickens were both trivial in their day, after all.

I'll admit, I'm not all up on current American novels. Part of that is because most of my reading is either for my program or for pleasure--and in the case of the one, it's nearly all mid-19th to mid-20th century, while the other gravitates toward early-century detective fiction. There's also an element of laziness--the past has already been sorted. I know that Faulkner is great and Booth Tarkington is of minor interest at best, in a way that I don't know, for instance, that David Foster Wallace is a more enduring novelist than Jonathan Franzen. That makes deciding what to read very easy--I just have to look around and see what's stood the test of time.

I wonder if we aren't fixated on permanence, and that's why the question of the "next GAN" is so important ("we" here being a very select group--not society at large). We're afraid to waste our time on something that's not a sure thing, and nothing contemporary is a sure thing. And I wonder if that isn't as much a paralytic, as much an obstacle to appreciating what's out there as any amount of television or e-books (and how in the world are e-books a sign of the decline of the novel?).

On the other hand, certain novelists do command a good deal of clout. And not just those working in genre; Franzen's latest was everywhere when it came out (though I don't know how well it sold), and Cormac McCarthy seems to get his own share of attention. Though perhaps that last is just the circles in which I move.

That said, I suspect there's a lot of truth in the article. The novel--as we understand it--arose from specific historical circumstances to eclipse earlier modes of writing in importance, and it would be foolish to assume that it will continue unchanged in the Henry James mode, with all the cultural clout that entails [Indeed, I really hope it doesn't. James' fiction is too airless for my taste; give me the raucous play of a Dickens or a Sterne--or the wordbreaking circumlocutions of a Faulkner--any day]. Perhaps another form will take its place. I have no idea what that form might be; it could be that television, which is offering a broader range of quality shows than ever before, is the new novel and our great writers are people with names like Sorkin. Then again, they say memoirs are taking off in a big way. The problem here is that we can't know until it's happened--and once it's happened, I suspect it will seem as natural as the development of the novel did in its day.

Edited by NBooth, 25 February 2012 - 12:06 PM.


#3 Ryan H.

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 12:19 PM

I'm not sure a Great American Novel is truly possible anymore, not in a way that measures up to the Great American Novels of ages past. We may have plenty of good American novels from the last few years, but the American novel is nevertheless kinda stuck in a rut. But, let's face it, America is stuck in a rut in general, locked into a transitional phase. Until America undergoes another revolution of some kind and becomes a New America, we're going to continue to struggle to make great American art.

Edited by Ryan H., 25 February 2012 - 12:27 PM.


#4 NBooth

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 12:30 PM

I'm not sure a Great American Novel is truly possible anymore, not in a way that measures up to the Great American Novels of ages past. We may have plenty of good American novels from the last few years, but the American novel is nevertheless kinda stuck in a rut. But, let's face it, America is stuck in a rut in general, locked into a transitional phase. Until America undergoes another revolution of some kind and becomes a New America, we're going to continue to struggle to make Great American Art.


Good point; the American Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance, the Beats, the Civil Rights movement--these were the seed-beds of our great fiction. There's nothing remotely similar to those movements today.

I was on the verge of suggesting, actually, that the problem is we're looking in the wrong place. Except for Toni Morrison, all of the writers mentioned in the article seem to be white males, and their concerns would presumably be white male concerns. Isn't it far more likely that the "next GAN" will emerge from a marginalized community--will be a Latino/a novel or a chronicle of African American experience or something of the sort? And, again, it'll probably be ignored until after the author is dead. The problem is, from where I'm sitting, even those communities don't seem to be coalescing into any sort of artistic movement--though, of course, we recognize the older movements (except possibly the CRM) in hindsight as well.

#5 Christian

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 12:46 PM

Isn't it far more likely that the "next GAN" will emerge from a marginalized community--will be a Latino/a novel or a chronicle of African American experience or something of the sort? And, again, it'll probably be ignored until after the author is dead.


This reminds me of that OTHER "Great American Novel" I've read in recent years (besides Gilead -- mentioned in the article and not written by a white male, BTW). :)

Hmmm... Come to think of it, I'm not sure that author has become an American citizen. Anyone know?

Edited by Christian, 25 February 2012 - 12:51 PM.


#6 NBooth

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 01:17 PM


Isn't it far more likely that the "next GAN" will emerge from a marginalized community--will be a Latino/a novel or a chronicle of African American experience or something of the sort? And, again, it'll probably be ignored until after the author is dead.


This reminds me of that OTHER "Great American Novel" I've read in recent years (besides Gilead -- mentioned in the article and not written by a white male, BTW). :)


Oy. I forgot the Robinson reference. I was working off the list of "important" authors who will [according to the article] be forgotten in a few decades.

I listened to most of Brief, Wondrous Life a while back, and I recall being very impressed. Circumstances conspired to keep me from finishing it, but I keep promising myself I'll go back.

Edited by NBooth, 25 February 2012 - 01:24 PM.


#7 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 01:41 PM

Great stuff.

This one paragraph made me laugh out loud:

We get a lot of new novels at my office. I often pick up a couple and thumb through them just to keep up with what is on offer in the literary bourse. The delicate feeling of nausea that ensues as my eye wanders over these bijoux is as difficult to describe as it is predictable. The amazing thing is that it takes only a sentence or two before the feeling burgeons in the pit of the stomach and the upper lip grows moist with sweat. I am not generally a fan of the Green party, but at those moments I feel a deep kinship with their cause: All those lovely trees, acres and acres of wood pulp darkened, and for what? No one, I submit, should pay good money for a college education and then be expected to ruminate over the fine points of what is proffered to us by the fiction industry today.

When he says:

It was before my time, but not I think much before my time, that a cultivated person would await the publication of an important new novel with an anticipation whose motivation was as much existential as diversionary. This, I believe, is mostly not the case now, and the reasons have only partly to do with the character and quality of the novels on offer. At least as important is the character and quality of our culture.

- it reminds me that there is definitely a short list of authors (that even A&F helps to cultivate) whose next works we can await with great anticipation. I still think Mark Helprin's In Sunlight and In Shadow may be the most exciting novelistic thing to happen this year. And some of us are counting (just 18 more days) before Marilynne Robinson's book of essays (while it's not a novel this time) hits the bookstores.

Edited by Persiflage, 25 February 2012 - 01:41 PM.


#8 NBooth

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Posted 29 February 2012 - 02:34 PM

Hmm. In my comments above, I seem to have been unconsciously echoing Melville:

But what sort of a belief is this for an American, a man who is bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature, as well as into Life? Believe me, my friends, that Shakespeares are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio. And the day will come, when you shall say who reads a book by an Englishman that is a modern? The great mistake seems to be, that even with those Americans who look forward to the coming of a great literary genius among us, they somehow fancy he will come in the costume of Queen Elizabeth's day,--be a writer of dramas founded upon old English history, or the tales of Boccaccio. Whereas, great geniuses are parts of the times; they themselves are the times; and possess a correspondent coloring. It is of a piece with the Jews, who while their Shiloh was meekly walking in their streets, were still praying for his magnificent coming; looking for him in a chariot, who was already among them on an ass. Nor must we forget, that, in his own life-time, Shakespeare was not Shakespeare, but only Master William Shakespeare of the shrewd, thriving, business firm of Condell, Shakespeare & Co., proprietors of the Globe Theatre in London; and by a courtly author, of the name of Chettle [Greene], was hooted at, as an "upstart crow" beautified "with other birds' feathers."


Edited by NBooth, 29 February 2012 - 02:35 PM.


#9 Ryan H.

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Posted 01 March 2012 - 01:14 PM

Speaking of The Great American Novel, I just read Nathanael West's MISS LONELYHEARTS, which has often been cited as a contender. It pretty much floored me. It's something of a feverish black comedy, but the comedy is so black that the laughs ebb into giant sobs. There is something about the disillusionment of writers from the 20s and 30s that I connect with in a powerful way (I'm also drawn to the fiction of Fitzgerald), and MISS LONEYHEARTS may just be my favorite novel that I've read from that period. It might not be The Great American Novel. That title conjures up for me expectations of grandeur, images of epic-sized novels like MOBY DICK and EAST OF EDEN, and MISS LONELYHEARTS is a small, brief novel. But in its portrayal of American spiritual confusion, boy, it's one of the sharpest things I've ever read.

I also read West's THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, his apocalyptic vision of Hollywood, but, despite its imaginatively grotesque images and scenes, it didn't cut quite as deep.

Edited by Ryan H., 01 March 2012 - 01:15 PM.


#10 John Drew

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Posted 22 March 2012 - 10:29 PM


Also: What's the last Great American Novel you read? I'd go with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Yeah, I know it's designed to be thought of as a "Great American novel" -- akin to the Oscar-bait movies released en masse in the fall of each year. But the book surprised me, it hit me hard and struck me as deeply insightful about the human condition. Maybe I'm just a sucker, or maybe I need to read more American novels.


I would say that Don Delillo's Underworld, which I read last year, definitely hits the mark as a great American novel. There was a scope to it that I just hadn't expected when I picked it up. My only other exposure to Delillo was Libra, which I read around the time the movie JFK was released, and since it covered much of the same ground that Oliver Stone's film had covered, Libra kinda got lost in a blur of assassination material that I was devouring at the time. Perhaps I should go back and give it another chance.

Underworld, on the other hand, was not like anything I had read before. An extremely vivid account of a nearly fifty year period of U.S. history covering 1951 to the mid 90's, that has some very prescient allusions to where we might be headed in the coming 21st century. There are some passages about terrorism that are extremely eerie (the novel was published in 1997, not too long after the Oklahoma City bombing), especially when you look at the beautifully haunting picture that was chosen for the cover. It's sad to say that I always have to look twice at the cover to realize that it's only a bird on the right.

Underworld.jpeg

Edited by John Drew, 19 February 2014 - 10:41 AM.


#11 NBooth

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Posted 10 April 2012 - 02:49 PM

On a whim, I picked up my copy of The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal and turned to the first essay, "Novelists and Critics of the 1940s". What I found reminded me of this thread:

Mr. Cowley's gloom is supported by the young John W. Aldridge, Jr. [...] After discussing a number of fictitious characters who were writing books [...] he "proved" by the evidence of their works, that they had all failed of greatness because, except for "a pocket or two of manners" (the Army; the South; here and there in New England), there was nothing left to write about, none of that social conflict out of which comes art, like sparks from a stone grinding metal.


And this:

One can anticipate the direction of the novel by studying that of the painters who, about the time of the still camera's invention, began instinctively to withdraw into a less literal world where they might do work which a machine could not imitate. It is a possibility, perhaps even a probability, that as the novel moves toward a purer, more private expression it will cease altogether to be a popular medium, becoming, like poetry, a cloistered avocation--in which case those who in earlier times might have written great public novels will be engaged to write good public movies, redressing the balance.


This was written in 1953--so the discussion has been going on at least that long, in much the same terms.

EDIT: Goodness, the whole first half of the book seems to be occupied with questions like that--the death of the novel, the rise of television ("the generation now in college is the first to be brought up entirely within the tradition of television")--and so on. Vidal sounds in 1963 like he could be writing in 2012.

...And here he is in 1984 (it takes a bit, but toward the middle he gets asked who the Great American Novelists are):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLyvszhFAC4

Edited by NBooth, 10 April 2012 - 09:03 PM.


#12 M. John Mattson

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Posted 17 May 2012 - 11:20 PM

Just joined the forum and need to post so BB can check me out Posted Image

Interesting discussion. It doesn't seem, IMO, that one need belong to some marginalized group to craft a GAN, but that one must craft a work that connects viscerally with a common American experience -- one which has not been done to death yet, one which is both timely and timeless. While no small task in any sense, this paradigm leaves the field open to all comers. My .02.

Later.
MJM

Edited by M. John Mattson, 17 May 2012 - 11:20 PM.


#13 NBooth

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Posted 18 May 2012 - 09:26 AM

Just joined the forum and need to post so BB can check me out Posted Image


Welcome aboard!

Interesting discussion. It doesn't seem, IMO, that one need belong to some marginalized group to craft a GAN, but that one must craft a work that connects viscerally with a common American experience -- one which has not been done to death yet, one which is both timely and timeless. While no small task in any sense, this paradigm leaves the field open to all comers. My .02.


True. One of the problems, I think, is that we've reached an awareness of how hegemonic White Male Culture has been; the "common American experience" has historically been thought of in terms of white male-hood--with one or two exceptions. The experiences of non-white non-males has been either written out or absorbed; we have only in the past thirty or forty years started making any real effort to correct the imbalance. So any literature that wants to talk about a "common American experience" has to acknowledge the intersections of privilege that run through the entire American experience and has [of necessity] to make a choice of one or the other of those strands.

Of course, as demographics shift, the literature will have to come from historically marginalized groups if it wants to keep up with the times. Because, by the numbers if not in terms of power, the historically marginalized are about to inherit the earth.

#14 M. John Mattson

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Posted 18 May 2012 - 06:29 PM

Welcome aboard!


Thanks!

Of course, as demographics shift, the literature will have to come from historically marginalized groups if it wants to keep up with the times.


Ah, yes -- progress ... which reminds me of Chesterton's comment that progress is "a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative' ...

I would have to disagree with your take, at least regarding a supposed necessity of any such source for the GAN.

While it is certain that future GANs will be shaped by the experience of formerly marginalized groups, I find the assumptions of 'white male hegemony' reaches too far, bites off too much, etc. While I can't (and won't) speak to your particular worldview, mine is such that truth is truth, regardless of whom it is spoken or written by; and if that is the case, then the suggestion that GANs in the future "will have to" come from another cultural paradigm is simply false, unless one is to assume that white hegemonic males, however sordid their history may be, are somehow suddenly devoid of truth, and even of the powers of perception and communication. That seems a rather tough sell.

MJM

Edited by M. John Mattson, 19 May 2012 - 12:17 AM.


#15 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 17 August 2012 - 09:32 AM

"Light in August' is Faulkner's Great American Novel - by C.E. Morgan in The Daily Beast (with spoilers):

... Yet each generation offers up only so many great writers. Their outpourings may be few and far between and, in the silence, we hear conflicting reports that while the world is increasingly globalized, our individual consciousness is splintered by strange new media, rendering us unable to believe in greatness, recognize it, or even define it. Our country is apparently now too diverse and divided to be harnessed by one identity or one great book, as if the country weren’t always—even in its colonial days—a mad constellation of differences unified just barely by a handful of common concerns. In this present social reality, can the Great American Novel survive? Or has it been killed by the very thing it seeks to explore, the Great American Experiment? If it is alive, is it even relevant or, to borrow a phrase from Eliot, is it a patient “etherized upon a table”? It’s easy to lose hope. In a literary landscape of wildly praised yet mediocre novels, even the most careful readers might toss up their hands in exasperation. At any given time, pleasant but callow books rule the day and most certainly the bestseller lists. For all of our chatter about innovation and harried forward motion, when it comes to art, our postmillennial culture too often celebrates the torpid and the trite. A book like Light in August—which relentlessly explores the full complexity of the human and plunges us into the tangled thick of the language, both without regard for consequences— appears so rarely that its near cousin, the good but not great novel, threatens to supplant it entirely and elide the necessary distinction. Perhaps in a culture hell-bent on instant gratification (and its literary manifestation, the easily digested book), greatness won’t survive its own rarity.


Yet novelists—those dogged practitioners of a supposedly dying art—keep coming. And each one emerges, not fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, but as an idiosyncratic, ever inchoate consciousness flooded by the joys and pains of lived experience, bolstered by a strong native intelligence and empathy, by an insatiable drive for communication, by the prepotent great books, and by a cultural force as unavoidable as it is irreducible: our living history. Faulkner’s most famous quote is inescapable here: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Likewise, the Great American Novel isn’t dead and cannot die because, as long as young writers read Invisible Man or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they will—by dint of their nature and the innervating effect of greatness itself—feel compelled to respond both to the book and to its foundational, historical causes. The agony of a character like Joe Christmas is simultaneously so culturally grounded and so brilliantly depicted that it demands a response from an artist, just as history demanded the art in the fi rst place. The books of our best writers live on, in part, because of this artistic response, a process that establishes the initial text as ever more foundational and canonical. In this way, previous generations refuse to die; they’re always speaking on the page. “People are an indestructible element,” is how Faulkner expressed it, but he might as well have said books, because books are the physical embodiment of human consciousness. For the artist encountering the masterpieces of human consciousness, the process is almost biological: books become the bones of writers, their hair, their skin, their blood, their organs. The artist responds as passionately to art as a lover responds to a kiss. The drive to create is no less powerful than the need to eat or reproduce. For the artist it is a biological imperative.

So is the Great American Novel dead? ...



#16 NBooth

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Posted 24 September 2012 - 06:48 AM

Scientific American: "The Great American Novel and the Search for Group Cohesion". Maria Konnikova suggests that the emergence of the GAN is directly tied to the Civil War:


The GAN had no precedent. There wasn’t a history of Great National Novels, with capital letters, of one Great Work to unite a country. Plenty of great works had been written and acknowledged as such, but there had never been a rush to crown one of them the defining work of the nation that birthed it, for all time and all people. In that sense, the GAN was a first.

And think how clever was the choice of unifying matter: this group paradigm (for that, I would argue, is precisely what it was) wasn’t created on a point of contention, on anything that could reignite the old bitterness or enmity, anything that could serve as a reminder of national divisions. Instead, it was about culture, it was about literature, it was about overall national greatness of pen and spirit, a greatness that would define the country and set it apart from the rest of the world.



#17 NBooth

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Posted 10 July 2013 - 06:52 PM

The Millions: The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions.

Absent from the list: anything by Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom! would be my choice), Hemingway, or DFW. Present: The Godfather (what? I've always understood it's a fairly underwhelming novel) and Lolita (which--yes. Absolutely).

#18 Ryan H.

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Posted 10 July 2013 - 08:08 PM

THE GODFATHER is a really weird (but interesting) choice.

#19 NBooth

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Posted 30 December 2013 - 09:05 PM

Adam Kirsch reviews Lawrence Buell's The Dream of the Great American Novel:

 

Hardly anyone talks about the Great American Novel without a tincture of irony these days. But as Lawrence Buell shows in The Dream of the Great American Novel, his comprehensive and illuminating new study, that is nothing new: American writers have always held the phrase at arm’s length, recognizing in it a kind of hubris, if not mere boosterism. Almost as soon as the concept of the Great American Novel was invented, in the nation-building years after the Civil War, Buell finds it being mocked, noting that one observer dryly put it into the same category as “other great American things such as the great American sewing-machine, the great American public school, and the great American sleeping-car.” It was enough of a cliché by 1880 for Henry James to refer to it with the acronym “GAN,” which Buell employs throughout his book.

 

[snip]

 

Buell, now Cabot research professor of American literature, does not spend much time theorizing about the Great American Novel. Instead, he seeks to illuminate the concept by analyzing some of the books that have laid claim to the title. Most of these are, by definition, mainstays of high-school and college syllabi, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter down to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But alongside these classics, Buell ranges a number of lesser-known works, showing how the basic “scripts” of the Great American Novel are played out by writers like Helen Hunt Jackson in Ramona and Harold Fredric in The Damnation of Theron Ware. And he takes account of contemporary works that respond to, challenge, and rewrite the classics, such as Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Gone With the Wind.

 



#20 NBooth

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Posted 19 February 2014 - 08:28 AM

David L. Ulin at the LATimes:

 

What the Great American Novel relies on as a concept is the notion that there is some unifying experience, some core or set of values, that we as Americans all share. But as our political life daily reminds us, this is not the case. Not only that, but it misreads the fundamental function of literature, which is less about the grand defining statement than it is about empathy.

 

 

Scott Esposito responds:

 

[N]ow that I’ve worked with translation for some time and have gotten a better sense of other national literatures, I think I may see some meaning to the concept, however trivial and inconsequential for a nation like the United States. There are places out there that are both small enough and have young enough literary scenes that such-and-such an author can legitimately be considered the “Great _______ Novelist,” having written the “Great _______ Novel.” 

 

 

Ulin is responding to Lawrence Buell's piece at Slate, which is itself an extract from his new book, The Dream of the Great American Novel (linked review above).


Edited by NBooth, 19 February 2014 - 08:29 AM.