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Why Are We Obsessed With the Great American Novel?

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Cheryl Strayed and Adam Kirsch try to get to the bottom of our long-running obsession with the Great American Novel.

By Cheryl Strayed

The idea that only one person can produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole is pure hogwash.

In 1868, John William De Forest published an essay in The Nation titled “The Great American Novel.” In it, he argued for the rise of fiction that more accurately reflected American society than did the grand, romantic novels of the time, whose characters he thought belonged to “the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality.” In the course of making his case, De Forest considered, then cast aside, the likes of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne before landing on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was, in De Forest’s opinion, if not quite the Great American Novel, “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon” of a book that captured what was, to him, America — a populace of “eager and laborious people, which takes so many newspapers, builds so many railroads, does the most business on a given capital, wages the biggest war in proportion to its population, believes in the physically impossible and does some of it.”

That De Forest was arguing in hopes of not one Great American Novel, but rather the development of a literary canon that accurately portrayed our complex national character, has been lost on many, as generation after generation of critics have since engaged in discussions of who might have written the Great American Novel of any given age, and writers have aspired to be the one chosen — a competitive mode that is, I suppose, as American as it gets. It’s also most likely the reason that the idea has persisted for so long. To think that one might be writing the Great American Novel, as opposed to laboring through a meandering 400-page manuscript that includes lengthy descriptions of the minutiae of one’s mildly fictionalized childhood (pushing a bicycle up a hill on a hot Minnesota day, sexual fantasies about Luke Skywalker), is awfully reassuring. I have a purpose! I am writing the Great American Novel!

Or so one can tell herself until one day an austere portrait of Jonathan Franzen shows up on the cover of an August 2010 issue of Time magazine alongside the words “Great American Novelist.” As I beheld it, I could all but hear the wails and curses of 10,000 novelists across the land — a sizable fraction of whom are also named Jonathan, as it turns out — each of them crushed and furious over the fact that they weren’t deemed the One. Never mind that Franzen is indeed a great American novelist. Never mind that a lot of other people are too. Never mind that this idea — that one person, and only one person, in any given generation can possess the intellectual prowess, creative might, emotional intelligence and writing chops to produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole — is pure hogwash. Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time with that age-worn, honorific phrase beside his solemn face either rattles or reassures us because we’re American. It’s in our national character — which is to say, deep in our bones — to believe that when it comes to winners, there can be only one.

But art isn’t a footrace. No one comes in first place. Greatness is not a universally agreed-upon value (hence there’s no need to email me to disagree with my admiration of Franzen, or to offer advice about whether I should include Luke Skywalker in my next novel). America isn’t one story. It’s a layered and diverse array of identities, individual and collective, forged on contradictory realities that are imbued with and denied privilege and power. Our obsession with the Great American Novel is perhaps evidence of the even greater truth that it’s impossible for one to exist. As Americans, we keep looking anyway.

Cheryl Strayed is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller “Wild,” the New York Times best seller “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and the novel “Torch.” Strayed’s writing has appeared in “The Best American Essays,” The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Salon, Tin House, The Rumpus — where she wrote the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column — and elsewhere. The movie adaptation of “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, was released in December. Strayed holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and their two children.

*****

By Adam Kirsch

The more deeply a novel lays bare the darkness in American society and the American soul, the more likely it is to become a classic.

Early last year, the publication of Lawrence Buell’s study “The Dream of the Great American Novel” gave critics a chance to ask whether that dream is still alive. For the most part, their answer was no. The GAN, to use the acronym Buell employs (taking a cue from Henry James), represents just the kind of imperial project that contemporary criticism has learned to mistrust. What writer, after all, has the right, the cultural authority, to sum up all the diverse experiences and perspectives that can be called American in a single book? To Michael Kimmage, writing in The New Republic, the “dream of the GAN” appeared “silly and naïve and antiquated.” Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, observed wryly that “nothing is more American than our will to make the enormous do the work of the excellent. We have googly eyes for gargantuan statements.”

In his book, however, Buell reminds us that the term “Great American Novel” has seldom been used unironically. Almost from the moment it was coined, by the novelist John De Forest in 1868, it has been used to mock the overweening ambition it names. Buell quotes one post-Civil War observer who compared it to such “other great American things” as “the great American sewing-machine, the great American public school [and] the great American sleeping-car.” When Philip Roth actually wrote a book called “The Great American Novel,” in 1973, it was, inevitably, a satire.

It might be hard today to find a critic, especially an academic critic, who would accept the idea of the GAN or even of its component parts. Greatness, Americanness and the novel itself are now concepts to be interrogated and problematized. Yet somehow the news of this obsolescence has not quite reached novelists themselves, who continue to dream about writing the big, complex book that will finally capture the country. There is nothing subtle about this ambition: When Jonathan Franzen wrote his candidate for the GAN, he called it “Freedom”; Roth named his attempt (sincere, this time) “American Pastoral.” These are titles that call attention to their own scope, in the tradition of John Dos Passos, who titled his trilogy of the-way-we-live-now novels simply “U.S.A.”

And the response to “Freedom” and “American Pastoral” — two of the most successful and widely praised literary novels of our time — shows that readers, too, have not given up on the promise of the GAN. The thirst for books that will explain us to ourselves, that will dramatize and summarize what makes Americans the people they are, is one manifestation of our incurable exceptionalism. Of course, we could learn from Tolstoy or Shakespeare what human beings are like, but that does not satisfy us; Homo americanus has always conceived of itself as a new type, the product of what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.” This conviction, which can be traced in our politics, economic system and foreign policy, cannot help influencing our literature.

Yet as Buell also emphasizes, the novels that we now think of as canonical GANs are by no means patriotic puffery. On the contrary, the more deeply a novel lays bare the darkness in American society and the American soul, the more likely it is to become a classic. “Moby-Dick,” the most obvious GAN candidate, is centered on a vengeful megalomaniac; “The Great Gatsby” is about a social-climbing fraud; “Beloved” is about slavery and infanticide. Even “The Catcher in the Rye,” a book whose modest scale and New York focus might seem to keep it out of the pantheon of Great American Novels, is at heart a naïvely passionate indictment of American phoniness and fallenness.

Perhaps what drives these books, and drives us to read them again and again, is the incurable idealism about America that we all secretly cherish, and which is continually disappointed by reality. “America when will you be angelic?” Allen Ginsberg demands in “America,” which belongs in the much less discussed category of Great American Poems. As long as the question makes sense to us, our novelists will keep asking it.

Adam Kirsch is a columnist for Tablet. He is the author of two collections of poetry and several other books, including, most recently, “Why Trilling Matters.” In 2010, he won the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism.

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