Well, it’s Moby-Dick, obviously. Except when it’s Huckleberry Finn or Absalom, Absalom! or Invisible Man or Gravity’s Rainbow. The Great Gatsby will often do, if one is pressed for time.
There is something a bit ridiculous about the idea that a single book could become the definitive expression of an entire nation. This is perhaps especially true in the case of the United States, a country so vast, diverse, and contradictory that any attempt at a grand summation would appear doomed to fail. Nevertheless, as Lawrence Buell argues in The Dream of the Great American Novel, the concept of the ‘GAN’ (the nickname bestowed by no less an eminence than Henry James) has proved remarkably resilient. As Buell notes in his introduction, the idea tends not to be taken all that seriously these days: no novelist would admit to trying to write such a thing, except perhaps in jest, and no serious critic would be reckless enough to bestow such a title. And yet, he observes, paraphrasing an unnamed ‘distinguished reviewer’, it is ‘hard to think of a major American novelist who hasn’t given it a shot’.
Buell traces the origins of the concept to the latter part of the nineteenth century, and acknowledges that the quest for the Great American Novel has been driven, at least in part, by a cultural anxiety that often manifests itself in relatively young, post-colonial nations: namely, that the national literature and, by extension, the national identity are still unformed or uncertain propositions and need to be written into existence. Indeed, he proposes that the closest analogue to the brow-furrowing about the GAN may well be some of the nationalistic concerns that have shaped the Australian literary tradition.
‘There is something a bit ridiculous about the idea that a single book could become the definitive expression of an entire nation.’
He does, however, suggest four additional factors that have contributed to the distinctiveness and potency of the GAN as an idea: the sheer scale of the country, which seems to demand a literary response of comparable grandeur; the tension between its regionalism and the very notion of centrality, which is further complicated by the fact that the United States is home to many minority groups; the nation’s strong ideological commitment to individualism and self-realisation; and its sense of itself as modern and forward-looking, an ‘unprecedented experiment in republican democracy forever trying to make good on the promises of the Declaration’.
These are all familiar ideas, which can be seen to have informed an encompassing ideology of exceptionalism and that note of self-congratulation, even triumphalism, in the oft-repeated assertion that the United States is the ‘land of opportunity’ where a person might realise the ‘American dream’ of social advancement. In fact, as Buell is compelled to point out, US society is marked by sharp divisions and inequalities, and it ranks low on the scale of social mobility compared to other developed nations. And when one turns to the national literature, reaching back to some of its foundational texts, one encounters something like the antithesis of triumphalism: ‘To imagine The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Huckleberry Finn as defining works of the U.S. imagination is to reinforce images of the United States as smothered in its cradle, driven to shipwreck by hubris, torn apart by racial and sectional division, shrinking into a caricature of itself.’
‘Dream’ is, in this sense, the title’s operative word: the GAN is an elusive ideal that has often been pursued but can never be fully realised. More important, Buell suggests, is the pursuit itself: the ongoing attempt to grapple with the nation’s defining myths and fault-lines. The simple yet fruitful idea behind his study is to dismiss the notion that there could be a single Great American Novel, but to embrace a plurality of Great American Novels. The GAN is less his quarry than a convenient organising idea, around which he develops a series of interlaced readings of key works that tease out the various ways in which the nation’s conflicted understanding of itself has evolved over the past 150 years or so. To this end, he surveys the novels that have (or had) some plausible claim to GAN status, either because the garland has at some stage been thrust upon them, or because they have come to occupy a prominent place in the public imagination, or because their scope or ambition or subject matter makes an implicit claim for the title. These works tend to be either established classics or at least enduringly famous enough to be considered quasi-classics. They range from notable popular successes, such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, through to more avant-garde and (safe to say) less widely read candidates, such as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Many of the interpretations of individual works are superb, but the most illuminating aspect of The Dream of the Great American Novel is the way Buell identifies recurring narrative forms in the American tradition and then uses comparative readings to show how novelists have adapted them to expose inherent ideological and cultural tensions. One of the nation’s most potent myths, for example, is that of self-invention. It is encoded in what Buell calls the ‘up-from narrative’: a species of Bildungsroman in which a person from humble origins becomes a success through hard work and ingenuity. The idea is enshrined in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and the log-cabin-to-White-House life story of the most celebrated US president, Abraham Lincoln. By examining the way this narrative is recast in the fiction of Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth, Buell demonstrates how these authors bring this cherished myth into direct conflict with the unavoidable complicating factors of race and ethnicity.
That the GAN is itself a populist notion adds another dimension to Buell’s study. He reads Moby-Dick as a cautionary allegory about the fragility of democratic republicanism, interpreting the Pequod, with its multicultural crew, as a ‘ship of state’ co-opted and doomed by the personal obsession of its leader. Yet Buell also notes that the novel has become part of popular culture, a source of instantly recognisable images and allusions (these extend to the name of the global coffee chain, Starbucks, which I note purely as an excuse to mention the irresistible fact, which Buell tucks away in a footnote, that one of the founders was keen to name the company after the ship, until his partner pointed out that ‘No one’s going to drink a cup of Pee-quod!’). The simplified populist interpretations of Melville’s boundlessly multivalent fiction are themselves expressions of cultural assumptions. They have become part of the wider significance of that work, as have the controversies about Mark Twain’s depiction of race in Huckleberry Finn, and they are examples of the way that the GAN concept provides a cultural space into which ideas can be projected.
‘As American society has changed, notes Buell, so has the idea of what the Great American Novel might look like.’
As American society has changed, notes Buell, so has the idea of what the Great American Novel might look like. In the early decades of the twentieth century, it was widely assumed that the GAN would be an expansive work of documentary realism. This idea persists in some quarters: Tom Wolfe was arguing something along these lines in the century’s last decades. Yet the American literary tradition is heterogeneous, and different modes imply different assumptions and lines of critique. Buell highlights this in his contrasting reading of the prolix ‘documentary naturalism’ of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and the ‘taut, subjectified, telegraphically symbolic modernism’ of The Great Gatsby. It is in this broad sense that The Dream of the Great American Novel can be considered an interlocking study of literary influence. Its identification of major themes in American literature and its careful excavation of the many lines of connection and points of contention between individual novels unite its formal and thematic considerations. That is, Buell does not simply acknowledge the influence of Mark Twain on Saul Bellow, William Faulkner on Toni Morrison, and Herman Melville on Thomas Pynchon; he draws out the intricacies of the implicit arguments between these writers.
Buell begins his conclusion with the observation that he hates writing conclusions: ‘Far better to open things up than strain after definitiveness.’ The GAN remains an unrealisable dream with a hold on the American imagination, he proposes, precisely because the United States is itself a perpetual ‘project in the making’. It is a nation founded on ideals that is also conscious of the fragility of those ideals. This has generated the sense of conflict that is the wellspring of its ongoing literary vitality.
The two novelists Buell considers at the end of The Dream of the Great American Novel as examples of ‘late twentieth-century maximalism’ – David Foster Wallace and William T. Vollmann – are certainly evidence of some large ambitions driving recent US fiction. Wallace was a peerless chronicler of the moral and psychological consequences of the nation’s rampant culture of consumerism and self-gratification. But it is Vollmann who is perhaps the more aptly ambiguous figure to round out Buell’s study. His still incomplete ‘Seven Dreams’ series of historical novels addresses the often horrific violence that attended the colonisation of the North American continent. For a different writer, a project as sweeping and ambitious might constitute a life’s work, but for Vollmann it is merely one of many literary endeavours. The boggling prodigiousness of his output and the global reach of his writing seem less an attempt to write the Great American Novel than to scoff at it as a paltry thing. Yet there is a distinctively American quality to Vollmann’s idiosyncratic individualism, his striving after universality, and his refusal of constraint. He is an embodiment of the idea of exceptionalism, the extraordinary ambition it can generate, and the inquisitiveness and profound sense of discontentment that has informed his nation’s greatest literature.