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Lawrence Buell

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’.

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