Arts & Culture

Scholar looks at abiding interest in the ‘Great American Novel’

5 min read

Literary critics tend to discredit the concept of a “Great American Novel” as nothing more than media hype — an arbitrary appellation that has more to do with pipe dreams than merit. And yet, what would-be author hasn’t imagined, when putting pen to paper, what it would feel like to be hailed as the greatest chronicler of the age?

For Lawrence Buell, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, this contradiction is an important theme in the tradition of American fiction writing. Buell is currently tracing the history of the “Great American Novel” concept from the mid-1800s to the present day, in the hopes of unveiling why the ideal continues to exert cultural influence and invite such heated public debate.

According to Buell, the idea of a Great American Novel was put into circulation immediately following the Civil War, as part of the reconciliation process.

“It was a follow-up, in the cultural sphere, to political reunification,” Buell says. “There was a sense among Americans that ‘at last we have a nation, and it’s time to articulate that.’”

The birth of the idea also reflected deep-rooted concerns about the nation’s cultural richness.

“In the 19th century, enthusiasm for the Great American Novel idea was fueled by anxiety about the supposed backwardness of the nation’s accomplishments in literature and the arts,” says Buell. “As American fiction matured, it became a means of marking and mapping certain kinds of supposedly galactic novelistic achievement.”

Buell argues that prior to the Civil War the ideal of a Great American Novel could not have existed, not only because the allegiances of intellectuals were regionalized but also because prose fiction did not enjoy the status of “high art.”

“Poetry was the high-prestige genre,” says Buell. “But once the Industrial Revolution enabled mass production of volumes, and once the conservative religious opposition to prose fiction softened, it became seen as a form of great accomplishment.”

John W. DeForest, a Civil War veteran, was the first to put the term “Great American Novel” into popular practice. Following the war, he wrote a novel titled “Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty,” which, Buell says, DeForest viewed as the model for future incarnations of the Great American Novel.

“DeForest believed that a Great American Novel should not only convey national geographic scope, but also portray American manners and mores with accuracy,” Buell says. “He saw his own work as the prime model — at least in terms of structure — of what ought to be done.”

Despite DeForest’s personal ambitions, it was another mid-19th century text that captivated the hearts and minds of the nation — at least in the North, where the new literary ideal had taken root. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe, became a best-seller and had a great impact on the public.

“DeForest recognized ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ as an important work, but he felt that the true Great American Novel was yet to come,” says Buell. “That’s an important theme in the history of discourse on the Great American Novel — you talk about current contenders, but you’re usually thinking even more in terms of future tense.”

In modern times, Buell says, other 19th century novels such as “Moby Dick,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and “Huckleberry Finn” have become perennial nominees for the fabled title. Nominations of recent texts, however, seem to be more influenced by shifts in literary fashion. During the mid-20th century, for example, the fortunes of “The Great Gatsby” rose while John Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.” trilogy came to be seen as an outmoded period piece.

According to Buell, the idea of a Great American Novel began to be criticized as hype or as a media cliché in the late 19th century, and the sentiment continues among scholars to this day. Nonetheless, he says, it remains a tantalizing goal for writers and a cultural ideal that survives vigorously in the face of academic dismissal.

“Very few literary critics accept the Great American Novel as a serious concept, and yet it refuses to die,” Buell says. “It is hard to think of a major writer who hasn’t given it a shot.”

Buell also contends that the concept has more substance than might be supposed from the impressionistic way it is usually bandied about.

“When you inspect the range of texts over time proposed as … contenders, some recurring configurations emerge, such as the Benjamin Franklin-esque saga of the success — or failure — of a figure portrayed as somehow culturally paradigmatic, like Gatsby. Or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.”

For Buell, Internet chat rooms provide a surpisingly useful source for tracing the popularity of the Great American Novel concept and the fierce debates sparked by the not-so-innocent question, “What is the Great American Novel?”

“The chat rooms resemble contributors’ columns from the Victorian era,” Buell says. “Everyone has an opinion. When The New York Times Book Review published its article ‘What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?’ it occasioned an amazing amount of comment.”

Like most academics, Buell hesitates to propose a definitive list of contemporary Great American Novels. He does, however, identify certain trends among public opinion. “The Top 10 or Top Five lists tend to be surprisingly conservative — today and always,” Buell adds. “They tend to be texts held up in school, college, or university syllabi as the ‘Great Books’ — like ‘Moby Dick,’ ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ and ‘The Great Gatsby.’”

Buell also suggests that anniversaries can have an important influence on the “value” of literary contenders.

“This year was the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road,’ and the publicity about the milestone played up the [Great American Novel] card,” Buell says. “At the least, there was a temporary rise in Kerouac stock because of the event.”