The Dream of the Great American Novel

The Dream of the Great American Novel

Lawrence Buell
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 584
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  • Book Info
    The Dream of the Great American Novel
    Book Description:

    The first book in many years to take in the full sweep of national fiction, The Dream of the Great American Novel explains why this supposedly antiquated idea continues to thrive. It shows that four G.A.N. "scripts" are keys to the dynamics of American literature and identity--and to the myth of a nation perpetually under construction.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-72632-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    The dream of the Great American Novel (GAN) was born a century and a half ago, in the wake of the Civil War. Although it soon degenerated into a media cliché that self-respecting literary critics at least pretended not to take seriously, it refused to die. Indeed, the ʺG. A. N.ʺ—as Henry James of all people was the first to nickname it—still thrives.¹ The contributorsʹ columns of late Victorian magazines are echoed by turn-of-the-twenty-first-century blogs and Internet message boards offering ʺtop tenʺ lists and forums for debating whether the GAN does or might exist, which books come closest...

  5. Part One. The Unkillable Dream
    • 1 Birth, Heyday, and Seeming Decline
      (pp. 23-45)

      Often we canʹt specify when a new idea gets put into circulation. In this case we can. Itʹs one of the few things thatʹs clear-cut about the history of the dream of the Great American Novel. The idea has a prehistory, as weʹll soon see, but it was introduced as a critical concept in an essay of January 1868 by the novelist John W. De Forest. Today De Forest is remembered chiefly, if at all, for a book published the year before that anticipates his big idea,Miss Ravenelʹs Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, a landmark in its own right...

    • 2 Reborn from the Critical Ashes
      (pp. 46-68)

      D. h. lawrenceʹs riveting hyperbole was later dropped from the opening essay of hisStudies in Classic American Literature(1923), the first modern manifesto of Anglo-American literary difference, which strongly influenced American literature studies as the field came into its own.¹ But that emergence happened only later. Lawrenceʹs lingering condescension toward those post-Puritan saints in the outback of imperial culture mirrored the national intelligentsiaʹs lingering self-doubts as to whether the United States had yet achieved a literary track record worthy of the name. As a summation of foreign consensus at that time, Pascale Casanovaʹs claim that ʺAmerican literary spaceʺ was...

  6. Part Two. Script One:: Made Classic by Retelling
    • 3 The Reluctant Master Text: The Making and Remakings of Hawthorneʹs The Scarlet Letter
      (pp. 71-102)

      The case for hawthorneʹs importance to the DNA of American fiction is open and shut. Hawthorne is ʺthe only major author never to have been underestimated,ʺ the only one ʺnever to have lived in the limbo of the non-elect,ʺ as critic Richard Brodhead has observed. That declaration came in the mid-1980s, during the still-early stages of an intense controversy over the U.S. literary canon—what should be in or out, whether there should be one at all—that has resulted in a far more heterogeneous and more open-bordered conception of what counts as ʺAmericanʺ literature. Yet Hawthorneʹs position as a...

  7. Part Three. Script Two:: Aspiration in America
    • Introduction. American Dreamers in Context
      (pp. 105-108)

      Since colonial times, American audiences have been attracted to coming-of-age stories featuring the extraordinary adventures of ordinary persons. In a way, thereʹs nothing new or distinctively ʺAmericanʺ about this. On the contrary, itʹs key to what originally made novels seem novel compared to ancient epic and medieval romance—the shift from tales of legendary heroism to stories about more recognizably familiar persons. The coevolution of liberal individualism and ʺdemocraticʺ institutions intensified the focus on the lifelines of more ordinary people, and has made individual flourishing or the lack thereof a common litmus test of cultural vitality even as the individual...

    • 4 ʺSuccessʺ Stories from Franklin to the Dawn of Modernism
      (pp. 109-138)

      The prehistory of narratives of transformation from humble beginnings stretches back long before the invention of the modern novel. Versions pervade world folklore, as in the tales of Aladdin and Cinderella. Itʹs at the core of many conversion narratives, saintsʹ lives, and canonical stories of charismatic prophets from Moses to Jesus to Mohammed. Some of the earliest English fictional classics told stories of transformation of otherwise unremarkable people, such as John BunyanʹsPilgrimʹs Progress(1678), an allegorical narrative of an ordinary manʹs progress from sin to salvation, and Samuel RichardsonʹsPamela(1740), whose virtuous servant-girl heroine resists her employerʹs attempts...

    • 5 Belated Ascendancy: Fitzgerald to Faulkner, Dreiser to Wright and Bellow
      (pp. 139-174)

      Literary historian gordon hutner calls 1925 the year the modern American novel ʺsurely might be said to have ascended,ʺ and with good reason.¹ This was the year of Willa CatherʹsThe Professorʹs House, the high point of her long career; of Dos PassosʹsManhattan Transfer, a breakthrough for U.S. fictional modernism; ofArrowsmith, the third of Sinclair Lewisʹs five 1920s best sellers that were to make him the nationʹs first Nobel literature laureate; of Hemingwayʹs first major book,In Our Time;of Anzia YezierskaʹsBread Givers, a noteworthy advance for Jewish American and American immigrant fiction; of Gertrude Steinʹs monumental...

    • 6 Up-From Narrative in Hyphenated America: Ellison, Roth, and Beyond
      (pp. 175-214)

      Baldwinʹs words reflect the spirit of 1950s integrationism reinforced by the expatriate experience of being typed by Europeans as ʺAmericanʺ despite his personal sense of marginalized disaffiliation. During the 1960s, his writing took a more schismatic turn toward the obverse position historian Ronald Takaki summed up shortly before the millennium. The contrast between those two affirmations registers how national narrative was propelled in the interim by a series of ethnic literary and critical insurgencies—African American, Asian American, Latino/a, and Native American especially—toward what now looks to some an unprecedentedly fissured literary scene of multiple dispersed camps. The sense...

  8. Part Four. Script Three:: Romancing the Divides
    • Introduction. Shifting Ratios, Dangerous Proximities
      (pp. 217-225)

      You already know this story too—some version of it at least. Two young people from very different contexts meet, become mutually attracted, and despite the barriers between them, pair up. The traditional novel favors a marriage plot; but the bond might be friendship rather than love and need not be heteronormative. The social divisions might have to do with class, religion, region, nationality, race, or ethnicity—often several. In Jane AustenʹsPride and Prejudice, itʹs class difference that aggravates tension between the equally strong-minded Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy. In Walter ScottʹsWaverley, multiple impediments keep the titular hero...

    • 7 Uncle Tomʹs Cabin and Its Aftermaths
      (pp. 226-257)

      Great american novel candidates lean toward moral seriousness more often than not, but Harriet Beecher StoweʹsUncle Tomʹs Cabinstands alone in its enlistment of art in the service of activism. In that sense it is the least ʺnovelisticʺ of all possible GANs. Its particular kind of didacticism, resting on impassioned appeals to conscience, is itself risk taking. In presuming that all readers would share its own core values at heart however reluctant they might be to grant it,Uncle Tomʹs Cabinrisks alienating readers to whom those values seem less than self-evident. In trusting to the irresistible force of...

    • 8 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Its Others
      (pp. 258-285)

      By the turn of the twentieth century,Huckleberry Finn(1884) had begun to eclipseUncle Tomʹs Cabinas the Great American Novel about slavery and southern culture. Despite the late twentieth-century revival ofUncle Tomʹs Cabin, Huckleberry Finnremains by far more widely read and by far the more frequent GAN nominee. Since the 1940s, it has been ʺa universally assigned college text,ʺ and the Library of Congress website goes so far as to endorse it as the genuine article, as ʺreallyʺ ʺthe ʹgreat American novelʹʺ that ʺin every generation writers joke about writing.ʺ¹

      Moving from the one to the...

    • 9 Faulknerʹs Absalom, Absalom!, Mitchellʹs Gone with the Wind, and Literary Interracialism North and South
      (pp. 286-316)

      Well into the twentieth century, ʺAmericanʺ literature and culture continued to be painted white despite growing evidence to the contrary. ʺWhat the powerful and the privileged mean by Americanization,ʺ declared W. E. B. Du Bois in 1922, is ʺbut a renewal of the Anglo-Saxon cult, the worship of the Nordic totem, the disenfranchisement of Negro, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiatic, and South Sea islander.ʺ Under such conditions, he dryly added, the South could be seen as having a special cultural cachet, as ʺʹpureʹ Anglo-Saxon, despite the fact that it is so widely degraded, reactionary, and without art, literature or humanitarian...

    • 10 Morrisonʹs Beloved as Culmination and Augury
      (pp. 317-346)

      Toni morrisonʹsBeloved(1987) has never lacked for controversy. Initial reviews were mixed despite Morrisonʹs stature both as novelist and power broker in the literary-critical world.Belovedwon its Pulitzer over Philip RothʹsThe Counterlifeonly after an unprecedented lobbying effort.¹ Its almost instant canonization continued to be roiled by controversy over whether Morrisonʹs reputation had been inflated by political correctness anxiety, reignited by the 2006New York Timespoll that namedBelovedthe best American novel of the previous quarter century. Yet today it seems clear that Morrison was at least as deserving of her Nobel Prize for Literature...

  9. Part Five. Script Four:: Improbable Communities
    • Introduction. Fatalisms of the Multitude
      (pp. 349-357)

      The up-from narratives and romances of the divide discussed in Parts III and IV build on preexisting plot prototypes from Western literary history. The scenario the novels featured in this final section loosely share in common has no such readily identifiable ancestors. Part V takes up a series of novels from the antebellum era to the present given over in different degrees to tracking heterogeneous cross-sections of characters, whether closely interacting or widely dispersed, conjoined by a common task, challenge, or threat that dramatizes democracy under siege or duress. Often sprawling performances of encyclopedic scope with multiple agendas from the...

    • 11 Moby-Dick: From Oblivion to Great American Novel
      (pp. 358-388)

      Among all Great American Novel candidates, perhapsMoby-Dick(1851) best meets Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzeeʹs test.¹ At least for now, the case forMoby-Dickseems to need least defense. By no means was it always so. Like Ishmael,Moby-Dickhad to survive the shipwreck of its authorʹs fall from early fame into half a century of oblivion. In 1920, first editions could be bought for less than a dollar.² The Melville revival in the second quarter of the twentieth century of whichMoby-Dickwas the centerpiece had to make its way against charges both just and unjust: thatMoby-Dick...

    • 12 The Great American Novel of Twentieth-Century Breakdown: Dos Passosʹs U.S.A.—or Steinbeckʹs Grapes of Wrath?
      (pp. 389-422)

      John dos passosʹs panoramic anatomy of ʺthe role of the United States in the western worldʺ during the first three decades of the twentieth century in hisU.S.A.trilogy (1930–1938) makes a macrocosmic complement to Melvilleʹs world-circling shipboard microcosm under Yankee control. In size, scale, and profusion of actors and events stretching over 1,200 small-print pages in the Library of America edition,U.S.A.was the most ambitious assault on the Great American Novel yet attempted. Dos Passosʹs aw-shucks plea for his then-friend Hemingwayʹs assistance belied the prophecy of the nationʹs premier literary critic, Edmund Wilson, in his review of...

    • 13 Late Twentieth-Century Maximalism: Pynchonʹs Gravityʹs Rainbow—and Its Rainbow
      (pp. 423-460)

      Even as ʺthe dream of the Great American Novel disintegrated,ʺ writes a leading literary historian of the 1960s, ʺthe novels that continued to be written were some of the most staggeringly ambitious that America had produced.ʺ¹ He refers specifically to the contradictory aftereffects of what had seemed the demise of the ʺmystique of fictionʺ with the midcentury ascendancy of cinema and the collapse of the distinction between high and popular culture. The point applies with still greater force to the more extravagant ʺhistoriographic metafictionʺ of the 1970s and after,² in which the documentary and the fabulistic, apocalypse and parody, collide...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 461-466)

    Iʹve always hated writing ʺconclusions.ʺ Far better to open things up than strain after definitiveness. Literary historians are always better at reframing pasts than at predicting futures. But it doesnʹt take a prophet to foresee sharply different possible futures for the dream of the Great American Novel.

    The truth of the matter will almost certainly lie somewhere between these extremes.

    On the one hand, the dream of the Great American Novel may at long last be headed for permanent eclipse. History is propelling us farther and farther away from ʺthe American century.ʺ Indeed it looks increasingly possible that ʺthe central...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 467-538)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 539-540)
  13. Index
    (pp. 541-567)