I’m Russian. A proud U.S. citizen, mind you, but Russian all the same. Born and raised by Russian parents in Moscow. I also happen to be a writer. Could I, then, ever write the Great American Novel? That is to say, we’ll take it for granted that I’m fully capable of writing a Great novel. Naturally. (Or so I hope.) But am I American enough to produce a GAN, as Henry James dubbed it in 1880?
Since its inception, the GAN has been a remarkably enduring concept, staying stubbornly put in critical and popular discourse alike despite numerous—some, almost successful—murder attempts. But though the GAN as such seems here to stay, the way we think about it has evolved significantly from its original conception to the present day. And that evolution is as inevitable as it is profound.
The first time I heard the phrase, it struck me as an altogether bizarre idea. After all, there’s no such thing as the Great Russian—or English, or French, or what have you—Novel. Great novels, to be sure, and ones written by great men. But why the requirement of a nationality—and why only here, only in America? (I’m not alone in my bewilderment: Martin Amis, another foreigner, was struck in a 1995 essay by how “essentially American” the very notion was. He defended the idea, though, and even named a winner, The Adventures of Augie March.)
The concept of the GAN seems to have been born in the late 1860s. In an 1868 The Nation essay, Civil War veteran John William DeForest—himself an aspiring GAN-ist—described the GAN as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,” a work that painted “the American soul.” And what, precisely, did that soul entail? There was but one real—though unquestionably daunting—requirement: it had to be supremely national in breadth and scope. The Scarlet Letter—now a perennial presence on modern GAN lists—could never be GAN material, wrote DeForest. It was “full of acute spiritual analysis,” but was so focused on the ineffable that it had “only a vague consciousness of this life.” Its characters, DeForest complained, “are as probably natives of the furthest mountains of Cathay or of the moon as of the United States of America.” What an affront.
And so began a tradition that’s persisted as long as the search for the Great American Novel: The insistence that certain great American novelists fail to write in a strictly national vein, and so, cannot produce the GAN no matter how otherwise great their writing may be.
Who, then, if not Hawthorne? The closest GAN contender to date, according to DeForest, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Did he think much of the book? Not really. It had “very noticeable faults” and lacked “comeliness of form.” But, it had “a national breadth”—and, therefore, could be put in the running despite its lack (however arguable) of literary worth. Indeed, it’s striking how specifically nonliterary were the terms DeForest chose to describe its merits: The novel, he wrote, is “a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait.” But one hangs a portrait on the wall. One doesn’t read it.
For DeForest, the “American” in GAN is anything but incidental. Great novels, even written by an American about Americans, don’t qualify if they don’t capture that essence. Middling novels, if they happen to paint the picture of the ordinary manners of American existence, do. Can the Great American Novel, then, not be great?
It didn’t take long for the concept of the GAN to vex critics and authors alike. As early as 1899, the New York Times was likening “the Great American Novel” to “the Sea Serpent” in its review of Frank Norris’s McTeague, and just two years later, the very subject of that review pronounced that “the Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff.” Before long, the great American novelists themselves were bristling at that requirement of essential Americanness.
In 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in an essay on Hemingway, lashed out against the inherent parochialism of the “American” epithet. In his estimation, it not only had no place in great writing as such, but hampered novelists who were trying to achieve anything of distinction. The “necessity for an American background” caused writers to be “stupid-got with worry.” Even those of talent had “botched their books by the insincere compulsion to write ‘significantly’ about America.”
That same year, Edith Wharton had the subject on her mind, when she wrote on a postcard that she was reading “the Great American Novel (at last!)”: Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A year later, in a Yale Review essay, Wharton gave the GAN concept a longer consideration, dismissing the idea that “the great American novel must always be about Main Street, geographically, socially, and intellectually.” She argued that a much truer path would be to show “the modern American as a sort of missionary-drummer selling his wares and inculcating his beliefs from China to Peru.” (In the end, she still recommended Gentlemen.)