The Great American Novel
We’ve been looking for one since the 1860s. Why?
By 1938, the GAN’s “American” quality was succumbing to irony, with the publication of Clyde Brion Davis’ The Great American Novel—the first of many satirical books of that title. Had the idea changed much since the times of DeForest? Not really. “I want my novel to be America,” writes Davis’ hero. “I want it to hold the romance of the Pilgrim fathers … the romance of the Spanish conquistadores and of the French padres. …” And on and on, from manifest destiny, to the gold rush, to the railroad and the motion picture. Of course, the hero doesn’t have time to enact his plan, and his demurral recalls DeForest’s “portrait” language: “Certainly it would be too broad a canvas for me to paint now.”
E. F. Coope/Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.
From inception, to debate, to parody. And finally, to death. By the 1970s, the GAN had been killed off several times—once, at the turn of the century, with the dismissals of Norris, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and others, and again in the mid-20th century, with the rise of critics who called the GAN search amateurish. In his 1972 Esquire essay “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore,” Tom Wolfe went so far as to say that authors had lost all interest in the thing. “Most serious American novelists would rather cut their wrists than be known as ‘the secretary of American society,’ ” he wrote. “Who wants such a menial role?” The void, according to Wolfe, was left open to the New Journalists to chronicle the times. On the other hand, Wolfe soon turned to novels—great big novels about America, in fact, his eye apparently on the prize. But a slightly different prize at that: Whereas the “portrait” that DeForest had envisioned was to be a sweeping landscape of American past and present, a great big vista that encompassed America in the most upper-case and grand sense, the one that Wolfe was gunning for was much closer in style to, say a nature morte, a still life—one that still captured a breadth of material, but that dug deep into one instant, one moment, one snapshot.
In an interview, scholar Lawrence Buell called the idea of the GAN “slippery but durable.” And that, I think, is exactly it. The GAN is neither extinct nor mythical. It may instead be more akin to the chameleon: An animal that transforms itself according to its surroundings, that blends into an ever-changing environment. And maybe the environment has now changed so dramatically that the chameleon has been lost forever—or at least made redundant.
In 2006, the New York Times Book Review conducted a survey: Authors were asked to nominate “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” While there was some bickering over the question itself, an undisputed victor emerged: Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Over 40 years earlier, a similar survey by the now-defunct Book Week had also yielded a clear winner: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Morrison, Ellison: Would they have been possible GAN contenders to DeForest? In one sense, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine the same man that endorsed Uncle Tom’s Cabin nodding his head at these nominees—they, too, wrestle with that same, most uniquely American of topics, slavery and its deep societal aftereffects. One could argue, then, that one enduring element in the GAN is that it confronts the problems that define a nation—in this case, American race history. But in truth, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a novel of historical sweep: It presented a broad portrait of America’s history to that point. The Invisible Man and Beloved, however, glimpse that history, but through a lens—the lens of race. It’s a distinction worth making. The inclusive panorama versus the knowingly and consciously selective focus on one slice. But not just any slice. A slice that is seen as defining, as providing identity and concrete form both in itself and against the world. And while that slice can be race, it need not be—in fact, it may be less and less accurate of a focus the further into the future we go.
Today’s American soul is a far cry from that of the mid-1800s. With translations and multiculturalism, fluid borders, constant travel, and cultural intermingling, what does it even mean, American? Race, slavery, these are all indelible parts of the picture. But increasingly, racial history may be becoming one of an array of ever-mingling, ever-changing, ever-shifting possibilities. Surely, just as apt a modern-day contender for the title would be someone like Teju Cole or Junot Diaz or Jhumpa Lahiri—someone who embodies America’s flow of identities, the reimagining of the American Dream. That, in a way, would be far more akin to the spirit of the GAN—the vista that tries to capture what it means to be American, in contrast to being anything else.
“American” is an inherently shifting concept. What it means to be American is changing, to the point where it has become close to what it has always been for the Old World: an irrelevant modifier. A modifier that has expanded, has transformed to the point where it may as well fall away.
Once, the GAN was uniquely American. That need has passed. Maybe it’s time for that beast to finally become what Frank Norris argued for all along, in the far less quoted ending of his famed hippogriff proclamation: “The thing to be looked for is not the Great American Novelist, but the Great Novelist who shall also be an American.” A great novel written by an American—even if that American’s parents happen to be Nigerian, or Dominican, or Indian. Or, as the case may be, Russian.
Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Paris Review, the New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. She lives in New York City.