Is one of the most famous

Most Famous American novels

Lawrence Buell
584pp. Belknap Press. £29.95 (US $39.95).
978 0 674 05115 7

Photograph: (c) Images Etc Ltd/Getty Images

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In Tracy Letts’s play Superior Donuts (2010), Arthur, a bakery owner, is presented with a bundle of notebooks by a new employee, Franco, who explains that they contain “the Great American Novel, my man. Authored by yours truly”. Franco attributes Arthur’s scepticism about this claim to racism: “You think I can’t write the Great American Novel ’cause I’m a black man”. Lawrence Buell’s study of the concept of the “Great American Novel” (or “GAN” as Buell, using Henry James’s acronym, calls it) explains Arthur’s reaction. Before the mid-twentieth century, only one critic believed that a GAN could be written by someone who was not white, and Buell’s survey of literature from Washington Irving to Jonathan Franzen suggests there has been little change since in perceptions of literary greatness.

One of the central claims of The Dream of the Great American Novel is that novels are uniquely well suited to the task of representing what is quintessentially American because they are “carriers and definers of evolving ‘national imaginaries’”. This long and detailed study considers the works of fiction that have, at various times, been deemed contenders for the crown, and attempts to explain why. Buell is also interested in those books that were lauded in their own moment but went out of fashion, and others whose merits are more evident with the benefit of hindsight. Along with exploring the nation’s most distinguished fiction, Buell considers why America might “dream” of locating the single novel that best expresses Americanness. He acknowledges the paradox that, although the concept of the Great American Novel seems to articulate “national swagger”, the most praised GANs are “anything but patriotic”. Rather, they convey “national self-criticism”, typically on the grounds of social inequality.

Introduced in print by John W. De Forest in January 1868, the phrase “Great American Novel” had already been used by P. T. Barnum to mock publishers for puffing their latest books, Buell writes, confirming that the GAN is at least as much a marketing device as a reliable measure of literary merit. The first novel to be named “the Greatest Book of the Age” was Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which supposedly provoked the “great war” that ended slavery in the Southern states. For this reason, Buell deems it the preeminent American example of activist art: it “changed the world” and so its status endures despite criticism of its depiction of black people. It also shows that it is possible for a GAN to be written by a woman, although critical consensus suggests that hardly any have been. The heyday of serious debate over the Great American Novel ran from the 1860s to the 1920s, when the promise of the American Dream was equally prominent. After The Great Gatsby (1925) killed the Dream, along with its hero, interest in pinpointing GANs waxed and waned in popularity, perhaps because an increasingly heterogeneous nation found it hard to believe that a single novel – even a very long one – could represent America in all its variety.

Since the function of the GAN is to represent Americanness, Buell proposes that its aims are best fulfilled by a body of work rather than a single novel. The key works he identifies are famous and familiar. Rather than discussing these books in order of publication, Buell arranges them according to four themes, or “scripts”. This decision refreshes critical debate by showing how novels are “in conversation” with each other, and leads to some intriguing comparisons, such as William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, both published in 1936.

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