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Book Review: The Dream of the Great American Novel

By (February 22, 2014) No Comment

The Dream of the Great American Novelthe dream of the great american novel cover
By Lawrence Buell
Harvard University Press, 2014

Lawrence Buell’s endlessly fascinating new book The Dream of the Great American Novel does the best job of any book yet at anatomizing that strangest and most anachronistically imperishable cultural idea, the Great American Novel. Not great American novels, of which every publishing season brings at least two or three candidates (none has yet to heave into view in 2014, but the advent of a new Peter Matthiessen always offers a glimmer of hope), but rather THE Great American Novel, a phenomenon in its own right, and one to which the vast majority of all American prose can’t really even aspire. A great American novel will have none of the dross and spasms of less all-encompassing efforts (or else, as in a few formerly famous examples, it will wear its dross with casual pride); it will be not only proficient at the things a novel does but will excel at those things. It’s very, very hard to write such a novel, but whether or not an author succeeds in doing so is pretty much entirely up to him.

Not so THE Great American Novel! Not only need it not necessarily be excellent on technical levels, but even if it is, there are large elements to the elevation that lie entirely outside the author’s power. Craft, after all, can be learned or aped; cultural resonance can be guessed or murkily anticipated; but renown comes at no one’s call – and true renown, a validation beyond mere sales, is an essential part of The Great American Novel.

The alchemy of the thing clearly mesmerizes Buell, and he conveys every ounce of that enthusiasm to his readers. He gives a meaty overview of the history of the concept of The Great American Novel (its comparatively recent provenance makes this manageable, but even so, that first part of his book, “The Unkillable Dream,” is a tour de force), and then he gets right down to cases. Using a few general thematic approaches or “scripts” to the “GAN,” he looks at a handful of case studies from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He takes in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and of course he spends a deal of time on the single book that most Americans, if asked, would probably nominate as the stereotypical Great American Novel, Moby-Dick. And although his diction very clearly (and sometimes unfortunately) marks him out as a thorough-going academic, Buell, bless him, never forgets that plenty of more successful but less exalted books have to be considered alongside these usual suspects – including one that makes for the book’s most entertaining and illuminating pairing:

For even though the dream of the GAN has always presumed that such novels would be “serious” artistic efforts, the strategies of accredited masterworks can’t be surgically separated from the formulas of popular writing. On the contrary, popular novels may embody the templates or recipes that make for Great American Novels as revealingly as the GAN aspirants or nominees themselves do. The accomplishment of William Faulkner’s monumental Absalom, Absalom!, for instance, can’t be understood apart from that of his best-selling contemporary Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind, published the same year. In part, that’s because the definition of the dream of the GAN is less in the hands of credentialed critics and scholars to determine than the result of a complex, messy interaction among them, readers at large, the literary entrepreneurialism of the writers themselves, the publishing and education industries, and self-accredited freelance journalists and bloggers.

The mention of bloggers is generous, but if The Dream of the Great American Novel has a weakness, it’s that Buell doesn’t devote more attention to that other key group he names, freelance journalists. Freelance literary journalists are the earthworms constantly turning the topsoil of literary reputation, and they always have been; a Newton Arvin or a Malcolm Cowley or an Edmund Wilson or Gore Vidal can do more for the posthumous reputation of an author’s great work than ten times their number of publishers or educators (both of which groups invariably take their lead from book critics in the first place). If the elixir of literary immortality has a key ingredient, it’s the ground-reshaping long essay everybody read last year or the year before, the essay that took some previously overlooked literary figure and re-taught us all how to think about it, and it would have been nice to see that process get more analysis in these pages.

The book is wonderfully densely-packed even so. The readings of the key texts are always invigorating, and one of the consistently most enjoyable aspects of those readings is how current they feel. At the beginning of his labors, Buell thanks his students at Harvard and Oberlin (“from whom I’ve learned at least as much as I’ve taught”), and it’s easy to see some of that dynamic in his discussions of individual works, which always make a point of resonating right down the present day:

Moby-Dick‘s dissemination as text, and its fertility as object of imitation, as icon, as logo, as metaphor, have no more stopped at the nation’s borders than the Pequod did. Melville’s iconic whale has … inspired the naming of a Greek yacht supplier as well as at least one Fortune 500 company – Starbucks. On top of that, Moby-Dick‘s plot has served for more than half a century to allegorize national and world affairs in miniform. A series of national leaders from Adolf Hitler to George W. Bush to Barack Obama have been framed as Captain Ahabs.

(In one of the book’s surprisingly many puckish asides, Buell  characterizes the above as “all this Moby-Dick-ering.”)

And apart from the interest of his various “scripts,” there’s his discussion of the soil underlying all Great American Novels – the “American” part, whether it’s been to provide “briefs for national aspiration, preeminence, and pride” or to provide “diagnoses of its fragilities.” “To imagine The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Huckleberry Finn as defining works of U.S. imagination,” Buell writes, “is to reinforce images of the United States as smothered in its cradle, driven to shipwreck by hubris, torn apart by racial and sectional division, shrinking into a caricature of itself.”

To his credit, Buell tends to resist easy assumptions about the very thing that preoccupies so many of his candidates for the Great American Novel: the always-problematic greatness of America. And again, he grounds his reflections as close to the immediate present as possible:

… at the moment of this writing, midway through the presidency of Barack Obama, the United States displays levels of economic stratification not seen since the 1920s, rates of incarceration alarmingly greater than most of the developed world and a grotesquely outsized ecological footprint – but also an unprecedented openness to alternative sexualities, of professional opportunity for women in an increasing number of fields, and of nonwhite representation at the highest levels of leadership. All this is a sure-fire recipe both for can-do optimism and stony-eyed skepticism about the prospect of future national metamorphosis that promises to keep novelists tuned to the sense of something portentous about U.S.-ness worth writing about if only to put down.

In a slightly more vigorous literary environment than the one currently in place in the Republic of Letters, Buell’s big book would spark good-naturedly heated nationwide debates (the Icelandic equivalent of this book – or God help us, the French equivalent – would commandeer the front pages of most of the major newspapers). Which authors should or should not be included (for example, some nearby book reviewers might contend that Toni Morrison’s name shouldn’t come within a court-ordered 300 feet of the phrase “Great American Novel”)? What are the essential characteristics of the breed? Most importantly, which books should we be talking about here, not so much in the settled tectonics of the 19th century but in the far more unstable geology of the 20th?

And who knows? Such arguments might happen yet, if enough passionate readers buy this book. Certainly every passionate reader should.