Despite its near extinction within scholarly circles, the term “Great American Novel” achieves a revitalized dynamism through Lawrence Buell’s exploration of the sociopolitical and cultural layers that have amassed around it. Indeed, The Dream of the Great American Novel develops both a history and argument around the changing concept of the great American novel since its inception following the Civil War, and Buell utilizes this term as “a platform for exploring specific pathways that have helped certain novels come to the fore as reference points for imagining U.S. national identity” (1). In so doing, Buell foregrounds the problematic concept of national identity, and he argues for an understanding of US literary history “as a polylogue of often dissonant voices and perspectives” (14) even as he cautions against “the temptation to overgeneralize on the basis of any one ethnic or regional subculture” (15). The result is a complex yet well-organized argument for the place of literature in the evolution of the national imaginary, an argument that is as relevant to historical and cultural studies as it is to literary criticism.
Buell divides the concept of the great American novel into four primary “scripts,” each of which corresponds to a different section of his book. The first of these scripts, “Made Classic by Retelling,” examines how a novel achieves this canonical status through a “continuous generativity” that acts as “provocation and reference point” (73). Using Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as exemplar of this script, Buell analyzes how a novel that achieves early international acclaim can be reified into a national icon through its proliferation across various media (including plays, operas, musicals, films, and dance creations) as well as through literary permutations and retellings (such as William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, John Updike’s Roger’s Version, and Bharati Mukherjee’s The Holder of the World).
Even as the first script examines how a national culture can enshrine a literary work, the second script, “Aspiration in America,” details how literary works reinscribe the national imaginary. To show this reinscription, Buell explores the great American novel as the US mythic narrative, that is, the formation of the individual and the rise from humble origins, or the “up-from” narrative (108). Importantly, Buell confronts the gender and ethnic gaps within US fictions of development, showing that, even as such gaps were less egregious in the US than in the Anglo European male-centric bildungsroman, so was the relative salience of female bildungsroman in premodern American literature connected to the stress on self-fashioning in a pre-Franklin and Emersonian sense. In other words, Buell argues that [End Page 545] Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson increasingly influenced the conception of the up-from narrative in such a way as to give it a more masculine spin in the twentieth century than in earlier American fiction; earlier US fiction showcases more female independence through such works as Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, and Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country Doctor. In the mid-twentieth century, the up-from narrative took a new “ethnic turn” that has “tended … to bring issues of social justice more robustly to the fore than in earlier novels of aspiration” (214). Such ethnic up-from narratives include Richard Wright’s Native Son, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and even more recent works such as Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Ha Jin’s A Free Life.
“Romancing the Divides,” Buell’s third script, explores the cultural divides concerned with region, race, and ethnicity in the national imaginary. This script is subdivided into four types, each of which exemplifies a historical and sociopolitical movement. These four types are all likewise represented by a great American novel candidate: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin negotiates the North-South divide in a polemical social critique that “enlist[s] … art in the service of activism” (226) even as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn eschews both “Motive” and “Moral” (259) while nonetheless...