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  • The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel:Moby-Dick as Test Case
  • Lawrence Buell (bio)

This essay is an interim report on a long-term study of the chimera of the great American novel—the dream either of writing it or seeing it written. The project has three main facets: a chronicle of the dispensations of authorial, critical, and readerly pronouncements (a story with a distinct beginning, several middles, and no end); a historical-formalist comparative examination of several dozen aspirants and/or nominees; and a nation-and-narration metaperspective conceptualizing "American" narrative, in broadest terms, as part of a world system inflected by what Pascale Casanova calls the "Herder effect" (78–81), the postulate of each nation speaking in its own voice, within and against which its writers must thereafter contend, even such resolute cosmopolitans as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

This might seem a distinctly unfashionable project, out of phase with the push to think beyond/outside the confines of nationness for which Americanists, myself included, have lately been calling as a counterweight to the overemphasis on US literary and cultural difference—the "literature of our own" phase, as it were—that long marked Americanist field-defining work. But beyond this, great American novelism as such might seem so quaintly paleolithic, long since dead as a viable subject for literary history, criticism, and theory. As one recent manifesto by Alan Williams begins by asking, "Aside from pissing off the literati, does the Great American Novel, a monumentally 19th century concept, serve any higher purpose?"

Indeed, the dream of the "GAN"—initially reduced from Great American Novel to acronym status by none other than Henry James1—has been killed off not once but at least twice. It [End Page 132] degenerated into a media cliché soon after its first launch—on the same level, one nineteenth-century critic dryly observed, as "the great American sewing-machine, the great American public school, [and] the great American sleeping car" (Allen 1403). It was killed off again with the rise of American literary studies as an academic specialization in the middle half of the twentieth century, by a string of articles dismissing the GAN as a naively amateurish age-of-realism pipe dream, "faded into the limbo of literary lost causes" (Knox, "In Search" 64).2 Scrolling more slowly through the decades, we find a bad-tempered equivalent of the "escalator effect" with which Raymond Williams metaphorizes the history of pastoral nostalgia: each generation fancying that the one before lived a life closer to nature (9–12). GAN commentary, by contrast, played itself through as a discourse of repeated dis-enchantment: each generation seeing the one before as more gullible than itself.

Yet critical pissiness also suggests the persistence of some sort of hydrant, however phantasmal. Clearly, neither critical skepticism nor authorial diffidence ever kept US writers from attempting big national fictions, then or now. "Every American novelist," Maxine Hong Kingston once wrote, secretly "wants to write the Great American Novel" (57–58). (This during the runup to Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book [1989], one of the texts on my list.3) Or take the spate of Y2K doorstop books summing up the century, or at least the half-century, such as John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) and Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997). 9/11 may well generate the same. As my colleague Louis Menand remarked to me, no serious reviewer today would tout a book as the great American novel, yet it's hard to think of a major US novelist who hasn't given it a shot. The persistence in the face of skepticism and mockery of the desire for a preeminent text (or select group of texts) that might encapsulate national experience reflects some entrenched quasi-understanding among authors, critics, the publishing industry, and readers at large to read the national through N number of a perhaps infinitely extending series of putative master narratives, an alliance reinforced every time some random journalist compares Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush to Captain Ahab stalking the whale, or when "Bush's brain," presidential advisor Karl Rove, summed up the sense of being hounded by...


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