- A Response to Lawrence Buell
As the prolegomenon to a "long-term study" of the Great American Novel (GAN), "The Unkillable Dream" displays in miniature the strengths of Lawrence Buell's work generally: an extraordinary range of reading, both primary and secondary; a mastery of pertinent critical discourses, deployed eclectically for local purposes rather than adopted as an interpretive lens; and an ability to synthesize these materials and approaches in a consistently provocative argument that has the air of being, if not the final word on a subject, then at least the obligatory foreword for anyone else working in the field.
The work that Buell's project most resembles is Benjamin T. Spencer's The Quest for Nationality (1957), an informed and still eminently serviceable account of the multifront "campaign" for a national literature. Buell's study begins more or less where Spencer's ends, with John W. DeForest's 1868 essay on the Great American Novel as it signals the postbellum shift in focus from poetry to fiction as the anticipated site for the representation of national life and character. Spencer's book was old-fashioned literary history of a high order, written with a judicious commonsensical authority. Buell's project has authority of a more contemporary sort in its cross-disciplinary breadth of reference and self-conscious methodological problematizing. It is also far more attentive to popular culture than Spencer's was, partly because there is so much more popular culture to attend to. Spencer's sub-literary cultures were mostly, like David Reynolds's in Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (1988), lurid, sensationalistic, or sentimental. Buell's, which include blogs and chatroom postings, have a more carnivalesque quality: sometimes-irreverent riffs on GANs [End Page 156] performed from an awareness of the books' (and of their own) subversive aspects even as the commentators work by and large within the contemporary canon handed down from academia.
On one important issue—the scarlet A(merican) in the GAN—Buell uses theory to get beyond theory. The adversarial dismantling of American exceptionalism that marked an earlier critical moment has been performed so thoroughly that one can now return to exceptionalism (shorn of its pretensions to socio-historical truth and its complacency as ideology) chiefly as a native idiom, with the understanding that "each nation speak[s] in its own voice, within and against which its writers must thereafter contend." By means of transnationalism, Buell thus comes around to rehabilitating the study of literary nationalism and to acquitting theorists, would-be writers, and academic investigators of the GAN of the charge of cultural narcissism. "US literary-cultural history," he observes, "is not unique in its fascination with fictional narratives that promise to sum up the national essence." This being true, to explore the GAN is not naïvely to implicate oneself in its cultural premises, but to anatomize it as the peculiarly American inflection of a concern with collective identity shared by other nations as well. "What might seem a distinctly unfashionable project" turns out, from this perspective, to be a cutting edge project.
Like Spencer before him, Buell is aware that the theory and practice of "Great" American literature is a form of social criticism and prophecy—a cultural act—as much as or more than it is a literal mimesis. Buell draws on Benedict Anderson for the idea that nations "depend for their existence on an apparatus of cultural fictions in which imaginative literature generally plays a decisive role." This will hardly be news to anyone who has attentively read Whitman's prefaces or Democratic Vistas (1871). The absence of Whitman, and of the half-century of proselytizing for the Great American Poem that preceded him, seems a conspicuous gap in Buell's argument, which shears away the long background from which calls for the GAN organically emerged. What is the GAB (Great American Book)? Leaves of Grass (1855), of course.
As a "test case," Moby-Dick (1851), or Buell's Moby-Dick, seems fraught with difficulties. Little read in its own time, forgotten (except among cultists) until about World War I, Moby-Dick emerged belatedly...