- The Dream of the Great American Novel by Lawrence Buell
The Dream of the Great American Novel. It’s a big concept—and Lawrence Buell has written a big book. Weighing in at over five hundred pages, this is twice the size of most scholarly monographs. Buell’s astonishing range and trademark versatility are immediately evident. His account of the great American novel (or GAN as he calls it, breathing new life into Henry James’s acronym) offers sustained discussion of The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, [End Page 512] An American Tragedy, U.S.A., Absalom, Absalom!, Invisible Man, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Beloved, as well as briefer treatment of dozens of additional novels including The Grandissimes, The Marrow of Tradition, Gone with the Wind, and Grapes of Wrath. To say that very few scholars could treat this range of texts is an understatement indeed.
Buell advances four interrelated points. First, the dream of the GAN began shortly after the Civil War and has proven remarkably resilient, a case for which this book offers rock solid evidence. Second, GAN contenders tend to be acutely aware of their predecessors and often comment on them intertextually (for instance, Buell looks at Invisible Man as a response to Huckleberry Finn). Third, GANs are tied up with nation-building but critical of American exceptionalism—arguably Buell’s most important point, though one set aside for long stretches as he pursues other ideas. Finally, Buell anatomizes GANs as following four distinct templates.
Three of those templates derive from plot and thematics. There is the “up-from” story of self-making such as The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy; the “romance of the divide” focusing on conflict among races, ethnicities, or regions such as Beloved and Absalom, Absalom!; the “meganovel” that uses a fictional microcosm to comment on the failed promise of American democracy, such as U.S.A. and Gravity’s Rainbow. The fourth template reflects forces more external to the literary work: when a novel is referenced and imitated repeatedly (often by multiple media), it can, as in the case of The Scarlet Letter, attain GAN status retrospectively.
While Buell organizes the book around these four templates, providing examples over a large swath of time, it proceeds less as an anatomy than as a very readable, if recursive, account of a large chunk of literary history. The historical depth is extended by Buell’s adopting a constellation approach, surrounding a detailed reading of a central text with briefer mention of many related works. These comparisons are usually illuminating (for instance, American Pastoral as the “undoing” of success stories) but occasionally tenuous (as in the comparison of Beloved and John Updike’s Rabbit trilogy).
The Dream of the Great American Novel’s vast canvas is imposing. A specialist might see it as diffuse, but the specialist, it must be said, is not Buell’s target audience; he dedicates the book to his students at Harvard and promises it will be accessible to the novice. He is true to his word, providing considerable plot summary in a voice that is authoritative but inviting.
It is so difficult to write literary criticism that can be enjoyed by a general audience that few make the effort. Any one of Buell’s four templates could provide a tighter subject for a stand-alone monograph, and indeed some of the templates are so large as to prove unwieldy. That is especially the case when Buell takes up the “romance of the divide.” With entire scholarly industries over the past two decades devoted to tracing relationships among minority and majority literatures as well as to comparative ethnic studies, the subject is too complex for a book spanning 150 years. And, in fact, while Buell initially defines the “romance of the divide” in terms of multiple races and ethnicities (and offers passing mention of Julia Alvarez, Bharati Mukherjee, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Karen Tei Yamishita, among others), his focus falls squarely on the extensively studied black-white color line...