- The Dream of the Great American Novel by Lawrence Buell
What do we mean by the “Great American Novel”? Lawrence Buell begins his lengthy monograph by admitting the slipperiness of the concept: “a plural disguised as a singular—a horizon to be grasped after, approximated, but never reached” (6). There is no single Great American Novel (GAN) but rather many, each the subject of controversy and the object of aspiration. Despite its slipperiness, the ideal itself has had a strong hold on the American literary imagination ever since the Civil War, drawing in writers, scholars, and readers alike.
At the outset, Buell’s project may seem impossible: any large-scale account of the GAN calls for not only a broad range of “great” works but also the history of how they have been read, reread, and mis-read through the decades. So while Buell’s main strategy is to offer close readings of major works, he is often sensitive to their rise and fall in the public imagination. When did The Great Gatsby outstrip the success of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy? When did Moby-Dick rise from obscurity to become one of the most celebrated American novels in history?
Beyond this, such a project must include those works that aspired to become GANs but failed. Here Buell delivers many provocative pairings, comparing the high-brow to the middle-brow—like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind—or the canonical work to its relatively forgotten rival—like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Although many of his chapters focus on a single “usual suspect” case, he inevitably ends with thoughts on how this work might carry on in contemporary works as well, such as Morrison’s Beloved and future “literatures of the diaspora,” or Pynchon’s maximalist legacy.
After a brief overview, Buell divides his argument into four sections, each exploring a major “script” that has proven auspicious in [End Page 155] generating GANs: the novel “made classic by retelling,” the “up-from” narrative, the “romance of the divides,” and the encyclopedic novel of the “improbable community.” These scripts answer the question, “How does a Great American Novel encapsulate the nation: by one, by two, or by many?” Does the novel focus on an individual who rises and falls in the American marketplace (The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Man)? Or on a pairing that straddles a national divide (Tom and Little Eva, Huck and Jim)? Or on a community of misfits (the sailors on the Pequod, the “preterites” seeking the black box in Gravity’s Rainbow)?
If we think of Buell’s categories in this way, the first script may seem like the odd one out. Represented solely by Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the “classic by retelling” script feels a little tacked on, especially in a monograph where retellings are evident in nearly every chapter. How might we then account for a work like The Scarlet Letter? Is it in fact a pale version of the “romance of the divides,” pitting Dimmesdale’s Calvinistic faith against Hester’s more liberal Christian practice? An “up-from” narrative for Hester (or for Pearl)? The other three scripts constitute the main interest of the monograph.
Although few ideals have been more potent in American culture than the “self-made man,” Buell argues that this script remained under-articulated in American fiction for decades, more the stuff of biography or political grandstanding than of “landmark novels” (139). So when the “up-from” narrative finally entered the GAN tradition—he points to Dreiser and Fitzgerald, though he adds that Wharton is a near miss—the novels were already disillusioned with the ideal of the self-made man, rather than celebrating it. While this tragic outlook remained constant throughout the century, Buell argues that the most significant shift in the “up-from” narrative was in fact the identity of its hero, with the paradigmatic “white kid from . . . a hardscrabble farm” shifting to a “ghetto or barrio youth of color” in less than a...