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I consider John W. De Forest's famous 1868 essay 'The Great American Novel' in the context of debates about cultural nationalism that emerged in the Northern press in the decade following the Civil War. Surveying a range of American works, De Forest asked how the novel might undertake the national work of consolidation and modernization: all his examples fail in one way or another, however, with Uncle Tom's Cabin emerging as the 'nearest approach to the desired phenomenon'. De Forest instead looked to the European novel and especially to Thackeray's The Newcomes and Vanity Fair. I argue that the latter in particular influenced De Forest's own Civil War novel, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty. In presenting itself as the bearer of both national news and national allegory, Miss Ravenel established an enduring model for the Great American Novel.