A history and investigation of a literary concept that has “refused to die.”
The idea of the Great American Novel (nicknamed GAN by Henry James) as a writer’s golden quest seemed to Buell (American Literature/Harvard Univ.; The Future of Environmental Criticism, 2005, etc.) to have devolved from its 19th-century origins to become a media cliché not worth more consideration than “a brisk, short narrative.” However, the author became intrigued as he looked at some of the works proposed for the honorific. Could any novel, as novelist John W. De Forest asked in 1868, capture “the American soul”? That question reflected anxieties about “national cultural legitimacy” when expansionism and post–Civil War reunification raised nettling concerns about the nation’s identity. These questions, Buell contends, are still worth asking, even though the country’s “fractious heterogeneity” has led to the idea of plural GANs. What, he asks, can thinking about GANs reveal “about how the novels in question work, about national culture generally, about novels as carriers or definers of cultural nationality, and about what value to set on all that—whether it’s cultural asset or cultural baggage”? He responds by proposing that a GAN needs to meet one of four criteria: to be reimagined by later authors (e.g., The Scarlet Letter); to trace the life of a typically American type (e.g., The Great Gatsby); to consider the impact of social, ethnic or racial divisions (e.g., Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Beloved); or to reflect on the complications of democracy and “the imperiled social collective” (e.g, Dos Passos’ U.S.A.). Buell, whose major scholarship has focused on transcendentalism and, more recently, environmentalism, takes a conversational and sometimes-humorous tone as he offers perceptive analyses of novels and their receptions, especially by those who championed their choices as GANs.
Although readers will encounter many usually canonized suspects, Buell’s scope is wide enough to encompass the varieties of novelists’ imaginations and to consider the implications of multiculturalism and globalism in redefining the future of American fiction.