Sunday, March 1, 2015

In Search of the Great American Novel

The GAN - It's an elusive beast that is the Holy Grail of American literature ... and American English teachers/professors. It is the Great American Novel.

We've talked about it in class, we've claimed numerous titles to be it when we are teaching them, we've even tried to write it ourselves. The list of the top contenders is long, but familiar. And the usual suspects are tough to refute. Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a strong favorite, which was given great support by Ernest Hemingway who noted, "All American literature begins with one book ..." Of course, Hemingway is just as likely to be credited with the accomplishment with his book The Sun Also Rises even though it's set in Europe.  Hester Prynne's early feminism certainly makes a claim in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and few would challenge the weight of the story about Ahab and the White Whale in Moby Dick. (Fewer would claim to have actually read the book with authority to declare its value). Probably second to "Huck" is the modernist tale of corruption and loss of innocence in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a story which has been given resurgence thanks to Baz Luhrman and Leonardo DiCaprio.  And, in a more contemporary vein, high school English departments would raise mutiny if a list excluded Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird or Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Thus, the debate carries on. And it just got more concise with a book about the books.

Scholar Lawrence Buell has attempted to codify the discussion in his monolithic new critique, The Dream of the Great American Novel.  Critics have already started to weigh in on the value of Buell's work.  And that is obviously Buell's goal in the first place - kick off the discussion again, and place his research at the center of the debate.  One of the claims is that the novel has been written and re-written. And its most recent incarnations come from the two sharpest writers of the most recent generation, Jonathon Franzen and David Foster Wallace. It seems possible that Franzen wouldn't necessarily dispute his anointment. Though he could be as likely to "not show up" for the discussion. It is, anyway, a discussion that should continue, perpetually and forever, as America and American literature continues to reinvent itself, always in search of that elusive "green light."

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