Near the end of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the white-whale-obsessed Captain Ahab shouts, “The ship! The hearse—the second hearse!... its wood could only be American!” The same could be said of the book itself: Its wood, too, could only be American. Which is why it is so often nominated for that distinctive laurel, the Great American Novel.
Other classic contenders include James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. To that list could be added more recent challengers: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld, to name but a few. Then there are the dark horse candidates, the lesser-known, lesser-read gems like Ross Lockridge Jr.’s Raintree County and John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, which are no less worthy of inclusion. Should Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises be considered even though it is set outside the United States? Should Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita be in the running, even though Nabokov lived in America for only a quarter of his life? What are the parameters and qualifications for this literary heavyweight title?
I can imagine what some readers must be thinking. The Great American Novel? Why are we still banging on about that old thing? I, too, have been skeptical of the title and its pursuit. But the times have changed me, changed us all. Earlier this year, a Gallup Poll showed that in the Trump era “American pride” has hit an all-time low. And as we’re told almost daily, we’re more divided as a nation now than at any time since the Civil War. In this fractious season, I’ve begun to re-evaluate my estimation of the Great American Novel. Precisely because it was once one of our perdurable national myths, shouldn’t we think twice before consigning the idea to the attic of sentimental, has-been notions?
The United States being a relatively young country, it stands to reason that our myths would have been—and to an extent, still would be—less thickly woven into the fabric of our national consciousness than those of countries that had many more centuries to fashion theirs. Yet this very lack of historical depth had just the opposite effect. Americans propagated and embraced national myths with an urgency clearly driven by need. Consider just a few: The American Dream. Manifest Destiny. The Shining City upon a Hill. The Separation of Church and State. All Men Are Created Equal. The First Thanksgiving. Pocahontas and John Smith. George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. One Nation Indivisible.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Great American Novel was born in 1868, only a few years after the end of the Civil War. Writing in The Nation, John William DeForest formulated the notion, defining it not just as the best novel by an American author but as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” DeForest argued that Hawthorne, whom he lauded as having “the greatest of American imaginations,” fell short of achieving the accolade. Although books such as The Scarlet Letter were “full of acute spiritual analysis,” the characters belonged to “the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality.” Indeed, DeForest found them to be “as probably natives of the furthest mountains of Cathay or of the moon as of the United State of America.” The Great American Novel, he determined, must take up the “task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel.”
That the formulation of the Great American Novel came in the wake of a bloody conflict that split the country in two reveals much: Americans yearned for myths that would renew their sense of common purpose, that would encourage them to reexamine their foundational values and guiding principles, their darkest sins and loftiest aspirations. Americans needed a reckoning with themselves, and the Great American Novel promised to be just that. It makes sense, then, that DeForest settled on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, as “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon.” He pointed out several of the book’s “very noticeable faults,” but it nonetheless struck him as “a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes.”
Perhaps the main reason Americans needed the concept of the Great American Novel, particularly after the Civil War, was their struggle with self-definition, something Europeans addressed largely by invoking lineage, ethnicity, and language (though as much scholarship has shown, Europeans often had to do a lot of retroactive “inventing” to transform loose congeries of nations into modern nation-states). Like the crew of the Pequod in Moby-Dick, America has always been a nation of “renegades and castaways” from disparate races, creeds, and cultures. As elements in a “melting pot,” Americans were never of a single ethnicity; nor did many of them maintain a deep connection with their pre-American lineage. Even though they had thrown off the British colonial yoke, their language was, in a sense, borrowed, and therefore not uniquely their own. Focusing on the one thing they had to themselves and in common—their Americanness, that intangible character that had been called into question by the Confederacy’s attempt at secession—was still their best way to define themselves without the props used by Europeans.
The British novelist and essayist Martin Amis, a keen observer of Americans at work and play, put it this way in his 2015 introduction to Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March: “As its culture was evolving, and as cultural self-consciousness dawned, America found itself to be a youthful, vast and various land, peopled by non-Americans. So how about this place? Was it a continental holding-camp of Greeks, Jews, Brits, Italians, Scandinavians and Lithuanians, together with the remaining Amerindians from ice-age Mongolia? Or was it a nation, with an identity—with a soul? Who could begin to give the answer? Among such diversity, who could crystallize the American experience?”
Added to the need for self-definition was a palpable sense of cultural inferiority, voiced by many mid-nineteenth-century literary luminaries, Ralph Waldo Emerson being perhaps the most prominent. Even if their nation had existed for less than a century, these writers believed they had failed to achieve cultural self-sufficiency and independence. They rated American works of art and literature as sadly derivative, pale and puerile imitations of European achievements. As Lawrence Buell, a noted scholar of antebellum American letters, has pointed out, the Great American Novel “is the brainchild of a bygone era, of anxious collective hand-wringing throughout the nineteenth century and beyond about what seemed to be the maddeningly slow emergence of a robust national literary voice—an anxiety that now seems all the more overblown for underestimating what had already been accomplished, such as Thoreau’s Walden, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.”
As much as it might have been needed, the concept of the Great American Novel soon encountered resistance. In 1897, the poet Bliss Carman claimed that “the great American novel is like the sea-serpent, an unrealised monster which is discovered about once every six months, and is never seen by more than three people at a time.” In the years since, it has been compared to just about every mythical creature in the bestiary: the “chimera” (Martin Amis), the “unicorn” (Richard G. Stern), the “gryphon” (David Kipen), the “elusive siren” (C.E. Morgan), “the hippogriff” (Frank Norris), “the yeti or the Loch Ness monster” (A.O. Scott), even “God” (Henry Allen).
If it is to endure, every national narrative must absorb its counternarrative; Carman’s “unrealised monster,” a characterization meant to mock and maim the long-standing hope for the Great American Novel, has helped only to keep the concept alive. Every year, more and more pronunciamentos are published declaring the Great American Novel useless, outdated, dead. But are reports of its death—like those ill-timed ones announcing Mark Twain’s demise—just a tad premature? We might count ourselves lucky if they are.
We might even reflect on the fact that there’s no extensive mythology built around “the Great Russian Novel,” “the Great French Novel,” or “the Great German Novel.” What makes the concept, again in Amis’s words, “so essentially American,” is how it dovetails with so many of our other national myths: “Like most quests, the quest for the Great American Novel seemed destined to be endless.... As with the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit was the thing; you were never going to catch up.”
While the United States spent the nineteenth century expanding westward, pushed on by a supposed Manifest Destiny, this wasn’t the only directional movement. Another equally important movement continued apace, one that Barack Obama, as a presidential candidate, called our attempt to form an “ever more perfect union.” Borrowing the phrase “more perfect union” from the Preamble to the Constitution, Obama added “ever” (as others had before him) to get at perhaps the core American myth of progress that undergirds all the other myths that bind our union together.
At the same time, Obama’s wording acknowledges that a truly perfect union is unattainable because there is “ever more” to be achieved. America is a project that is continually trying to make its disparate parts—its foundational diversity in every sense—come together. But there will always be more work to be done.
If America is continually rewriting itself, moving toward some better unification of its manifold parts while simultaneously acknowledging the inability to achieve such a union, then clearly the task of the Great American Novel must be to mirror this process of creating an ever more perfect union.
Indeed, the real problem with the Great American Novel may be with the article we use to introduce it. Rather than the, might the more democratic article a reflect more truly the connection with our deepest myth? There’s no shame in hoping to read or attempting to write a novel whose “wood could only be American.” The shame is in not realizing that the Great American Novel is being constantly rewritten, one over the other over the other, the lineaments of the earlier versions still discernable in the newer ones—a palimpsest destiny rather than a manifest one.