The Chronicle Review

The Stories That Made America

Chronicle Review illustration by Scott Seymour

May 27, 2014

The Great American Novel—it’s a familiar phrase. It probably even rings a bell for people who’ve never read any "masterpieces" of American fiction. But what novel is the Great American one?

The Dream of the Great American Novel

By Lawrence Buell (Harvard University Press)

Lawrence Buell won’t say, and good for him. Answering the question would miss the point of asking it. The nation’s literary community, Buell writes, has never actually wanted to find its "single once-and-for-all supernovel." Instead, the Great American Novel should be thought of as "a horizon to be grasped after, approximated, but never reached, a game that writers, readers, publishers all want to keep on playing." It’s an occasion for conversation, not a title for bestowing.

For Buell, an emeritus professor of American literature at Harvard University, the Great American Novel is a pluralistic concept—an author can write only a Great American Novel, not the Great American Novel. And Buell’s book is as flexible as its subject, discussing 16 works that approach the horizon of greatness and touching on scores of others. It’s a crowded, diverse group, one that’s hard to generalize about. But it’s also hard to resist asking whether Buell’s chosen novels have anything in common, and whether they suggest any larger criteria, principles, or rules for judging an American author’s importance.

The Great American Novel is an occasion for conversation, not a title for bestowing.

For instance, many of the writers Buell has designated as Great American Novelists were backward-looking, their novels unusually concerned with the nation’s past. And when those authors turned to history, they often did so to cast refracted light on present problems, especially problems that their original audiences could not or would not face directly. It would seem, then, that Great American Novels tend to be somewhat oblique, at least when engaging with their own times.

Buell doesn’t argue those points in so many words, and on several occasions, he even contends that American fiction is distinguished by its "future-oriented cast." But of the 16 novels that he examines most closely, more than half of them—nine, by my count—are "historical," set in eras that preceded the years of their composition. Why would that be the case, especially in the context of a "future-oriented" national literature?

In part, it’s because Buell tends to treat Great American Novels as works of revision rather than revolution, skillful adaptations of some pre-existing, archetypal story. Buell’s canon is thus divided into two categories. On one side is a quartet of ancestral "master narratives," and on the other is a company of history-conscious descendants. Of the four "master" works Buell names—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—only Hawthorne’s evokes a world outside of living memory.

In Buell’s later, more derivative Great American Novels, however, the polarity is reversed, with eight setting their action in the past and five exploring the here and now. Perhaps that’s to be expected. If Great American Novels are fundamentally indebted to works that preceded them, then they’d surely be retrospective in other ways as well.

But Buell also shows that Great American Novels often work to connect the past with the present. John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., which appeared during the Depression, returns to an early-20th-century moment when socialism still seemed possible in America. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which was published two years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, educates its nameless black protagonist by sending him on the Great Migration of the late 1920s. And Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which made a splash in the middle of the Cold War, finds high farce in Nazi Germany’s missile program. Those novels all imagine where Americans might be going by asking how they got where they are.

The answers are usually sobering. Buell presents the Great American Novel as an oppositional tradition rather than a celebratory one, largely dedicated to showing "that national greatness is unproven, that its pretensions are hollow, and that the ship of state is going down." And nowhere is that more evident than in Buell’s study of "division" novels—a literary genealogy that runs from Stowe to William Faulkner to Toni Morrison, explores race relations, and shows Americans to be mostly incapable of acknowledging their nation’s history of enslavement and discrimination.

The key work here is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was published in 1885 but told an antebellum story of interracial friendship. Today, Twain’s tale of a white boy named Huck, an escaped slave named Jim, and their adventures on the Mississippi River is a hallowed classic. But as Buell shows with depressing clarity, most of Twain’s readers in 1885 had grown weary of what was then called "the Negro question," and the post-Reconstruction South was in the process of segregating its black citizens out of view. Racial politics had grown taboo, and it wasn’t a promising subject for popular fiction.

Twain still wanted to talk about race in his novel, though, and he seems to have concluded that his ideas would get a better hearing if they were situated in the past. The result was a masterwork of historical fiction that didn’t just retroactively condemn bondage, but also implicitly criticized Americans for failing to see that racial injustice had persisted for decades after emancipation. Jim tastes his freedom, wins Huck’s admiration, and, in the novel’s most famous scene, inspires his young friend to denounce the institution of slavery. But an outrageous reversal comes at novel’s end, when Jim is re-enslaved—a chilly, allegorical reminder of the nation’s still-unmet promises.

Twain’s call for change was a powerful one. But the historical setting of Huckleberry Finn had the effect of making its present relevance somewhat subtle, and that which is subtle can be overlooked or ignored. Because chattel slavery was technically a dead issue in 1885, many readers saw no contradiction in enjoying Jim’s quest for freedom in one minute and supporting Jim Crow laws in the next. The novel had an important message for a still-divided nation, but it also could not state that message too bluntly.

When literary scholars of 2050 look back on the early 21st century, what Great American Novels will they find? Will the novels be the ones that participated in our most wrenching contemporary debates, or the ones that used the past to help the medicine go down? The master narrative of America in the time of climate change could turn out to be Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which condemns mountaintop-removal coal mining and other environmental outrages. But Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, which depicts the desecration of the Everglades more than a century ago, might have just as much of a claim.

If Buell’s study has predictive power, it seems more likely that the latter sort of novels will be remembered. Literary artists of our century know, just as those of Emily Dickinson’s did, that in America "the truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind."

T. Austin Graham is an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.