The Dream of the Great American Novel, by Lawrence Buell

Peter Messent redefines the concept with close readings and illuminating insights

February 27, 2014

We tend to think of the Great American Novel, Lawrence Buell rightly suggests, as “the brainchild of another era”. It harks back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time of “anxious collective hand-wringing” about the apparent “maddeningly slow emergence of a robust national literary voice”. This book starts by asking whether such a concept has any validity, or was and is simply a product of “bad exceptionalism or national swagger”. If the latter is indeed sometimes true, it is noticeable that the novels generally put forward as candidates for such honours tend to be “anything but patriotic”, focusing, rather, on the gap between the ideal of America as a “land of promise” built on principles of liberty and equality, and the countervailing social reality.

As Buell knows, any work of criticism with “the Great American Novel” in its title will be met with some scepticism by a contemporary audience. Nowadays, overviews of American literature tend either to consider it as one part of a larger transnational whole or, conversely, to focus on its heterogeneity, its medley of ethnic and regional voices and points of view. One of the strengths of this book, however, is its critical sophistication. Well versed in contemporary literary theory, and aware that concepts of nationhood are far from static, Buell nonetheless argues that we should continue to take the idea of the Great American Novel seriously; indeed, one section is titled “The dream of the Great American Novel miraculously survives its discreditation”. It does so, he suggests, due to the very elasticity of the concept and to the number of authors who still continue to attempt “big national fictions”, crucial “reference points for imagining U.S. national identity”.

This is a comparativist project. To understand what is at stake in any one contender for the title of Great American Novel, we must imagine it “in multiple conversations with many others, and not just U.S. literature either”. Any such novel will centre on an individual figure in some way representative of the larger society and must “provide at least implicitly some consequential reflection on U.S. history and culture and its defining institutions – democracy, individualism, capitalism, sectionalism, immigration, expansionism, signature landscapes, demographic mix”.

There are, Buell says, four main types of potential Great American Novels. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter epitomises the first – a cultural “master narrative”, identified as such by the number of reinterpretations and imitations that follow in its wake. Second are the stories that focus on individual growth (the Bildungsroman) and its particular American variant, the rise from humble origins (The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, etc). Buell’s third type is “the romance of the divides” where a novel’s plot focuses on “issues of sectional and/or ethnoracial division” (Absalom, Absalom!, Beloved, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, etc). Fourth are those deliberately large-scale novels such as Moby-Dick, U.S.A., Gravity’s Rainbow, with a diverse cast of characters “imagined as social microcosms or vanguards” and whose lives are figured “in relation to epoch-defining public events or crises”.

Buell ends up then with “a pluriverse in motion rather than a unitary conception of Americanness” and the Great American Novel as a number of “shifting, and often dissonant pathways” that find their full meaning in the diversity and interweaving relationships they trace. It is through “its interdependencies as well as through its particularities” that a work becomes a contender for the title, he argues.

Itself something of an epic given the number and variety of the texts it considers, The Dream of the Great American Novel is the work of a critic with extensive knowledge of his field and the ability, via close readings, to bring illuminating insights to novels that one might have imagined had been already done close to critical death. He achieves this mainly by focusing on exactly the close relationships and interweavings described above.

As I read this book, I was excited by the unexpectedness, even brilliance, of many of its commentaries. This is an important work that every scholar of American literature, and many who are not, will want to read. It redefines the concept of the Great American Novel and rethinks the nature of the canonical for our contemporary critical times.

The Dream of the Great American Novel

By Lawrence Buell
Harvard University Press, 500pp, £29.95
ISBN 9780674051157 and 4726321 (e-book)
Published February 2014

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