Wednesday, July 04, 2012

A Short History of the Great American Novel

We’ve been looking for one since the 1860s. Why?

From a piece on Slate...

The concept of the GAN seems to have been born in the late 1860s. In an 1868 The Nation essay, Civil War veteran John William DeForest—himself an aspiring GAN-ist—described the GAN as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,” a work that painted “the American soul.” And what, precisely, did that soul entail? There was but one real—though unquestionably daunting—requirement: it had to be supremely national in breadth and scope. The Scarlet Letter—now a perennial presence on modern GAN lists—could never be GAN material, wrote DeForest. It was “full of acute spiritual analysis,” but was so focused on the ineffable that it had “only a vague consciousness of this life.” Its characters, DeForest complained, “are as probably natives of the furthest mountains of Cathay or of the moon as of the United States of America.” What an affront.

And so began a tradition that’s persisted as long as the search for the Great American Novel: The insistence that certain great American novelists fail to write in a strictly national vein, and so, cannot produce the GAN no matter how otherwise great their writing may be.

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