THE BLOG

Can The Great American Novel Exist?

03/15/2012 04:31 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2012

To write The Great American Novel: such has been the goal of American authors for over a century. In recent years, the phrase has been applied to no other novel more frequently than Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. To be sure, Franzen's is a fine novel. Speaking about the book, Lisa Simpson said, "It makes me feel better about my own family." A story of social realism about an upper middle class Midwestern family in tatters, The Corrections is ultimately quite conservative in terms of both its literary approach and subject matter, however. Can the phrase only be applied to realistic novels that attempt to capture the mainstream American experience? Or can it be applied to other novels that are more diverse in terms of either subject matter or literary approach?

Writing my new book, A Journey through American Literature [Oxford University Press, $25.00], I asked myself similar questions. To answer them, I did some research and discovered precisely when the phrase, "The Great American Novel," was invented. As the copywriters at Sheldon and Company, a New York publisher, sought ways to promote Rebecca Harding Davis's 'Waiting for the Verdict' in 1867, they came up with "The Great American Novel." The first published advertisement for this novel represents the phrase's earliest known usage. The book partly justifies the advertising copy in terms of its broad geographic scope and its willingness to broach major issues facing the United States after the Civil War. Waiting for the Verdict intertwines two love stories: one about a Northern abolitionist of illegitimate birth, and an aristocratic Southerner and slaveholder, the other about a small-minded preacher's daughter, and a biracial surgeon who passes as white. In other words, the very first novel ever called The Great American Novel was a story of cultural diversity.

Though Waiting for the Verdict, aesthetically speaking, was not the major novel it was supposed to be, its advertising copy had a lasting impact on American literary culture. The appeal of the copywriters' phrase is easy to understand. The desire for a literary work commensurate with the greatness of the United States stretches back to late eighteenth-century efforts to create a national epic poem. During the final third of the nineteenth century, the novel was emerging as the foremost genre of American literature. The Great American Novel, as it was starting to be defined, would be a national epic in prose. Within the covers of a single volume, it would encapsulate the nation.

Years later, Davis herself indicated what The Great American Novel should involve. She suggested that it should encompass "all the phases of our national life." It should include New Yorker and Navajo, Virginia gentleman and Maine leper, Jew and Catholic, African-American and Italian immigrant, Molly Maguire and millionaire. In short, Davis insisted that The Great American Novel must incorporate diversity. Despite her suggestions, she was not necessarily upholding The Great American Novel as an ideal. She called it "that much longed-for monstrosity."

Yet the phrase continued to be applied to mainstream works into the twentieth century. In her 1920 essay "The Great American Novel," Edith Wharton expressed frustration with the ongoing popularity of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. Set in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, 'Main Street' is a send-up of small town, Midwestern America. Despite Lewis's satirical edge, his portrayal strongly influenced stereotypes about the United States around the world and, to Wharton's chagrin, reinforced the notion that The Great American Novel should be set in small town America, that it "must always be about Main Street, geographically, socially, and intellectually." Instead, Wharton suggested that The Great American Novel need not be set in the center of the United States. It could be set anywhere in the world or in the imagination. From Wharton's perspective, the only requirement for The Great American Novel is that it be written by an American.

To the suggestions of Rebecca Harding Davis and Edith Wharton, I would add one additional requirement. The Great American Novel should not only be diverse in terms of its subject but also in terms of its aesthetics. A truly great novel requires daring. To write The Great American Novel an author faces a double challenge. He or she must not only tell a story that encapsulates the nation but also tell it in a new way, inventing a mode and method of storytelling different from what other novelists have done before. Novelists with the ambition, talent, and daring to accept this challenge come along only once or twice a century.