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The 150-Year Hunt for the Great American Novel

And why we need literary scholarship to reunite with literary criticism

The Dream of the Great American Novel by Lawrence Buell (Belknap Press)

For much of the twentieth century, the distinction between literary criticism and literary scholarship was a fuzzy one. Flourishing in the bohemian neighborhoods and intellectual circles of a few metropolitan centers, literary criticism was practiced by those famous, urbane, or brave enough to attempt it. For Goethe, Poe, Coleridge, Turgenev, Mark Twain, Proust, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, and John Updike, criticism was a natural extension of the literary vocation. Literary scholarship’s fact-finding and footnoting have always been a university affair, but never was the border between criticism and scholarship more porous than in the 1940s and ’50s. After the war, makers of literature found a home in the university, as did a stereotypical New York intellectual like Irving Howe, who had no Ph.D. He had only his credentials as a superb literary critic. The professors meanwhile were aspiring to write with the brevity, the feel for audience, and the belletristic verve of an Edmund Wilson, America’s literary critic par excellence (and The New Republic’s literary editor for several decades).

Then, at some point in the 1970s, literary scholarship fell away from literary criticism. To the traditional tools of scholarship the professors added “theory,” not exactly philosophy and not solely a set of axioms about literary art. Whatever it was, literary theory announced its presence through invocation of Marx, Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Saussure, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Edward Said, Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, etc. Mandating a highly technical language, for which there was no audience outside academia, theory melded the political aspirations of its followers into a weapon against capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and the criminalization and marginalization of homosexuality. In its heyday, theory was meant to challenge the catastrophe of Ronald Reagan’s America and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. After millennia of oppression, literary scholars would finally let the subaltern speak, in Spivak’s famous phrase.

Lawrence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel exemplifies the state of present-day literary scholarship. Scholarly claims are no longer weapons, and what were once the revolutionary initiatives of theory have relaxed into a conversation among friends. Buell’s is the conversation of American studies, which thrives on the merger of literary, historical, and political questions as much as it does on the elaboration of theory. An astonishing feat of erudition, The Dream of the Great American Novel takes in all of American literature, much of modern European literature, and sizeable swaths of world literature. It is a book intended to capture the curve of American history, the sweep of American culture, and the enigmas of national character—and it encompasses all the relevant scholarship as well. Indeed, Buell is among the most distinguished living scholars of American literature.1 Dazzling in its range, The Dream of the Great American Novel honors the preeminent American studies ideal of inclusiveness. America’s infinite variety is given its proper due, an achievement of the imagination that doubles as an ethical achievement.

Yet the academic discipline reflected in the pages of this book is in obvious crisis, hermetic in its intellectual culture, hermetic in its political purview, hermetic in its dedication to the duller aspects of scholarship. Its jargon and its claustrophobic heaviness can only alienate author from audience, and they will prevent this book from having the large, excited, grateful readership that its material and its fabulously learned author might well have commanded.

The material shows the fluctuation of literary greatness over time—honorific titles championed, fulminated against, forgotten and reclaimed by generation after generation of Americans. The phrase, “great American novel,” was first formulated in 1868 by John W. De Forest, a novelist of modest and impermanent celebrity. Henry James turned the phrase into an acronym, the GAN having become “a staple of American literary journalism” in the decades after the Civil War. As the U.S. rose up in wealth and power, the dream of the GAN rose along with it. The GAN was supposed to be, at least in part, a contribution to “the sentiment of nationness” and something of a blockbuster. The first novel anointed a GAN was Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

 The GAN fell from favor in the 1940s and 1950s, according to Buell, when critics and scholars celebrated a romantic individualism and looked with condescension at the GAN’s realism and at its populist, nation-building gestures. The GAN fell further from favor in the 1980s and 1990s, as literary scholars, sensitive to “a polylogue of often dissonant voices and perspectives,” in Buell’s words, rejected the very notion of an American literature. Yet the dream of the GAN persisted among writers and among a reading public eager for novels that were great as well as American.

Silly and naïve and antiquated as it may be, the dream of the GAN gives Buell a highly usable framework for analyzing what has been celebrated in American literature and, through literature, celebrated in American life. Buell neatly identifies four pathways to GAN status, each a creation of the nineteenth century. One is centrality and influence, and here the laurels go to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), to which American culture has never ceased returning. Another pathway is exploration of the “up-from” narrative, which originated in the European Bildungsroman, was imported to America by Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography, and then came to fruition in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and in Philip Roth’s American trilogy: American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1999) and The Human Stain (2000). The third pathway is through regional, racial, and ethnic confrontations: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the ur-text of the genre; Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885); Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886); and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Finally, by portraying communities within communities, a nation amid nations, the GAN can probe the disarray of American democracy, as do Moby-Dick (1852), Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997). These are new categories of analysis, and they enable juxtapositions that are both illuminating and refreshingly counter-intuitive.

Working off an immense canvas, Buell aligns the early republic, the antebellum years, Reconstruction, the Jazz Age, the Red Decade of the 1930s, and the Cold War with the movements of modern history outside the U.S. Buell informs us that Lenin called Uncle Tom’s Cabin the “favorite book of his childhood—‘a charge to last a lifetime,’” the GAN as contributing factor to the Bolshevik Revolution. The Dream of the Great American Novel reveals a genetic structure to American literature, wheels that are constantly being reinvented, as motifs and forms are borrowed, appropriated, refined, sentimentalized, de-sentimentalized, sacralized, and satirized. There is unity in disunity, or disunity in unity: Don DeLillo’s debts to Herman Melville and Whitman’s leaves of grass remade into the urban masses of Dos Passos’s outraged trilogy. Buell’s tour-de-force chapter on Beloved, in which all of American history seems to converge, makes for the finest pages of this robustly original book.

Buell’s magnum opus could not exist without the American Studies scholarship of the past 40 years. He politely dismisses his academic predecessors, such scholar-critics as Robert Penn Warren and Lionel Trilling, as "Cold War liberal critics" who served "the apparatus of national aggrandizement." Their narrow canon is not Buell's. He cites from Amazon customer reviews and internet chat groups to escape the strictures of elite judgment, matching America’s diversity, a demographic fact, to the diversity latent in American literary history. Buell prophesies that a Hispanic writer will one day pen a GAN addressed to the divide between Anglophone North and Hispanic South.

If Buell and his American Studies colleagues have creatively transformed the mid-twentieth-century canon, they also write in ways that the Cold War liberal critics would never have chosen to write—and never would have tolerated in the writing of others. American Studies circa 2014 is an academic pursuit undone by its own prose style. The Dream of the Great American Novel is studded with unlovely locutions and neologisms taken from the lexicon of cultural studies, the child of theory: “bioregional embeddedness,” “minoritarian,” “a narratorial hatchet job,” “otherized,” “ecoutouristical,” “narratorial androcentrism,” and “cyberneticized.” Clichéd from the moment it is coined, this language is starkly un-literary, the inverse almost of the lyrical, mysterious, subjective, and beautiful writing of a Lionel Trilling or an Alfred Kazin or an Irving Howe. Although The Dream of the Great American Novel contains much cogent and enjoyable writing, it is weighted down by needlessly convoluted sentences, hypnotic in their stretching of uncomplicated ideas into theoretical pronouncements.

Buell swings from cultural-studies theorizing to equally jarring colloquialisms. He labels Moby-Dick’s Ishmael an “outside-the-box thinker.” He refers to “the unfairly screwed” of society and to a novel’s “smartass adolescent theatrics.” Sometimes the colloquialisms have the aura of technical terminology, as in “present-day gringo-Mex military-economic establishments.” At one point, Buell lapses into sentences more suited to Facebook than to academic study: “Did I call Uncle Tom’s Cabin a species of documentary travelogue? I take it all back.” These abrupt changes of register, meant to undermine the notion of cultural hierarchy, deprive Buell of a genuine voice, one that can translate the encounter with literature into sensibility. This is, admittedly, the aim of the literary critic and not necessarily of the literary scholar. Buell, the characteristic humanities scholar of our day, is suspicious of anything so high-brow and old-fashioned as sensibility. He aspires instead to turns of phrase, to turns of argument and to cultural attitudes that are self-consciously hip.

It is not hip, in the domain of American Studies, to be on the Left. It is simply to be taken for granted. Buell’s is no in so sense a polemical book. Nor does he at any point argue for a left-of-center reading of American culture. In a uniformly left-of-center academic discipline there is no point to political argument. As a result, political conviction is a matter of etiquette, of good manners, of appealing now and then to the hope for progress or to the price that is inevitably paid when progressive politics are ignored or compromised. Uninteresting as such, the politics of the guild is a clue to the American studies understanding of art, an understanding embedded in sociology. For Buell, novels have strategies—this is what makes them interesting—and strategies have social consequences. Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be badly written and melodramatic, but its strategies give it an electric urgency. Buell praises Beloved for its “brilliantly subtle reinvention of key strategies” from earlier novels and especially from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He tends to equate novels’ strategies with their political valences, to evaluate novels either as contributions or impediments to a multicultural society, to gender equality and to a society accepting of alternative sexualities. By limiting their focus to white Protestants, for example, Jonathan Franzen and John Updike fashioned novels that go sociologically backwards, Buell implies.2 The logic behind this implication leads to some strange foreshortenings and exclusions. Saul Bellow, whose literature serves no apparent sociological purpose or no progressive purpose, is minimally present in Buell’s book. Ayn Rand, whose fervently American novels are great in their popularity at least, is not mentioned once.

Conversely, Henry James had a salutary “disposition for casting progressive social anatomy into narrative,” and for Buell a curiously progressive standard of criticism raises Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) above Faulkner’s Absalom, Abasalom! (1936). He notes a Gone with the Wind scene in which a mother encourages her daughter’s education, and “using that event as yardstick, Gone with the Wind starts to look like an act of feminist exorcism that Absalom can’t imagine its male scion being able to rival.” In order to promote Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) as a GAN, Buell believes in pressing “Chesnutt’s sophistication as sociologist of whiteness, as a pivotal figure within the push for racial uplift crucial to African American literature’s cultural politics at the time, and as much of a supporter of black collective resistance as could be expected given his historical context”—rigidly political criteria for literary appreciation. The GAN is a desirable accolade for The Marrow of Tradition, whereas elsewhere Buell prefers to apply it ironically, as a description not at all tantamount to literary greatness. When he sheds the irony implicit to the running GAN competition, his perspective is as much social and political as it is literary. If there will be further ethnic twists to existing GAN formulas, Buell speculates in a manner that typifies his book as a whole, “society at large will be the gainers.”

The Dream of the Great American Novel is both a tragedy and an emblematic tragedy. Its author stands at the pinnacle of his profession. He is vitally alive to the nuances that beg big questions and to the twists of interpretation that reinvigorate familiar detail. Buell has the powers of a master educator, and The Dream of the Great American Novel is movingly dedicated to his students. Yet the book’s expository prose, which has so little in common with the wording of good literature, does much to diminish the book. The confusion of the literary with the sociological tethers Buell’s arguments to a simplistic political program, one for which Buell does not really make the case and one which too comfortably flatters the preconceptions of literary academia, without inviting in any other potential audience. While endorsing an all too predictable socio-political vision, The Dream of the Great American Novel outlines no recognizable cultural vision, no vision of the circle that should join novel and reader to the sentiment of nationness. The flaws of Buell’s book are the emblematic flaws of American studies and of academic literary scholarship in general. They could be corrected, not by a return to the days of Trilling, Howe, and Kazin and not by disowning the multiculturalism at the heart of American culture, but by recollecting the forgotten—or forbidden—virtues of the literary critic, the sense of cultural mission, the felicity of writing style and the unashamed acknowledgment that literature has its own sources of authority, which are neither sociological nor political but uniquely literary in essence.

Michael Kimmage is the author, most recently, of In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy (2012).

  1. A Harvard professor, he is the author of Literary Transcendentalism (1973), an exquisite study of literature and philosophy; The Environmental Imagination (1995), a pioneering work of eco-criticism; and an acclaimed biographical study, Emerson (2003).