American literature's holy grail: Franzen, DFW and the hunt for the Great American Novel

Critics said the Great American Novel was dead. Then David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen burst onto the scene

Published February 16, 2014 6:00PM (EST)

  (flickr/Steve Rhodes/Reuters/Joaquin Sarmiento)
(flickr/Steve Rhodes/Reuters/Joaquin Sarmiento)

Excerpted from “The Dream of the Great American Novel”

Because the Great American Novel (GAN) was first framed as and continued long after to be deemed a realist project, it stood to reason that when realism became passé, “the perennially intriguing notion of the ‘Great American Novel’” would be “replaced by interest in . . . the Romance Theory.” And indeed its fomenters were convinced that the GAN was a misguided, amateurish notion that had long since outlived its usefulness if ever it had any.

For American literary critic Lionel Trilling, it was “one of the dreams of a younger America” that demonstrated the impossible “burden of social requirement” traditionally placed on the novel, requiring it in effect “to give up, in the fulfillment of its assigned function, all that was unconscious and ambivalent and playful in itself.” For [Leslie] Fiedler, it implied the meretricious “dream of an unlimited mass audience.”

Expatiating in 1972 in “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore,” Tom Wolfe cited Trilling’s authority for pronouncing traditional social realism dead. “No novelist,” Wolfe prophesied, “will be remembered as the novelist who captured the Sixties in America” à la Balzac or Thackeray because today “most serious American novelists would rather cut their wrists than be known as ‘the secretary of American society’ [Balzac’s self-characterization], and not merely because of ideological considerations. With fable, myth and the sacred office to think about—who wants such a menial role?”

Wolfe was being ironic here, of course. Far from wanting to dismiss Balzacian realism himself, his agenda was to demonstrate that “the new journalism”—a term he coined for an influential anthology of such work published soon after—was occupying the space the novelists had left vacant with their subjective, asocial turn. Journalism was destined to become the late twentieth century’s cutting-edge narrative vanguard. It comes as no surprise to find Wolfe repeating pretty much the same charge against novelistic cloistralism in an unabashedly agenda-promoting manifesto of 1989 that proclaims his single-handed revival of documentary realism in his best-selling fast-paced novelistic anatomy of racial and especially class warfare in New York City, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (1987). He overshot the mark on both occasions.

Traditional realism never did die out, not by a long shot, although the tide of modernist and postmodernist fashion put it on the defensive. That it thrives to this day is clear, to take just one case in point, from the career of Jonathan Franzen, whose two meticulously crafted novels of the present century, "The Corrections" (2001) and "Freedom" (2010), both family sagas aspiring to broader national stakes that center on paradigmatic midwestern middle-class couples and their progeny, were widely seen as GAN aspirants or contenders. "Freedom" put Franzen on the cover of Time on 23 August 2010, with the caption “Great American Novelist.” Even more telling has been the post-postmodern turn by a number of consequential turn-of-the-twenty-first-century novelists toward fusion of experimental narrative techniques with recognizably traditional realist practice: Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann, Ana Castillo, Colson Whitehead, and many others. So late twentieth-century fiction became considerably more complicated than the story of the rise to dominance of the antirealist experimentalism of John Hawkes, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover. Indeed traditional realism even generated at least one serious candidate for the GAN during its supposed 1960s-through-1980s disappearance, John Updike’s "Rabbit Angstrom" (1960–1990), on which more below.

In the long run, the short-lived romance hypothesis, as Wolfe’s flourish about the “sacred office” backhandedly suggests, probably served more as a reanimator than a depressant for the GAN dream by hyperfocusing attention on select monumental works. The midcentury apostles of “symbolic depth and resonance” were dead-serious counterparts of the GAN parodists in their strenuous attempts to distinguish art fiction as intricate imaginative constructs from schlock tied to old-style chronicle narration. However much they disdained the seeming amateurishness of the GAN mantras of yore and their tainted association with middlebrow realism and middlebrow culture, their efforts to identify an elite canon of supernovelists and supertexts did not extinguish the dream but revived it under another name. The veteran man of letters Malcolm Cowley, a shrewd observer of the changing literary scene from the 1930s through the 1960s, tellingly claimed that the new establishment’s masterpiece-intensive rehabilitation of classic American literature made it possible for the first time in history to believe that “the great American novel had indeed been written.” Moreover he was certain which book had come out on top, going so far as to suggest that the “principal creative work of the last three decades in this country” wasn’t any new artistic breakthrough but “the critical rediscovery and reinterpretation of Melville’s "Moby-Dick" and its promotion, step by step, to the position of national epic.”

Not everyone, then or now, would go all the way with Cowley on this. But the three novels Leslie Fiedler placed at the top of the American fictional chain of being in "Love and Death in the American Novel"—Hawthorne’s "The Scarlet Letter," Melville’s "Moby-Dick," and Twain’s "Huckleberry Finn"—which happened to be three of the four pre-1900 novels most admired by high school and college teachers in the most extensive poll of the mid-1920s—have remained among the most often named pre-1920s fictions in turn-of-the-twenty-first-century polls, both by middlebrow/high middlebrow literary establishment groups like the American Booksellers Association and National Books Circle, whose members were canvassed for a 2007 WNET (PBS) survey ("Huckleberry Finn," "Moby-Dick," and "The Scarlet Letter" rank 1, 3, and 4, with "The Great Gatsby" and "Invisible Man" 2 and 5), and by such freelance bloggers as Christopher Schmitz of Rocky River, Ohio, whose top twenty “Contenders for Great American Novel” (with "Huckleberry Finn," "Moby-Dick," and "The Scarlet Letter" ranked 1, 2, 3) were posted at from November 2003 through this writing (2013).

Such continuities extend only so far, and they are far from self-interpreting. The teachers of 1925 and the Ohio blogger both put Cooper’s "The Last of the Mohicans" and Stowe’s "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" in fourth and fifth place among most plausible pre-1900 contenders, whereas the most Fiedler would concede in 1960 was that "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" was “the greatest of all novels of sentimental protest” and that Cooper’s frontier romances made him the first “truly American writer” as the pioneer author of “boys’ books”—ammunition for Fiedler’s broader claim that classic American fiction was essentially boys’ fiction. He shuddered to think that "The Last of the Mohicans" might be “the most widely read of American novels” worldwide. He later granted that "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" had inaugurated the middlebrow tradition of blockbuster “inadvertent epic,” which he proceeded to trace with reluctant wonder through D. W. Griffiths’s "Birth of a Nation" and the racist fiction of Thomas Dixon on which it was based to "Gone with the Wind" and (in a final post-1960s turn of the screw) the best-selling multigenerational Afro-diasporic chronicle and TV series "Roots" (1976), by the African American journalist Alex Haley. But Fiedler never got past the sense that the emotionally overheated Stowe was a “problematical” figure as “a contender for inclusion in [the] misogynist canon” of American fictional masters from Washington Irving to Saul Bellow. Of all the midcentury revisionists he took by far the greatest interest in popular culture, but even he felt impelled to draw a bright line between the rightful canon and the popular substrate. No such scruples restrained the Ohio blogger, who praised "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" as a “novel that wrung tears and actually made a difference,” and appealed to mass culture retakes for his endorsement of "Mohicans" (“Remade decades later as ‘Dances with Wolves.’ 'M*A*S*H' also tipped its hat.”)

How then to evaluate the net effect on later musings about the GAN that resulted from the midcentury push for a more intellectually high-powered account of U.S. fictional distinctiveness centered on select masterpieces of “romance”? Perhaps its most relevant long-run influence was to remove the greatest stumbling block in the way of taking the idea of the Great American Novel seriously after the tastemakers had pronounced realism obsolete and with it the widespread presumption— reinforced by Dos Passos’s U.S.A., Lockridge’s "Raintree County," Stein’s "The Making of Americans," and Homer Zigler’s script for “Restless/Brutal Dynasty” in their very different ways—that the narrative form of the GAN must replicate the nation’s vast, sprawling, semichaotic social textures and landscapes from the macro to the minute. As the critic Alfred Kazin mused in a dismissive review of an overstuffed chronicle of the 1950s, the GAN had “never in itself been a bad tradition.” The problem was that obsession with “documentation for its own sake” had “turned the ‘great American novel’ into the great American bore.” Midcentury revisionism set forth an alternative model of “greatness” that despite its own fall from favor a few decades later helped ensure, long after the romance hypothesis was discredited as vehemently as its fomenters had discredited the dream of the GAN, that the field of eligibles would permanently be opened to a wider range of stylistic registers than De Forest, James, and Howells had envisaged. Not that caveats like Kazin’s ever put a serious brake on authorial hankering to create sprawling megafictions, as Chapter 13 will show. Nor, for that matter, did the mid-twentieth-century revisionists, either. The book held up by Malcolm Cowley as the Great American Novel they rediscovered is a prime example: "Moby-Dick."

Relatedly, the aesthetics of difficulty didn’t fade away any more than fictional realism did. What did erode, much more as a result of broad cultural history trend lines than of the pronouncements of literary critics and theorists, was the firmness of the high culture versus mass culture distinction among critics, creative writers, and a sizeable though indeterminate number of literature consumers alike. Modernism had established its avant-garde status on the basis of delivering “smart” serious fiction as against “stupid” middlebrow. But U.S. novelists of the second half of the twentieth century acclaimed as possible GAN candidates often seem to have had it both ways, achieving both idiosyncratic complexity of style and architecture and robust market appeal. Ellison, Bellow, and Morrison are cases in point. Neither extreme length nor extreme pursuit of the aesthetics of difficulty has been a bar to consideration, either. For an appreciable number of turn-of-the-twenty-first-century readers, Thomas Pynchon’s "Gravity’s Rainbow" (1973) or David Foster Wallace’s "Infinite Jest" (1996) are the GANs of our day, both of them far longer and more intricately arcane than anything by Melville or James or Faulkner at their most ambitious.

Midcentury revisionism did also help effect durable changes in reputation, both up and down. Two striking cases of the first were the Faulkner and Fitzgerald revivals. By the third quarter of the century Faulkner was enthroned as the preeminent U.S. fictional modernist and "The Great Gatsby" had become a curricular staple for colleges and high schools, a byword in American pop lore, and a perennial GAN nominee. It made the American Booksellers/National Book Circle’s top five and was ranked number two next to Joyce’s "Ulysses" in the Modern Library Board’s 1998 designation of the top twentieth-century novels. Conversely, the only novels in the realist-naturalist tradition to make it into the top twenty—Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath," Dreiser’s "American Tragedy," and Richard Wright’s "Native Son"—trailed "Lolita," Faulkner’s "The Sound and the Fury," and Joseph Heller’s "Catch-22." Here too the midcentury shakeout had long-term results.

But top-down critical authority extended only so far. In the Modern Library Board rankings, Henry James, the American novelist the revisionists tried hardest to promote—and for literature specialists succeeded—fared less well than Dreiser and Dos Passos, at twenty-sixth (for "The Wings of the Dove"). So the inertial force of cultural capital and sanctioned critical authority often but by no means always influenced public taste. Pretty much the same can be said of the freelance turn-of-the-twenty-first-century blogosphere, as for the dozens who contributed to the 1897 San Francisco Examiner forum on the GAN. The first two (of six) criteria for the GAN that kicked off a 2006 post by one Tyler Cowen offers a rough-and-ready snapshot of this paradoxical situation: “1. It must reward successive rereadings and get better each time. 2. It must be canonical and grip the imagination.” His choice of "Moby-Dick" set the tone for a number of others to weigh in with similar classics (e.g., "Huckleberry Finn," "The Great Gatsby," Faulkner’s "The Sound and the Fury" and "As I Lay Dying"), as well as more recent novels presumed canonical: Salinger’s "Catcher in the Rye" (also number 12 for Schmitz and among the WNET survey’s top ten), Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Joseph Heller’s "Catch-22" (both also in WNET’s top ten), and Cormac McCarthy’s "Blood Meridian" (number 17 for Schmitz). Yet that didn’t stop respondents from dismissing just about every “approved” choice as dull or overblown, complaining about having been assigned them in school, and suggesting unlikely alternatives like Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi melodrama "Ender’s Game."

Turn-of-the-twenty-first-century bloggers who have weighed in about the GAN on and scores of other websites probably number in the low ten thousands at most and surely don’t comprise a random slice of humanity. The party is wide open, but in order to join it you need technological literacy and access, a secondary if not a college education, considerable spontaneous literary interest, and enough free time. No doubt freelance journalists, critics, and practicing or aspirant creative writers make up a disproportionate percentage of the voices you’re hearing in this section. My guess is that the group as a whole is younger and more intellectually venturesome and hip than the average book club subscriber, but more or less in the same socio-economic bracket or at least headed that way.

Their collective testimony seems partly, but not altogether, to bear out David Shumway’s prediction toward the end of his 1994 history of American literature as an academic discipline, that despite multiple challenges to the pre-1970s map of U.S. literary history as biased against writing by women and nonwhite writers, and despite increasing critical insistence that U.S. literary culture could only be understood transnationally—through its interdependencies with other American hemispheric, “Atlantic world” and “Pacific” cultures—nonetheless “there will remain a core canon that will include most of the authors who were the focus of the discipline of the 1950s and 1960s.” Shumway was right that academic American literature studies has developed itself during the past half-century so as to underestimate, indeed almost deliberately to refuse to grant, its status as a self-perpetuating industry of knowledge production with a strong investment in canonical authors. Since its inception in 1965, "American Literary Scholarship," the annual review of notable scholarship in the field (sponsored by the American Literature Group of the Modern Language Association of America), has always allocated a large fraction of space (about 35 percent) to a dozen or so major mid-nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century great white writers, with Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner the only novelists granted whole chapters during the entire run. Yet from the standpoint of reader reception outside the professoriate, the situation looks rather different.

Neither in late nineteenth-century contributor’s columns nor in contemporary blogs do GAN postings—fortunately—make for self-perpetuating institutionalization. Yes, they revolve to a considerable extent around familiar, approved masters and masterworks, but the ground rules are open, with no finite number of pieces or players. They allow for unpredictable and spontaneous movements, with complete freedom to topple icons if you wish. Except for certain online e-journals, they aren’t patrolled as academic criticism is. You don’t need a PhD; there’s little peer review. In academic work “critical originality” is required, but regulated. In the GAN blogosphere it’s equally OK to write unoriginally, to second others’ opinions, or to be fractiously irreverent, especially when it comes to some book you were taught to admire but don’t. To some extent, grassroots GAN cyber-commentary feels like a discourse of semiliberation from one’s former teachers, although today this distinction looks less firm than it did at the start of the millennium because the professors themselves are increasingly going online and e-journals that feature literary criticism by academics have been burgeoning.

The freedom and elasticity of the cyber-marketplace of ideas and pontifications about the GAN don’t necessarily make it interesting—a little surfing goes a long way—but it does guarantee a certain kind of openness. It encourages receptiveness to the possibility of some recent or future work of surprising power, to the lure of a book that specialists tend either to ignore or bracket as second rank, like Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road" or Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird," or to some heterodox notion of what Americanness is or ought to be. Are you a skeptic who doubts if the GAN has been written, or, if it has or nearly has, whether there’s likely to be a rival? Do you believe it’s not a mere myth, but it just hasn’t happened yet? Are you one of those who’s convinced that Michael Chabon’s "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (2000) or Joy Williams’s "The Quick and the Dead" (2000) or Junot Diaz’s "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" (2007) is a strong contender for the GAN of the new century? Or Abraham Verghese’s "Cutting for Stone" (2009)? Among oldies, do you favor Salinger’s "Catcher in the Rye" or even "Raintree County" to "Gatsby"? Does Lynne Tillman’s "American Genius" fashion a slyly ironized GAN around “the national disease” of “sensitivity”? You can find all this and much, much more online; and the best of it, like British cultural critic Kasia Boddy’s astute analysis of Tillman, is very good indeed.

Excerpted from “The Dream of the Great American Novel” by Lawrence Buell. Copyright ©2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by arrangement with Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.

By Lawrence Buell

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