Lawrence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel addresses a long-standing question in American letters: Is there such a thing as a GAN, and if so, what is it?
In her TLS review, Sarah Graham writes, “Introduced in print by John W. De Forest in January 1868, the phrase ‘Great American Novel’ had already been used by P. T. Barnum to mock publishers for puffing their latest books, Buell writes, confirming that the GAN is at least as much a marketing device as a reliable measure of literary merit. The first novel to be named ‘the Greatest Book of the Age’ was Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which supposedly provoked the ‘great war’ that ended slavery in the Southern states. For this reason, Buell deems it the preeminent American example of activist art: it “changed the world” and so its status endures despite criticism of its depiction of black people. It also shows that it is possible for a GAN to be written by a woman, although critical consensus suggests that hardly any have been. The heyday of serious debate over the Great American Novel ran from the 1860s to the 1920s, when the promise of the American Dream was equally prominent. After The Great Gatsby(1925) killed the Dream, along with its hero, interest in pinpointing GANs waxed and waned in popularity, perhaps because an increasingly heterogeneous nation found it hard to believe that a single novel even a very long one could represent America in all its variety.”
Buell prefers to judge GANs not as individual novels but as a body of work, and he divides them into four “scripts” or themes: classics of “retelling,” the “up from” script, the “romance that divides,” and “meganovels.” In the last, Buell places what, to my mind, is the only real candidate for the title of GAN, Moby Dick.