Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Novel Obsession

Why are we obsessed with the great American novel? To quote Cheryl Strayed:
In 1868, John William De Forest published an essay in The Nation titled “The Great American Novel.” In it, he argued for the rise of fiction that more accurately reflected American society than did the grand, romantic novels of the time, whose characters he thought belonged to “the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality.” In the course of making his case, De Forest considered, then cast aside, the likes of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne before landing on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was, in De Forest’s opinion, if not quite the Great American Novel, “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon” of a book that captured what was, to him, America — a populace of “eager and laborious people, which takes so many newspapers, builds so many railroads, does the most business on a given capital, wages the biggest war in proportion to its population, believes in the physically impossible and does some of it.”

That De Forest was arguing in hopes of not one Great American Novel, but rather the development of a literary canon that accurately portrayed our complex national character, has been lost on many, as generation after generation of critics have since engaged in discussions of who might have written the Great American Novel of any given age, and writers have aspired to be the one chosen — a competitive mode that is, I suppose, as American as it gets. It’s also most likely the reason that the idea has persisted for so long. (Read more.)

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