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Thought 3

I was both amused and bemused to note that Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, is rather predictably being touted as the Great American Novel.

Let’s face it, we’ve all read read the Great American Novel. It was Moby Dick or it was The Great Gatsby or it was Citizen Kane or it was The Catcher in the Rye or it was Catch-22 or it was Gravity’s Rainbow or it was … or it was …

There are any number of Great American Novels, and no Great American Novels. Because as soon as we identify one Great American Novel, we start looking around for the real one to come along.

What’s with you people? We don’t have a Great British Novel – I have no idea what a Great British Novel might possibly look like. We don’t have a Great French Novel or a Great German Novel or a Great Japanese Novel. So why does American exceptionalism demand one novel that is somehow big enough (I feel Great relates to compass rather than quality) to encompass all that is America? What would a Great American Novel be? And why isn’t it enough to know that you have a whole load of great novels that just happen to be American?

5 thoughts on “Thought 3

  1. Good questions Paul. It seems to me ‘The Great American Novel’ is one myth among many that our ‘Great’ Nation has put forth. It’s nothing but propaganda, but it’s hard to even say such a thing as that (and define it) when one is living in the middle of it. America is a very privileged place and many of it’s ‘Cultural Commentators’ who invent terms like ‘The Great American Novel’ are most privileged.

    I think one needs to go no further than Zinn’s ‘A People’s History…” to see how hype-laden our country has almost always been. But maybe this land has always been the source of great myth, starting with it’s moniker ‘The New World’ – perhaps so many fantasies were foisted on it that 500 some years later one still can’t grow out of it box.

    The ‘American experience’ that one apparently tries to define in these novels seems a callow way to define one’s reality. I call for ‘human experience’ and ‘worldly experience’ and would certainly want any work of art in conversation with everyone who has ever lived anywhere on the earth.

    And when Harold Bloom and other commentators constantly use the word ‘American’ as an adjective to give a work of art some weight (as he does below talking about ‘Blood Meridian’) then the situation becomes plagued with this sort of hyper-hype and myth-making moxie.

    “You get a great vision, a frightening vision of what is indeed something very deeply embedded in the American spirit, in the American psyche…But I think you would have to go back to “Moby Dick” for an American epic that fully compares to “Blood Meridian.”

  2. Good post, and of course Franzen’s novel won’t do, a predictable bewailing of decaying midwestern values. FREEDOM recalls, especially, John Updike’s COUPLES (’68) — another so-so novel that sent Time magazine into a Great American tizzy.

    Which brings up the more rewarding questions, namely,whether such a G.A. Novel exists, & why ill-informed mainstream critics go baying like bloodhounds on its trail. Seems to me the dragnet serves as a reflection of our culture’s relative youth. The first worthwhile American fiction dates back only to, hmm, the 1840s. Whereas over in Italy, you’ve got the overwhelming figure of Dante, whose COMEDY began to circulate in 1320. That book’s a poem, of course, but also a lengthy narrative &, more to the point, a compendium of the country’s emergent culture. In Spain, who can matter more than Cervantes? In England, who grabbed for more, & brought it off better, than Fielding? Or Austen?

    By the time older cultures even got around around to asking what was their Great Novel, they found at least one possibility (if not two or three) already on the shelves, a certified classic.
    Here in youthful America, we go on searching.

    So. If I were forced to pick one fiction that best captured the contradictions, aspirations, lying, striving, & all the rest that define These States, in the American 20th C. at least, a novel distinguished by that combination of elements the form requires — formal excellence, stinging verisimilitude, depth of feeling, range of reach — if I were forced to picked such a fiction, it’d be JR, by William Gaddis.

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful response John. Sitting in the middle of ‘The Recognitions’ right now, I can’t really fathom the unimaginable riches waiting in JR and of course the rest of this tome.

      Maybe this quote from Robert Bresson is apt: A small subject can provide the pretext for many profound combinations. Avoid subjects that are too vast or too remote, in which nothing warns you away when you are going astray. Or else take from them only what can be mingled with your life and belongs to your experience. p.50

      Review – http://bigother.com/2010/10/06/notes-on-the-cinematographer/#more-12146

  3. Hi Paul! I think John has it right above in pointing out a working through of a very young national identity. This is why Whitman in the 19th century was writing things like “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem” (and here it’s interesting to note the plural verb).

    But “America” is not reducible to “The United States.” There is such a construct as “the great Latin American novel” as well (the efficacy of the term notwithstanding).

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