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Thursday, March 25, 2010
Mission Impossible: The Great American Novel
The other day I came across a very interesting article on Newsweek.com. The author, Malcolm Jones, wonders whether the "Great American Novel" is something that can really be achieved, and whether American authors do not find themselves under a burden that is too great for them to bear.
Thinking big is not unique to American letters. Tolstoy, Mann, Dickens, Proust, Joyce, Tanizaki—the examples of great writers working on a grand scale are easy to spot. Still, compared with their American counterparts, they had it easy. Even Russia—or at least the Russia that Tolstoy wrote about—was a monoculture. The United States has always been a much messier place, its social hierarchies more fluid, its systems of belief more debated, negated, and always up for grabs. Of all the American writers who have tried to wrestle this into focus, perhaps the one who came closest was the poet Walt Whitman ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself"). But our fiction writers have been trying to squeeze the American experience into one great novel at least since Herman Melville dreamed up his white whale.
Jones brings up a good point. Is America too multi-dimensional to be summed up between two covers. Sure, certain regions, groups, and ideas can get great treatment in a single story, but can you really wrap up the whole mind-boggling idea of what American society really is. Tolstoy did it for Russia, Thackery did it for England, Mann did it for Germany. But can we name one writer who has summed up America in a single work? Granted, many writers have been able to give us America in a body of works (Jones gives Twain, Wharton, and Faulkner as examples of this), but never really in a single book. This is not to say that we are without great writers. Far from it. But I do tend to agree with Jones in that we as a nation are too "messy" to ever get a full grasp of.
So what do you think? Is the "Great American Novel" simply a myth, or is it really attainable? Perhaps it is best that our literature represent us as we are: small individual stories that come together to make our literary identity a beautiful mosaic.