The Great American novel, Buell and MR redux

by on February 19, 2014 at 10:56 am in Books, History | Permalink

Here is Lawrence Buell on the hunt for the Great American Novel.  Here is and my original 2006 post on that question, and its later follow up.  My dark horse picks are here.

Roy February 19, 2014 at 11:19 am

Let’s just say it is Huckleberry Finn and forget it. Or we can go with Moby Dick, a lot of people lie about reading that one. Otherwise We end up arguing about Gone With The Wind and Peyton Place….

And what is the Great English novel anyway? The French have Les Miserables, the Russians War and Peace, the Chinese Hongloumeng, but what is the Great German novel? Is The Betrothed really the great Italian novel, why not Orlando Furioso, I know it isn’t prose, or Il Gattopardo?

All the Spanish language novels I really like post date Don Quixote, but then most novels do… That doesn’t seem to have harmed Spanish lit much. Likewise American literature post Huckleberry Finn has only been an improvement. If we went with something like the Scarlet Letter we could be as lucky as the Spanish.

Joe February 19, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Middlemarch is the great English novel.

PD Shaw February 19, 2014 at 4:04 pm

But there are no orcs, or Anglo-Saxon longhouses IIRC.

Z February 19, 2014 at 11:34 am

Recently I read a book on sub-Saharan Africa in the 20th century. The writer is/was British and was a foreign correspondent for London dailies. He talked about “new journalism” in the 1950′s, practiced by British reporters who had been in the war. They wanted to give the reader a better sense of what they were seeing on the ground. I wonder if Wolfe stole the idea from the Brits. But, I guess you slap the word “new” on anything.

Writing about the greatest [whatever] is an easy way to fill column space, but it is not useful beyond that. There’s a category of great novels, just as there are great players in sports. There’s no way to rank one above the other because that is a matter of taste. I enjoyed Moby Dick much more than I enjoyed Huckleberry Finn, but I liked Crime and Punishment better than Moby Dick.

chuck martel February 19, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Buell’s article is about what you’d expect from Salon. Tom Wolfe, an innovator in journalistic technique and essays, failed big time with his cartoonish “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Cormac McCarthy may well be the most over-rated novelist of any generation but his work appeals to fellow members of English departments so sadly freshmen will be compelled to read his junk for years to come. “Moby Dick” is right up there but it may have only been just one of Melville’s best books. “White Jacket” changed the way the US Navy went about its business. Oddly, no one mentions, in any of this, Calder Willingham, Jr. and his amazing “Eternal Fire”, the quintessential Southern Gothic novel.

C February 19, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Buell mentions Blood Meridian at one point in the Salon piece, and I think that might be my vote for a strong late 20th Century contender.

But I don’t think it makes much sense to vote on a single “winning” title, since all of the reasonable contending works will be spectacular in their own rights for various reasons and over time there will be subjective and historical reasons why one title might seem “more GAN” than another. That said, if a winning title must be picked at any given time, then I sort of like how Sight and Sound does their once every decade vote of the greatest film; it has become a kind of historical record of how particular films fare over time and reinforces what I think is the reality that it really depends on where you are as a film viewer (in the case of Sight and Sound — a reader in the case of the GAN) and it also depends on when (in a general historical sense) you are considering the question.

Roy February 19, 2014 at 1:39 pm

I think you are on to something here. Right now I would put Blood Meridian as the greatest American novel since 1970, but I wouldn’t say it was even the best postwar novel. Another thing is that I am from Texas and grew up in the Southwest, that novel speaks to me. If I was from the East Coast or Pacific Northwest it would probably not be my #1. That is the thing about Moby Dick it is pretty universal, but maybe that is because no American alive has gone whaling in the south seas. Giants in the Earth has always moved me, but I grew up with stories of homesteading Montana from my Swedish aunts, I doubt many other Americans would find that feeling in a Great American Novel originally written in Norwegian.

The problem is the “Great American Novel” (TM) has to be all encompassing and yet relatable. We don’t expect that of movies, we can have Casablanca, The Searchers, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We can take this set and say “These movies define us” but can a single novel do that? Don Quixote can do that for Spanish speakers because in addition to be amazingly good, it lies at the root of Spanish literature, written at at the dawn of the Golden Age. Everything that came after was colored by it. We are a colonial society, we don’t have that. We just have Shakespeare and Dickens, but they are hardly American.

bob February 19, 2014 at 3:51 pm

I am basically a McCarthy superfan but I wouldn’t say that any of his works qualify.

ricardo February 19, 2014 at 1:23 pm

In the ‘dark horse’ post, Natasha was right! But it really is a young person’s book.

I also nominate “Harlot’s Ghost”. From a Mailer biography:

“Despite its flaws, the novel is still a magnificent, if incomplete, achievement, reminiscent of an unfinished cathedral. It ends with the words: ‘To be continued,’ a promise never fulfilled.”

What could be more American?

Jackson Marten February 19, 2014 at 2:16 pm

I agree with Moby Dick, but my second choice would be the oft-overlooked East of Eden.

dearieme February 19, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Tom Finn meets the Wizard of Oz.

Steve Sailer February 19, 2014 at 4:54 pm

The Trayvon Martin brouhaha was just The Bonfire of the Vanities’ main plotline a quarter of a century later, suggesting that Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel remains the best most prophetic guide to How America Works.

cthulhu February 20, 2014 at 10:14 am

But I would place “A Man In Full” above “Bonfire”; it’s just as deliciously cutting and ironic, but has more heart and beauty. The same kind of scope that makes “The Right Stuff” so goddamned good.

Todd February 19, 2014 at 5:12 pm

John Williams’ novels are getting a deserved re-evaluation (which I guess started in Europe). It will be interesting to see if “Stoner” or “Augustus” climb up on these types of lists in 5-10 years.

Glittering prizes February 19, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Why would any gifted artist want to write the Great American Novel? The poor schlub would only wind up, soon after reaching middle age, like poor suspicious Pushkin, on syllabi, stamps, currency and other historical detritus. Better to be a funny stooge, an admired dancer with access to the best nightclubs and country homes, an overlooked writer with loyal friends or a loving family, or someone like WC Fields, with or without celluloid in your blood.

Enrico February 20, 2014 at 4:13 am

I like your thread….very light hearted…:-) What about The catcher in the rye by Salinger? Your question reminds me also the theme of the movie Finding Forrester… I do not think there is such a thing as “the great american novel”….you cannot really make an hit parade out of literature.However good to stimulate an intellectual discussion:-)

Bill McCullam February 20, 2014 at 8:52 am

The Ten Most Undeservedly Neglected
American Children’s Picturebooks of the 20th Century

Cattermole has long had a category we call “Undeservedly Neglected.” These are great books children enjoy and which often have outstanding literary or aesthetic qualities, but are also books that have been ignored or forgotten. They are characterized by a close fit between text and pictures.
When we began, it seemed as if many of the books from our childhood would vanish; a view that today seems naïve. Certainly, we did not imagine how the forces of economics and nostalgia would ensure the survival of so many. Generally speaking, the best are still in print and look very much as they did 50 or 100 years ago.
Most chapter books can be cheaply reprinted, and have been, so there are few neglected titles. The problem seems to apply to picturebooks. Many of these depend on hand production techniques: gravure printing, stone lithography (chromolithography), pochoir; or on subtleties of paper quality and binding. It’s hard to justify the costs of reprinting them faithfully. Clare Turlay Newberry’s April’s Kittens (1940) is scarcely neglected, having won a Caldecott Honor, but cannot be economically reprinted with gravure (letterpress). Compounding the problem is the lack of respect for the picturebook form. This leads to many bad decisions in cases of reprints that differ fundamentally from the original. Perhaps it’s churlish in the era of Kindle to reject a modern reprint of a classic simply because coated (shiny) paper must be used in place of uncoated (flat) paper to ensure color fidelity. However, an undeservedly neglected book is one that has generally not been reprinted at all.
The New York Review of Books should be mentioned here. Their reprint list of children’s classics has removed a number of books we might have considered neglected such as Esther Averill’s Jenny’s Birthday Book. This reprint is only 80% of the size of the original and lacks a dustjacket, but, still, it is a copy that’s available. Clare Huchet Bishop and Robert McCloskey’s The Man Who Lost His Head is another from the NYR list that was on our list a few years ago.
We do have foreign books on our mental list but this presumes too much. We can’t judge translation and don’t know about other books that may be even better than our favorites. We do know American books, so this list is limited to those.

1) Alice Coats’ 1939 title, The Story of Horace, is about a family’s pet bear who is so lovable he is forgiven for any behavior. This book was reprinted in England in 1948 and now even available on Kindle for $0.99! A bargain. We still have it on our list because it is not well enough known.

2) William Pène DuBois’ first book, Elisabeth the Cow Ghost from 1936 (he was 20 at the time) is about a Elisabeth, a cow who returns from the dead to convince her friends how fierce she really was. This was reprinted with revised text and a larger format in 1963; we prefer the earlier, smaller format. This one can also be had with some change from a $500 bill.

3) Roger Duvoisin’s first book, 1932, was A Little Boy Was Drawing. This one originated in some sketches made by his four-year old son. It shares the same postmodern meme of the protagonist acting as creator (draftsman) of the story line as Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, 1955 and a book we are tempted to add, namely, Rene D’Harnoncourt’s The Hole in the Wall, 1931. The reason we passed was that it is dated by the onion soup, which is no longer so popular. Were it about chicken soup instead of onion soup we suspect it would be much better known. This one will cost $1,000 or $2,000 online.

4) Klutch, M.S. and Kurt Wiese’s Mr. 2 of Everything, 1946. A terrific book that was and still is not politically correct, having 2 wives.

5) Koch, Dorothy / Feodor Rojankovsky made a wonderful picturebook, I Play at the Beach, 1955. The artist was just freed from his indenture to Artists & Writers and celebrated with this glowing account featuring his own daughter. A copy can be had for under $200.

6) Krauss, Ruth / Ad Reinhardt produced a hilarious picturebook, A Good Man and His Good Wife, 1944, which probably can never be reprinted because of the artist’s shame for what he felt belittles his art. It doesn’t, quite the contrary. It was reprinted with illustrations by Marc Simont, which are not nearly so good.

7) The Secret Seller, 1967, by Betty Jean Lifton and illustrated with b&w photos by Norma Holt and color drawings by Etienne Delessert. It is a simple story about playing in New York’s Central Park, with, however, some gnomes that only appear to children. Only a single, damaged copy is for sale on the internet.

8) Frank Owens is one of the authors on our list who have themselves fallen through the cracks of history. In 1945 he wrote Morris, the Midget Moose, a funny Freudian story of co-operation. You can get a copy for $1,000.

9) Carl Raymund is the other author who is gone with the wind, but in 1957 he wrote a book called A Little Man Dressed in Red, another funny book for young children. and available on the internet for less than $100.

10) Will (Mordvinoff) & Nicolas (Lipkind)’s 1950 book, The Two Reds, actually won a Caldecott Honor, but due to the Communist menace has vanished without a trace. It’s a great story of a boy and a cat playing together in the city. There are no copies avaialble on line.

We apologize in advance for neglecting everyone’s favorite, but, we would be genuinely delighted to hear from readers. There are a great many books we considered. A number of been reprinted, for good or ill. Clare Turlay Newberry’s Herbert the Lion, 1939, was reprinted at a larger size by Smithmark a few years ago. Unfortunately, they choose the 1956 revised edition to reprint, not so much fun as the original; although more politically correct. Jim Flora’s great Fabulous Fireworks Family of 1955 might have made the list. It is not well known, although it has been reprinted a number of time, again with revisions by the author. A family favorite is Edith and Tekla Ackley’s two little books, Please and Thank You, 1941. These have the look of hand-made books.

Edgar February 20, 2014 at 8:58 am

Kem Nunn has been rewriting Moby Dick for 30 years now but his latest, Chance, more fully and accurately conveys the essence of the US at this point in time than any other book. Delving deeply into the characteristics that make the US so different than any other place on Earth – the world’s highest prevalence of mental illness, divorce, and incarceration, our corrupt and abusive cops, the pervasive anxiety wrought by our hopelessly complex tax code by which the IRS can swoop down and destroy lives at whim, its all there and much, much more. Sure to be canon and definitely meets the other Cowen criteria.

bobster1940 February 20, 2014 at 1:25 pm

I just got into this discussion and missed the 2006 entries. I am surprised that Dreiser gets almost no mention. The Cowperwood trilogy is quintessentially American and large in scope. Sister Carrie is powerful and Jennie Gerhardt is moving. Dreiser is not a great stylist, but the prose marches on and fits the narrative. Henry James and Faulkner are my candidates. The Ambassadors (James’s favorite) is the best as it beautifully highlights the stranded American (Strether) in Europe with all his strengths and vulnerabilities. Faulkner’s great novels – The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August and Absalom! Absalom! were written were written between 1929 and 1936 with Sanctuary (under-rated) and Pylon (strange) thrown in. Incredible creative output. The range of comic (As I Lay Dying most of Light in August and the Jason section of The Sound and the Fury) to tragic (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Hightower in Light in August) is breathtaking. The novels of Faulkner that may be the most “American” are the Snopes series – The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion. Essentially comic, they chronicle the rise of the takeover of the town by the rural, low class Snopes family. I agree that Bellow and Roth compete in this arena, but it is hard to name a stand out . As a University of Chicago graduate student in the ’60′s, I favor Herzog and Letting Go as they are largely set in Hyde Park. Roth’s When She Was Good is little known, but poignant to a mid-westerner.

don wallace February 20, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Once you reject the flow-through concept–all works by an author are one work–then you lose Faulkner and Melville (don’t ever forget Benito Cereno, though). And those two tower. Another I would like to have seen up there is Charles Portis, but he slowed down after Gringos–you get the feeling the absurdity of American life caught up to his patented stock in trade. Same for Barry Hannah, who in a few stories produces effects I’ve rarely felt in literature. Portis and Hannah are humorists, too, and we know that, except for Twain, they don’t win prizes. Robert Stone, for Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, Outerbridge Reach and Damascus Gate, would get my hedged vote. But we’re talking about one book.

And where are the women? Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres, has the heartland going for it, but I guess the King Lear overlay affected the judges from the Ukraine.

Blood Meridian has great texture and stunning descriptions, but falls short due to a fatalistic, mechanical plot, or better, character: The Judge. I think a book with greatness can’t be a tour de force, and that’s what BM is. I loved it, too.

As a Westerner, I am always surprised at how we are slighted; but then everyone probably feels that way about home. Raymond Chandler: has there been any voice more influential in American writing? So, go with The Long Goodbye. Philip K Dick: more movies produced by Hollywood than anyone, certifiably nuts at times. The Man in the High Castle is the only counterfactual that includes its own (fleeting) allusion to an alternative (ours) universe that doesn’t taste of cheese–and makes it poetic. Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose, if it weren’t too dependent on a woman’s mss that she showed him as a supplicant, gets into the ring, but falls to the sort of long-life-lived limitations that also drag Cather down. It’s just one damn thing after another with a lot of realists.

The current mood feels safest acclaiming books that have Wikipedia worthy subtexts (so many novels about Wittgenstein! so little time) or lofty topics for those who find fiction too plebian (DFWallace, aka The Other One) or resemble a cutup of an old issue of Time Magazine (sorry Mr Franzen) or do history in various voices. At this point, the question fragments into regional/cultural preferences. So give it to Moby Dick because, like Everest, it is there.

nike air max 95 March 13, 2014 at 4:38 am

BEIJING, Feb. 21 (Xinhua) — A Beijing-based Tibetology scholar has criticized the Dalai Lama’s Friday meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House, saying it was another “anti-China farce.” “Once again, the Dalai Lama slipped into the White House Map Room for a so-called ‘unofficial meeting’ with Obama. This was another farce against China,” said Lian Xiangmin, a researcher with the China Tibetology Research Center, in a signed article.

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