The Dream of the Great American Novel

The Dream of the Great American Novel

by Lawrence Buell

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The idea of "the great American novel" continues to thrive almost as vigorously as in its nineteenth-century heyday, defying 150 years of attempts to dismiss it as amateurish or obsolete. In this landmark book, the first in many years to take in the whole sweep of national fiction, Lawrence Buell reanimates this supposedly antiquated idea, demonstrating that its

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The idea of "the great American novel" continues to thrive almost as vigorously as in its nineteenth-century heyday, defying 150 years of attempts to dismiss it as amateurish or obsolete. In this landmark book, the first in many years to take in the whole sweep of national fiction, Lawrence Buell reanimates this supposedly antiquated idea, demonstrating that its history is a key to the dynamics of national literature and national identity itself.

The dream of the G.A.N., as Henry James nicknamed it, crystallized soon after the Civil War. In fresh, in-depth readings of selected contenders from the 1850s onward in conversation with hundreds of other novels, Buell delineates four "scripts" for G.A.N. candidates. One, illustrated by The Scarlet Letter, is the adaptation of the novel's story-line by later writers, often in ways that are contrary to the original author's own design. Other aspirants, including The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man, engage the American Dream of remarkable transformation from humble origins. A third script, seen in Uncle Tom's Cabin and Beloved, is the family saga that grapples with racial and other social divisions. Finally,mega-novels from Moby-Dick to Gravity's Rainbow feature assemblages of characters who dramatize in microcosm the promise and pitfalls of democracy.

The canvas of the great American novel is in constant motion, reflecting revolutions in fictional fashion, the changing face of authorship, and the inseparability of high culture from popular. As Buell reveals, the elusive G.A.N. showcases the myth of the United States as a nation perpetually under construction.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Impressive in scope, erudition, and detail, this survey of U.S. literary and cultural history by Harvard professor Buell (Emerson) envisions the “distinctive and durable preoccupation” of identifying the Great American Novel (G.A.N.) as an endless quest to capture “the American soul” in “geographical scope” and “sociological comprehensiveness,” and as a relevant set of criteria for evaluating works of significance or mass appeal. Nominally the history of an idea, Buell offers a series of seasoned and insightful analyses on the “defining works” grouped by four different “scripts”: the “detailed ethnography of early colonial culture and institutions” (Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter); the “rags to riches” arc (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and others); the history of slavery (Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Morrison’s Beloved); and epic “megafictions” (Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow). Buell argues that the greatest novels cast a critical eye on “the gap between democratic promise and actuality” disguised by national myths. In addition, he decodes how these books shape political and social philosophies, accruing “cultural capital” if not icon status, as with Melville’s Moby-Dick. Buell sees well beyond the canonical Great White Males and perceives American studies as a properly “transnational” and “transpacific” profession. Buell’s engaging book should itself become a landmark of American studies, as it exemplifies precisely why great literature needs to be read and taught. (Feb.)
Booklist (starred review) - Bryce Christensen
Rich in critical insight, Buell’s analysis locates scores of novels in its interpretive mosaic. And even in a conclusion suggesting that America’s global decline dims the prospects for its realization, Buell wonders if the [Great American Novel] isn’t stirring again in surprising new developments in science fiction. An impressively ambitious literary survey.
Virginia Quarterly Review - Michael Dirda
Magisterial… Buell’s magnum opus… Buell can summarize an argument or a plot with eye-opening precision—and make you suddenly see new things in familiar books… The grateful audience for this book will be other scholars and teachers of American literature, who will plunder its pages for decades to come. And plunder it they will because, all cavils aside, Buell proffers brilliant analyses of a dozen or so front-runners in the Great American Novel sweepstakes.
Wall Street Journal - Michael Gorra
Anyone reading it will learn a great deal about the state and the study of our national literature.
Prospect - Elaine Showalter
Lawrence Buell…deserves congratulations for taking on this broad and controversial subject… Whether it survives or has ever existed, the GAN is really just a critical peg on which Buell hangs some fine analyses of canonical American novels.
Times Higher Education - Peter Messent
As I read this book I was excited by the unexpectedness, even brilliance of many of its commentaries. This is an important work that every scholar of American literature and many who are not, will want to read. It redefines the concept of the Great American Novel and rethinks the nature of the canonical for our contemporary critical times.
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
Lawrence Buell’s endlessly fascinating new book The Dream of the Great American Novel does the best job of any book yet at anatomizing that strangest and most anachronistically imperishable cultural idea, the Great American Novel…The readings of the key texts are always invigorating, and one of the consistently most enjoyable aspects of those readings is how current they feel…In a slightly more vigorous literary environment than the one currently in place in the Republic of Letters, Buell’s big book would spark good-naturedly heated nationwide debates…And who knows? Such arguments might happen yet, if enough passionate readers buy this book. Certainly every passionate reader should.
New Republic - Michael Kimmage
An astonishing feat of erudition, The Dream of the Great American Novel takes in all of American literature, much of modern European literature, and sizeable swaths of world literature. It is a book intended to capture the curve of American history, the sweep of American culture, and the enigmas of national character--and it encompasses all the relevant scholarship as well. Indeed, Buell is among the most distinguished living scholars of American literature. Dazzling in its range, The Dream of the Great American Novel honors the preeminent American studies ideal of inclusiveness. America’s infinite variety is given its proper due, an achievement of the imagination that doubles as an ethical achievement…The Dream of the Great American Novel reveals a genetic structure to American literature, wheels that are constantly being reinvented, as motifs and forms are borrowed, appropriated, refined, sentimentalized, de-sentimentalized, sacralized, and satirized…Buell’s tour-de-force chapter on Beloved, in which all of American history seems to converge, makes for the finest pages of this robustly original book… Buell’s magnum opus.
Chicago Tribune - Nicholas Delbanco
This is an ambitious work about an enduring ambition…What emerges from [Buell's] inquiry is a close consideration of those books that have captured the state of our divided yet United States…This is a valuable contribution to and codification of a subject often discussed but seldom examined with scholarly focus before.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Jordan Alexander Stein
Lawrence Buell’s masterful study traces the long history behind the idea of the great American novel… Buell’s command of American literature as a whole, evident in his asides and brief discussions of many texts that would never be contenders for the GAN, is, by itself, impressive…The Dream takes seriously the category of the GAN’s historical drive toward exemplarity, as an object of study and a topic for critical examination. The result, fittingly enough, is a work of literary history that itself could be called exemplary.
Times Literary Supplement - Sarah Graham
Impressive…Whatever text he is discussing, [Buell’s] analysis demonstrates finely tuned critical skills and a deep love of literature. He consistently communicates what it is about these novels that makes them compelling and artistically significant…Engaging and provocative…The Dream of the Great American Novel ultimately affirms the importance of literature to a nation’s sense of itself.
Novel - Richard H. Brodhead
This is a massive, compendious book, self-consciously a magnum opus.
Sewanee Review - John Gatta
Beyond any doubt, The Dream of the Great American Novel qualifies as the definitive study of a pivotal theme that continues to bear in surprising ways on U.S. cultural history as well as literary aesthetics. The book demands attention, too, because of its provocative, finely textured reassessment of nearly our entire novelistic heritage, articulated by a leading scholar-critic of American letters with unsurpassed knowledge of the whole.
Robert A. Ferguson
Lawrence Buell has read and mastered every novel you can think of and many you have never heard of. One result, among many others, is the definitive study of a concept so tenacious—and so caught between idea, claim, sham, and belief—that no major writer in the culture has ever been able to avoid it. The idea of The Great American Novel has been capitalized in fame, shame, and ridicule over the years, but no one before Buell has given it the full understanding it deserves. This book marvelously captures the compulsive but ever-changing communal needs that have made the idea of America a fictional playground for every writer and reader in the nation.
Mark McGurl
Demonstrating an enviable command of the full sweep of modern literary history, but also an expert eye for the telling individual case, Buell’s analysis of the dream of the Great American Novel is itself a great work of Americanist literary criticism, brilliantly faithful both to the anachronism and the continuing urgency of the idea at its heart. One comes away from this highly readable book with a new understanding of how certain works of literature have made themselves matter to American readers and, what’s more, an exquisitely balanced sense of the prospects for the novel’s future as an expression of national identity—and national discord.
Wai Chee Dimock
Wide-ranging and astute, Lawrence Buell’s literary history revolves around an unkillable dream, around scripts that make some texts institutions.
Kirkus Reviews
A history and investigation of a literary concept that has "refused to die." The idea of the Great American Novel (nicknamed GAN by Henry James) as a writer's golden quest seemed to Buell (American Literature/Harvard Univ.; The Future of Environmental Criticism, 2005, etc.) to have devolved from its 19th-century origins to become a media cliché not worth more consideration than "a brisk, short narrative." However, the author became intrigued as he looked at some of the works proposed for the honorific. Could any novel, as novelist John W. De Forest asked in 1868, capture "the American soul"? That question reflected anxieties about "national cultural legitimacy" when expansionism and post–Civil War reunification raised nettling concerns about the nation's identity. These questions, Buell contends, are still worth asking, even though the country's "fractious heterogeneity" has led to the idea of plural GANs. What, he asks, can thinking about GANs reveal "about how the novels in question work, about national culture generally, about novels as carriers or definers of cultural nationality, and about what value to set on all that--whether it's cultural asset or cultural baggage"? He responds by proposing that a GAN needs to meet one of four criteria: to be reimagined by later authors (e.g., The Scarlet Letter); to trace the life of a typically American type (e.g., The Great Gatsby); to consider the impact of social, ethnic or racial divisions (e.g., Uncle Tom's Cabin; Beloved); or to reflect on the complications of democracy and "the imperiled social collective" (e.g, Dos Passos' U.S.A.). Buell, whose major scholarship has focused on transcendentalism and, more recently, environmentalism, takes a conversational and sometimes-humorous tone as he offers perceptive analyses of novels and their receptions, especially by those who championed their choices as GANs. Although readers will encounter many usually canonized suspects, Buell's scope is wide enough to encompass the varieties of novelists' imaginations and to consider the implications of multiculturalism and globalism in redefining the future of American fiction.

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