From The Harvard Gazette:
Literary critics tend to discredit the concept of a “Great American Novel” as nothing more than media hype — an arbitrary appellation that has more to do with pipe dreams than merit. And yet, what would-be author hasn’t imagined, when putting pen to paper, what it would feel like to be hailed as the greatest chronicler of the age? For Lawrence Buell, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, this contradiction is an important theme in the tradition of American fiction writing. Buell is currently tracing the history of the “Great American Novel” concept from the mid-1800s to the present day, in the hopes of unveiling why the ideal continues to exert cultural influence and invite such heated public debate. According to Buell, the idea of a Great American Novel was put into circulation immediately following the Civil War, as part of the reconciliation process. “It was a follow-up, in the cultural sphere, to political reunification,” Buell says. “There was a sense among Americans that ‘at last we have a nation, and it’s time to articulate that.’”
In modern times, Buell says, other 19th century novels such as “Moby Dick,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and “Huckleberry Finn” have become perennial nominees for the fabled title. Nominations of recent texts, however, seem to be more influenced by shifts in literary fashion. During the mid-20th century, for example, the fortunes of “The Great Gatsby” rose while John Dos Passos’ “U.S.A.” trilogy came to be seen as an outmoded period piece.