Adam Kirsch in Harvard Magazine:
The phrase “The Great American Novel” means something more than the sum of its parts. There are plenty of great American novels that are not Great American Novels: Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady doesn’t qualify, and neither does Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or Willa Cather’s The Lost Lady, even though everyone acknowledges them as classics. No, the Great American Novel—always capitalized, like the United States of America itself—has to be a book that contains and explains the whole country, that makes sense of a place that remains, after 230-odd years, a mystery to itself. If other countries don’t fetishize their novels in quite this way—if the French don’t sit around waiting for someone to write the Great French Novel—it may be because no country is so much in need of explanation.
Hardly anyone talks about the Great American Novel without a tincture of irony these days. But as Lawrence Buell shows in The Dream of the Great American Novel, his comprehensive and illuminating new study, that is nothing new: American writers have always held the phrase at arm’s length, recognizing in it a kind of hubris, if not mere boosterism. Almost as soon as the concept of the Great American Novel was invented, in the nation-building years after the Civil War, Buell finds it being mocked, noting that one observer dryly put it into the same category as “other great American things such as the great American sewing-machine, the great American public school, and the great American sleeping-car.” It was enough of a cliché by 1880 for Henry James to refer to it with the acronym “GAN,” which Buell employs throughout his book. Yet Buell warns us against taking all this dismissal at face value: “critical pissiness suggests the persistence of some sort of hydrant,” as he puts it. Even today, in our endlessly self-conscious literary era, novelists are still writing candidates for the GAN. What else are Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, or Don DeLillo’s Underworld, if not attempts to capture the essence of American modernity between two covers?