Can a Single Book Sum Up a Nation?

Rb_dirda_opt_85Michael Dirda at VQR:

Initially, the nineteenth-​century passion fordefining and creating “national” novels arose from what Buell dubs “cultural legitimation anxiety.” Early attempts at the GAN aimed to portray the distinctive character of the young United States, often celebrating Yankee virtues, such as drive and know-​how, but sometimes revealing how far the country had fallen away from the foundational ideals of liberty and equality. These days, of course, we have grown leery of “exceptionalist self-​imaginings” or grand unitary visions of our ethnically and culturally diverse society. According to critic Mark McGurl, the contemporary American writer often “ ‘disaffiliates from the empirical nation … in order to affiliate with a utopian sub-​nation, whether that be African-​ or Asian-​ or Mexican-​’ or Native.” Buell argues back, however, that American life has always been characterized by “the tension between synthesis and particularism.” Even the lack of glue, “the perceived (non)relation between fractious parts has itself been one of the drivers of GAN thinking from the start.”

Buell, as these quotations should make clear, has thought hard and carefully about his subject. He is, after all, a distinguished (if now emeritus) professor of American literature at Harvard, admired by some of the shrewdest scholars of our literature, including Robert D. Richardson (biographer of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James) and Philip F. Gura, who dedicated his last book,Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, to Buell.

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