Tyler Malone at The Hedgehog Review:
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Great American Novel was born in 1868, only a few years after the end of the Civil War. Writing in The Nation, John William DeForest formulated the notion, defining it not just as the best novel by an American author but as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” DeForest argued that Hawthorne, whom he lauded as having “the greatest of American imaginations,” fell short of achieving the accolade. Although books such as The Scarlet Letter were “full of acute spiritual analysis,” the characters belonged to “the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality.” Indeed, DeForest found them to be “as probably natives of the furthest mountains of Cathay or of the moon as of the United State of America.” The Great American Novel, he determined, must take up the “task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel.”
That the formulation of the Great American Novel came in the wake of a bloody conflict that split the country in two reveals much: Americans yearned for myths that would renew their sense of common purpose, that would encourage them to reexamine their foundational values and guiding principles, their darkest sins and loftiest aspirations.