Why The Great American Novel Doesn’t Exist

In reading Susan Straight’s lovely essay on the important books of her childhood, we find a defense of her claim that, good as it is, broad as it may be, the best American writing has always been regional.

She is correct about this.  As much as I yearn to read the novel about America, the one book that represents us most fully and accurately, I know that all of the candidates we’ve had–The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Sound and the Fury–and all of the candidates we’ve had since these great four were published have all been regional works:  novels tied to the life and land and ethos of a particular set of states.  I don’t know that anyone can write a great book about the whole of America, because no one can occupy the whole of it, inhabit the whole of it, or take the measure of the whole of it.

I think Moby-Dick comes closest to filling the bill because of its wonderful evocation of the ocean.  (We are, after all, a land with three seacoasts).  But Melville’s book is still as much a part of New England as Hawthorne’s masterpiece is, and only Hawthorne’s book does any justice to women at all.

So, still we wait for a work that transcends its place of origin, and gives to us a fair picture of American hopes and dreams.  A lot of people have tried to produce such a work (John Dos Passos, for instance).  Even William Least Heat Moon’s travel book Blue Highways tries to give us a complete sense of this land and its peoples, but nobody’s done it yet in fiction.

Can it be done?

Maybe.

Let’s get to work out there.

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One thought on “Why The Great American Novel Doesn’t Exist

  1. Pingback: Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss | Books Here And There

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