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?


Let’s get to work out there.


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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s