For most Americans, reading as an important and shared cultural activity starts — and sometimes ends — with high school and college English classes. Part of that indoctrination has been, and still is, the idea of the Great American Novel.
Yes, who can get through life without reading at least The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby? These novels do indeed present a lasting image of the “American experience,” which is why they’re still read today. But meanwhile, the following question hangs in the air: What are the contemporary novels that will be foisted upon generations to follow? Although writers like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer are anxious to claim that they’ve already written them, and there are many, many other good examples to point to (see sidebar), we seem to have lost interest in the debate.
So why does the idea of the Great American Novel seem so outdated and irrelevant?
“I think maybe (it’s) because the novel came into being in the 18th century at a time when the form was appropriate to the cultural needs of the people who were reading them,” states Wayne State University professor of English Jerry Herron. “It was a kind of reporting on everyday life that seemed very important to readers. What’s happened now is that the world is certainly prepared to give us back images of our own experience that are meaningful and moving, but those tend not to be print-based. I think that if you want to find the Great American Novel, watch TV or go to the movies. The unfolding career of Bart Simpson, for example, his 10-year epic journey. … That’s our Odysseus and our Ulysses.”
The change in attitudes about the Great American Novel is a good way to gauge our feelings about the purpose of reading and our feelings about American society as a whole. It starts with an anxiety to show that our arts, as a reflection of our identity, are as legitimate as any other nation’s. This came to a head during the first half of the 20th century, as the United States became a world leader and our need to assert ourselves intensified. A perfect example of this is Moby Dick being out of print for 60 years until, after World War I, it was championed by academics as — you guessed it — the Great American Novel. If it weren’t for the need to find proof of American literary works of merit, the book would probably still be out of print (and now you know who to thank).
To put it simply, the Great American Novel is important only so long as we define and place value judgments on literature. Today, due to a lack of interest and/or need, those definitions seems to be disappearing — unfortunately to be replaced by marketing concerns. Which is not to say that Americans are dumber or more illiterate than we once were. In fact, as we move away from ideas like the Great American Novel, hope increases for a healthy environment of reading in this country. That’s because we can finally start looking at books not because our educators or Oprah or publishers tell us they’re important — few things could be more responsible for Americans getting turned off by literature — but rather because they have something meaningful to offer us.
It’s no small wonder that few women, gay or minority writers claim to have written the Great American Novel. It’s no small wonder that, as the United States becomes more fragmented and diverse forms of media are developed, the likelihood that a single American novel could capture everything, and be widely read while getting it all right, seems smaller and smaller. Which is probably the one thing that everyone can agree on.
Is that a good or a bad thing? It all depends on who you ask.Aaron Warshaw is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org