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  • >> I am going to start with two quotes.

  • "The 'Great American Novel' continues

  • to be announced every year;

  • in good years there are generally several of them."

  • "Might as well get to work on the Great American Novel."

  • The first comment is by Edith Wharton,

  • writing in some annoyance in 1927,

  • the second by a fictional character

  • in the cult television series The Wire,

  • a veteran journalist facing the sack who bears more

  • than a passing resemblance to the show's creator, David Simon.

  • These remarks 80 years apart suggest two things, I think:

  • first, that in the United States it seems

  • as if a novel is never enough; and secondly,

  • that the novel -- although announced for as long

  • as there have been novels to announce --

  • has not yet been written.

  • Parodied almost as soon as it was conceived, always a tribute

  • to - as emphatic as it is ambiguous,

  • the Great American Novel, or GAN,

  • project has proved monumental.

  • It remains the benchmark

  • for literary ambition, prestige, and sales.

  • And it sometimes also feels

  • like fiction's equivalent of proper man's work.

  • As one reviewer put it, "There comes a time in the midlife

  • of every male American writer when he feels compelled

  • to make his big statement about the state of the union."

  • A recent example -- and I'm sure you'll guess [inaudible] --

  • is Jonathan Franzen, who,

  • following the publication of Freedom in 2010 was showcased

  • on the cover of Time magazine as "Great American Novelist."

  • "I always hated the expression," he said,

  • "mostly because I encountered it in stupid or sneering context."

  • Franzen was not the first writer

  • to approach the Great American Novel equivocally.

  • On the one hand, he chose to write a very long book

  • with a title suggesting national interrogation.

  • On the other, he seemed a bit embarrassed to have done so.

  • And indeed, for every writer who turns 40

  • and buys an extra-large stack of paper,

  • there is another admitting ruefully

  • to having outgrown his Ahab-like -- perhaps Ali-like --

  • obsession with a heavyweight book.

  • Bill Henderson, for example,

  • confessed that while once he'd thought

  • that in Planning Again he would be exposing the crucial

  • facts of the age -- things like Americans are greedy,

  • the Bomb is bad -- what he'd really wanted, he said,

  • was "literary stallionship."

  • For that reason, the GAN is also a bit of a joke,

  • as these deflating cartoons suggest.

  • And perhaps maturity, then, is deciding simply to scale back,

  • as it - another cartoon says,

  • and just write the Mediocre American Novel.

  • Or maybe all that's required is a display of some irony

  • about a still-lingering ambition --

  • say, by wearing a T-shirt inviting others to,

  • "Ask me about my Great American Novel."

  • I have some of this stuff as research.

  • But what was -- what still is -- the GAN?

  • It begins with the partial displacement of epic poetry

  • by the long novel in the second half of the 19th century

  • and extends, I would argue, to the partial displacement

  • of the novel in the 20th and 21st centuries by cinema

  • and other media, from D. W. Griffith's The Birth

  • of a Nation in 1915 through -- as I have already suggested --

  • to David Simon's Zolaesque "visual novel" --

  • his term -- The Wire.

  • And nowhere, I think, is the power of the idea

  • of the GAN more apparent, perhaps, than in its migration

  • from one medium to another.

  • But I also want to ask, "Why the Great American Novel?"

  • Exactly what needs -- social, political, aesthetic,

  • commercial -- does the enterprise serve?

  • Exactly what purposes might its realization be expected

  • to fulfill that so many writers have put

  • so much effort into realizing it?

  • And the obvious answer,

  • the answer that the writers themselves give,

  • concerns national identity.

  • One of the distinguishing features

  • of the Great American Novel is how explicitly, how loudly,

  • it announces that concern.

  • Through titles -- say, USA or Vineland

  • or even America America.

  • Through characters' names --

  • Christopher Newman in Henry James's The American,

  • Undine Spragg, whose initials, of course, are 'U.

  • S.' in Wharton's The Custom of the Country, and all sorts

  • of people whose names begin with an A,

  • such as Willa Cather's My Antonia, the girl -

  • the character notes, who seemed to mean to us the country.

  • The edges of text, conclusions and openings, also do a lot

  • of anxious work in signaling an author's desire

  • to belong to the GAN club.

  • Consider, then, the first episode of The Wire --

  • the first episode of the first series of The Wire.

  • We see a body and then the detective, McNulty,

  • on a stoop questioning a boy who has witnessed a murder.

  • McNulty asks why the boy and his friends kept playing dice

  • with the dead man even though they knew -

  • even after they knew he was a thief.

  • [ Video plays ]

  • >> I've got to ask you.

  • If every time, Snot Boogie [phonetic] would grab the money

  • and run away, why did you even let him in the game?

  • >> What?

  • >> I mean Snot Boogie always stole the money.

  • Why'd you let him play?

  • >> Got to.

  • This is America, man.

  • [ To end of scene ]

  • >> I'm sure everyone would

  • like to spend their lunch hour just watching The Wire.

  • But I mean - but I wouldn't say more about the scene except

  • to point out the way in which this brief exchange serves

  • as a kind of prelude to the series

  • or to the several series -- an announcement that what we are

  • about to watch is more than gritty neighborhood realism.

  • The Wire also has its eye on national allegory.

  • That episode was broadcast in 2002.

  • In 2006, the New York Times Book Review conducted a survey

  • in which they asked a group of luminaries

  • to name the single best work

  • of American fiction published in the last 25 years.

  • From 125 replies, the top five were: Morrison's Beloved,

  • 15 votes; DeLillo's Underworld, 11;

  • McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Updike's tetralogy,

  • Rabbit Angstrom, with 8 each;

  • and Roth's American Pastoral with 7.

  • "To ask for the best work of American fiction,"

  • observes the paper's journalist A.O. Scott, "is not simply

  • to ask for the most beautifully written

  • or the most enjoyable to read.

  • The best works of fiction, according to our tally,

  • appear to be those that successfully assume a burden

  • of cultural importance.

  • They attempt not just the exploration

  • of particular imaginary people and places,

  • but also the illumination of epochs,

  • communities, of the nation itself.

  • America is not only their setting,

  • but also their subject."

  • And that last sentence sounds like a plausible definition

  • of the Great American Novel.

  • But for some people it bets a lot of questions.

  • What about America itself?

  • During the last 20 years or so,

  • critics have become increasingly uneasy with the idea

  • of an essential or exceptional American-ness expressed

  • in a unique fictional style or structure.

  • Surely, they argue, big novels

  • of national interrogation are a feature

  • of many literary traditions --

  • something that was pointed out by Shashi Tharoor

  • in his satirical The Great Indian Novel.

  • Moreover, they ask, aren't the most interesting novels those

  • that reflect our increasingly globalized lives?

  • Shouldn't we rather be reading hemispheric novels --

  • works like these, which I am going to talk about --

  • most notably though, perhaps,

  • Robert Bolano's total novel 2666, praised for its vision

  • of our terrifyingly post-national world?

  • I wonder, though, whether the opposition of national

  • and post-national fiction really makes a lot of sense.

  • National literatures, like nations, have always existed

  • in relation to one another.

  • And great American novelists have always used foreign models.

  • The first plea for the GAN --

  • which I'll discuss in a moment --

  • was for a realist with the scope of Balzac or Manzoni.

  • Later, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair openly emulated

  • Shincovich's Polish national trilogy.

  • John Dos Passos borrowed elements

  • from Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Eisenstein's film montage,

  • and Baroja's Madrid trilogy.

  • Roth's Human Stain is partly modeled on the Iliad.

  • And most recently, both Franzen's Freedom

  • and Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children pay homage

  • to Tolstoy's War and Peace.

  • And it's also, I think, misleading to claim somehow

  • that contemporary fiction such as Franzen's,

  • which features trips --

  • its characters take trips to Lithuania in one book

  • and Paraguay in another --

  • initiates - this fiction initiates some kind

  • of novel of globalization.

  • Perhaps the most persistent subject

  • of the Great American Novel --

  • at least since the international crew of the Pequod took

  • to the oceans in Moby Dick -- has been the mechanisms

  • and consequences of global capitalism.

  • To consider just one other example --

  • something I like to promote since not many people read it --

  • Theodore Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire, an expiration

  • of the intricate networks of money, politics, culture,

  • and sex, at the heart of which can be found Frank Cooperwood,

  • who Dreiser describes as "a rude, raw titan

  • and wandering yokel with an epic in his mouth."

  • In the first book, The Financier,

  • is set in Philadelphia --

  • which we are told had once been the heart of the nation;

  • the second, The Titan, in Chicago,

  • which had become all America.

  • And the final volume, The Stoic,

  • takes its protagonist abroad to Paris, to London, and to India.

  • But having said that, the cosmopolitan-ness

  • of these novels shouldn't be exaggerated.

  • As Bruce Robbins has recently argued in an essay

  • that specifically queries claims for a New Worlding

  • of the American Novel, "Other countries are more often

  • than not simply the means

  • to a more parochial end, more provincial end.

  • It's American lives that must be made sense of."

  • So I want to now kind of go a little -

  • into a little background to the idea

  • of the Great American Novel.

  • The idea was first expounded -- the phrase was first used --

  • in 1868 in an article by John W. De Forest, a novelist

  • and former Union Army officer.

  • In a - in terms that made the writing of fiction sound

  • like a patriotic duty, De Forest called for " --

  • a single tale which paints American life so broadly, truly,

  • and sympathetically that every American of feeling

  • and culture is forced acknowledge the picture

  • as a likeness of something which he knows."

  • The unification of the country -- the United States --

  • becoming, after the Civil War,

  • for the first time a singular noun, required the unification

  • of the novel into a singular tale.

  • The GAN had to " -- bind up the nation's wounds --

  • " in Lincoln's famous phrase.

  • Its job, in other words, was not merely to reflect,

  • but rather strenuously to consolidate national identity.

  • What De Forest wanted was a novel of national breadth,

  • then -- one that would offer a portrait

  • of American society comparable to the European tableau

  • of Balzac or of Thackeray.

  • More particularly, though,

  • he felt that the GAN should represent -- and I quote -- "--

  • an eager and laborious people which takes so many newspapers,

  • builds so many railroads, does the most business

  • in a given capital, wages the biggest war in proportion

  • of its population, believes

  • in the physically impossible, and does some of it."

  • The "believes in the physically impossible and does some

  • of it" could also be a definition of the GAN, I think.

  • Although he discusses many, many novelists in his essay,

  • De Forest's piece is in some ways an advertisement

  • for himself.

  • The previous year he'd published Miss Ravenel's

  • Conversion from Secession to Loyalty,

  • a novel that's now largely forgotten except, perhaps,

  • by Civil War historians.

  • And on the one hand it is simply a love story set

  • against the background of the war.

  • The first page presents a woman, Lillie Ravenel,

  • and a man, Edward Colbourne.

  • And nearly 500 pages later, they marry.