Saturday, March 25, 2023

Questions before dinner

led to another rabbit hole: The Great American Novel seems like a concept designed to keep critics employed. Our effective motto seems to be e pluribus rixae(*), from the Albion's Seed era through today. External enemies unite us for a while, but not very long (I remember the 60's and 70's)--too many people see advantage in leveraging divisions, and quite a number of us find joy in being against things. It's fashionable to be against the fashion? Popular media don't seem quite the uniting force either--as soon as people found ways of getting non-monopoly news they did, and how many channels of music does siriusxm carry?

I have no clear idea what "American" means in this context."

Of course great art can be universal, but then how is it specifically American--aside from its provenance? Is Don Quixote The Great Spanish Novel?

(*) So says google translate.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

A fun question! I will play with it a bit and then see what Wikipedia has to say in contradiction.

Phillip Roth wrote a novel by that name in the 70s, so it must have been around as an idea for at least a couple of generations before that, so I will guess 1900 or a little after. I usually hear Moby Dick mentioned first off the blocks, and I think Huck Finn comes in for quick mention as well. For 20th C works, I think I usually hear of it in the context of people trying to write the Great American Novel, not necessarily succeeding. If someone is making lists, I would guess that something by Faulkner and Hemingway would be on it. I think that somehow in there it has to be about the American experience as a whole, though it would likely focus on a specific era or even incident. Aha! This tells me that The Great Gatsby must be a frequent nominee, and maybe Cooper and Cather. I doubt I want to see what would be included after 1960, as it would irritate me. The list would too obviously be trying to sell postwar liberalism as the "real" America. So two overrated novels To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye would be on it, and it would only get worse from there.

I think if people were approaching the question with an open mind, children's books would have to be high on the list rather than given short shrift. Childhood is when the largest percentage of Americans read novels at all, and lists that only include books for "adults who read serious novels, and are serious about reading serious novels," then that is going to be a limited bunch of us, and a rather self-congratulatory one. But Laura Ingalls Wilder should be on there, especially as females read novels more than males even at young ages. Even though Prince Edward Island is a very New-Englandy setting, I suppose we can't give the title to a Canadian for Anne of Green Gables. Though that would be funny.

I think the Great American Novel would have to be regarded as saying something important about America, rather than about Humanity, as sci-fi and fantasy are more likely to do.

This puts me in mind to write a post about women writers, which I hope to knock out today. Something clicked for the first time from this starting point of yours.

According to Wikipedia, I did moderately well in my guesses. The phrase is older than I expected, and even knowing that things seem to always turn out to be surprisingly newer or surprisingly older than we expect I am still surprised. That sort of national self-consciousness in 1868 seems likely, but I didn't think there would be much literary self-consciousness in America before 1900.


james said...

You took it in a direction I didn't think of. Yes, children's authors deserve better. (Heinlein said the way to write a book for children was to write one for adults and take out the sex.) Margaret Wise Brown strikes me as a better poet than some who have the name for it these days.

Grim said...

I think The Grapes of Wrath might be 'the' great American novel, although The Great Gatsby -- already mentioned -- is usually named. Both of them end up being about the vast hardships brought on in America's capitalist economy, one of them in conditions of poverty and the other by what is necessary to succeed. Both of these elements end up having Marxist roots: Marx has a lot to say about the miserable lot of the petite bourgeoisie, struggling to climb but constantly in peril of being crushed into the misery of the proletariat. Likewise of course about the latter.

I suspect this whole tradition of American scholarship is motivated, in other words; and it's not for no reason that English lit was one of the first academic disciplines lost to the 'march through the institutions.'