After the Great American Novel

After the Great American Novel

The Dream of the Great American Novel by Lawrence Buell

WHAT DO ENGLISH PROFESSORS do with literature? When English departments were first formed in the US at the end of the 19th century, the fashionable professor did “scholarship.” Scholarship’s goal was to turn the study of literature into a science. To achieve that aim, professors engaged in various pedantic tasks, including genealogical research, grammatical analysis, and textual collation. Like much aspirationally scientific work, scholarship took itself too seriously to be very exciting. In some cases it could be dry enough to make you thirsty. And so scholarship eventually yielded to something called “criticism.” This budding form of literary study privileged interpretation. It created a forum in which critics could use literature to engage their politics. And criticism tried hard not to be dry. Many of its most celebrated pioneers wrote with a virtuoso style that borrowed storytelling tricks from literature itself. Criticism began to appear in English departments before the 19th century was out, but its popularity grew after about 1915, its real dominance came after 1945, and its energies were renewed by the vogue for high literary theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Only in the last 25 years has scholarship, with its broad extratextual research and deep empirical digging, been regaining popularity in English departments.

It is not the case, however, that what used to be called “scholarship” is now displacing what used to be called “criticism.” Instead, the two seem to be melding. The labor of English professors in 2014 more and more requires that we pay careful attention to literary texts and write about them with great style (as the best critics do), while at the same time canvassing our research into contexts, backgrounds, multimedia adaptations, and historical archives (as the best scholars have). The emerging unity of these concerns is visible in many sites, including in our classrooms, in public humanities programs, and in the spread of digital publication projects. But one significant indicator that criticism and scholarship have come together in the last two decades has been in a renewed interest in literary history. More scholars are publishing monographs that hybridize historical scholarly research and close critical reading. In so doing, they’re reformulating the history of literature.

One could hardly hope for a better measure of the health of this enterprise than The Dream of the Great American Novel. Lawrence Buell’s masterful study traces the long history behind the idea of the great American novel (or GAN, an acronym first used, unbelievably, by Henry James). The idea of the GAN was born amidst the nationalist longings and economic swells that propelled the United States to ideological importance in the last quarter of the 19th century. No one, then or now, precisely knew what factored into the “greatness” of a great American novel, but the idea of greatness nonetheless persisted as a source of writerly aspiration — and, eventually, of mockery, as many early 20th century novels told stories about flailing writers whose impotent dreams of producing the GAN were the source of their own undoing. It is not only of writers and novels that The Dream gives an accounting, however. At its most searching, this study offers up, too, a history of how we have and might read.

The Dream opens with two chapters tracing the history of its titular term, and then proceeds in four parts, each concerned with the identification and examination of a different narrative template or “script” for the GAN: 1) a narrative made classic by retelling (the exemplary case for adaptation is The Scarlet Letter), 2) a narrative of aspiration (stories of only-in-America mobility, including An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and Invisible Man), 3) a narrative of romance across regional or racial divides (in cases such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn (again), Absalom, Absalom!, Gone With the Wind, and Beloved), and 4) a narrative of improbable communities (or works aspiring to represent the fractured totality of American society, like Moby-Dick, U.S.A., The Grapes of Wrath, and Gravity’s Rainbow).

As this summary will suggest, the book’s plan is not linear. The Dream jumps around in time, through a number of types and a larger number of examples. It traces the specifics of individual texts in detail, finding in its thoughtful examination of particular novels some sense of the GAN up to which they do and do not add. Buell’s command of American literature as a whole, evident in his asides and brief discussions of many texts that would never be contenders for the GAN, is, by itself, impressive. Through the book’s many examples, the reader finds that if “greatness” means any one thing regarding American novels, it would be “exemplarity.” Yet without granting any one text exemplary status, The Dream takes seriously the category of the GAN’s historical drive toward exemplarity, as an object of study and a topic for critical examination. The result, fittingly enough, is a work of literary history that itself could be called exemplary.

To understand why The Dream reads like a literary history of a new style, we can look quickly at a literary history in the old style. The standard of old-style “scholarship” was set in 1878 by Moses Coit Tyler, whose multi-volume History of American Literature told a story of national progress through expressive arts, framed by assumptions that all look very late-19th-century including its conception of “America” as a bounded national entity, with literature stemming directly from a Puritan history and written, overwhelmingly, in English and by men. Today, nearly all of Tyler’s organizing assumptions (about religion, nationalism, race, language, and gender) have been successfully challenged. We now agree that the US has always been a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-faith society, with the currents of literary creativity complexly crossing these lines, as well as gendered ones. Yet here is one place where the distinction between criticism and scholarship becomes very evident: with only a few exceptions, these challenges have been most vocally pronounced by critics of US literature, rather than by scholars. How the multiple diversities of US culture fit into, not literary history, but into the writing of a literary history is something that readers in the field have seen less of than we might. Part of the pleasure one can take in reading The Dream, I am suggesting, is recognizing in its thoughtful conceptualization and its able execution a model for what writing the next chapter of a new American literary history could look like.


Where, according to the model presented by The Dream, is American literary history now? First, it’s concerned with genre. Rather than try to take on “American literature” as such, The Dream focuses on a single literary subcategory. That subcategory, moreover, is not one that the study’s author himself invented: his innovation is not taxonomical. The study takes as its framing term a category that is well-known and much-discussed, even if (and perhaps because) it is sparsely populated and in some sense specious. The Dream understands the GAN as, precisely, a dream — but as it interrogates the category, the subgenre of the GAN is complicated without being decimated or dismissed. Relying on a single (if dynamic) literary subgenre as its conceptual anchor allows The Dream to range impressively elsewhere. Without making its own narrative overly complicated, it is able to draw from literary examples that are multi-ethnic, trans-temporal, and located across the high-brow/low-brow divide.

Second, this new model for literary history embraces the case study. Close textual analysis — so long the hallmark of literary criticism ­— is not absent from what The Dream models. But the study’s close readings show us particularities that, by turns, pull with and against the larger patterns Buell identifies as part of the dream of the GAN. This study values and maintains close reading, but it does so in the service of more macroscopic observations, rather than for its own sake. In more positive terms, we might say that The Dream allocates space for analytical nuance in two registers: that of the individual word and that of the individual work. 

By corollary to this embrace of the case study, then, the third model for literary history we see in The Dream is an aim toward synthesis, even if it (knowingly) doesn’t quite get there. This study is ambitiously researched, and few scholars have the time or the resources to write a book that leaves so few stones unturned. Nevertheless, the study makes no real pretenses to comprehensiveness and, if anything, implies skepticism toward the very idea. The Dream offers synthesis without completeness, which proves to be a useful way of thinking about what case study-based research can accomplish.

Fourth, The Dream is not a revisionist literary history. It does not attempt to retell — or, in the terms used above, to challenge — prevailing assumptions about what US literature is or could be. Instead, it pays respectful attention to the revisionist moves of prior critics. And so, The Dream includes among its examples works by Charles Chesnutt or Harriet Beecher Stowe, which historically have not been consistent candidates for GAN status. By including these works, the study acknowledges how social forces like racism and sexism (as well as anti-racism and feminism) have, over time, shaped the publishing industry, as well as scholarly perspectives. The point here is not the revisionist claim that these works (or, indeed, any particular works) ought to be GANs; rather, the point is to show how our knowledge of the GAN, of the novel, of different candidates and different ways of reading enduring candidates for GAN status, have all evolved in the last century and a half. The Dream outlines a hard and detailed assessment of where we’ve been, and purposefully stops short of doing more. Indeed, one of the most admirable features of this paradigmatic study is that it makes no pretenses to be heralding a new paradigm. 

Finally, and following from the previous observation, The Dream models a version of literary history absent any strong sense of critique. The book gets to 465 pages without villains, without moralism, without much attention to wrongdoing or indignation at injustice. This absence within the study is arguably its most idiosyncratic feature, for so much of what often counts as insight among scholars and critics alike is the shoring up of our literary villages against the invading hordes of middle-brow barbarians with bad politics who are forever at our gates. Yet one finds simply no such moves in The Dream. Instead, what counts as insight is a picture of historical complexity, born of careful research into contradictory views about literary greatness, which nevertheless manage to reveal the meaningfulness of a single, if over-determined, literary category.


A literary history shorn of any strong sense of critique may feel to some readers like a conservative project. This conclusion can be avoided — or at least qualified — as we readers of Buell’s study begin to appreciate why the dream of the GAN has persisted over a century and a quarter. This dream has been resonant not because it has been or can be achieved, and not because it is coherent or even makes all that much sense as a critical designation. Instead, the dream of the GAN has proven to be a useful way of talking. That is to say, one of the chief insights of The Dream is that the ways we talk about literature are, themselves, part of literature. This is true for English professors writing scholarly monographs, but it is also true for publishers and marketing agents, for amateur readers and reviewers, for the students who we teach and who we once were. Novel writers are usually novel readers, and many of them have been some-time novel critics as well. Criticism of the novel is part of the feedback loop that makes “the novel” meaningful as such.

To be fair, The Dream is not the first text to make this point. Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (2009) shows how the rise of creative writing instruction shaped the protocols of postwar US fiction. Lara Langer Cohen’s The Fabrication of American Literature (2012) analyzes how the antebellum flourishing of a “democratic” literary culture amounted to little more than an undemocratic marketing strategy. And indeed, the idea that criticism is part of the feedback loop for the study of literature arguably underpins many of the most salient feminist essays from the 1980s — by Jane Tompkins, Nina Baym, Myra Jehlen, and others — which challenged the then overwhelmingly male canon of US authors by pointing out that the pervasive standards for evaluating US literature were abstracted from the same male-authored texts that were, tautologically, designated as “good” literature.

What distinguishes The Dream from these other excellent studies, however, is that it parts with their sense that feedback loops are something that even professional readers fail to see. Buell’s story can instead be seen as one of complicity. We as scholars and critics of US literature in 2014 work with texts whose critical histories, we are well aware, are complex, discontinuous, and sometimes fraught. The fact that we work with them anyway does nothing to make that critical history less complicated. But when we avow that complicated critical history, as The Dream tries to do, our impulse to critique faces a challenge, for we logically cannot hope to stand outside of and critique the critical discourse in which our very critical discourse is implicated. Though it’s a matter of speculation, part of the turn toward literary history in the new style may be a way of bolstering the incisive aims of critique with a more careful mapping of the historical terrain on which our critiques are built. To admit our complicity may diffuse our critiques — not because the terrain of literary history offers less to critique, but because we must learn new ways to do it.  

The way forward is far from clear, and, as Buell notes wryly in his own conclusion, “Literary historians are always better at reframing pasts than at predicting futures.” This claim is delivered in the service of hesitating to assess what the future of the GAN itself might look like. As much as the foregoing review has put emphasis on the methodology that The Dream works with and implies, it’s worth restating that the study is far more concerned with literature than with how to study literature. But, however indirectly, this stated concern may be a way into the problem of complicity. For to learn how to do a new thing — in this case, to learn how to write a literary history after the exhaustion of certain modes of critique — requires not that we predict the future, but that we attend to the past. And that means studying its contents and contexts (like scholars) just as much as studying its forms and aesthetics (like critics). We are left to consider the models and, hopefully, to dream.


Jordan Alexander Stein is an Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University.

LARB Contributor

Jordan Alexander Stein teaches in the English Department at Fordham University. He is co-editor of Early African American Print Culture (U Penn Press, 2012) and a contributing writer at Avidly.


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