Thursday, 14 July 2005

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A History of the Great American Novel, Part I: In Which It Has Not Yet Been Written. The earliest example of the phrase "the Great American Novel" available in any of the databases I can access online occurs in T.S. Perry's 1873 review of "American Novels" in The North American Review. Of course, given the context of the occurance, I'm not entirely sure it's the first: We have often wondered that the people who raise the outcry for the "Great American Novel" did not see that, so far from being of any assistance to our fellow-countryman who is trying to win fame by writing fiction, they have rather stood in his way by setting up before him a false aim for his art, and by giving the critical reader a defective standard by which to judge his work. (366) Who are "the people who raise the outcry for the 'Great American Novel'"? According to an anonymous critic writing in The Aldine (also in 1873), they are Those who, since the days of Cooper, Irving, Hawthorne, the lamented Theodore Winthrop, and the publication of Mrs. Stowe's famous story, have been impatiently waiting for "the great American novel," without knowing exactly what they want or expect. (188) This anonymous reviewer assures "them" that "they may indulge in fresh hope since there are indications that, in the fullness of time, it will be forthcoming" (ibid.). So "they" have waited well-nigh 70 years for a novel whose defining characteristics "they" can't fathom. But it will, "they" declaim, be American. "There is an American nature," Perry insisted, but "then there is human nature underlying it, and to that the novel must be true before anything else" (366). So the great American novel must first be "great" before it should even worry about it being "American." That sounds like a reasonable enough proposition, unless there's something about being an American that precludes one from writing "great" literature. (More on that in a moment.) What it manifestly could not be, all the critics writing in 1873 concurred, is an English or French ship sailing under American colors. But these critics also concur on the problem with writing a "great" novel about Americans: American life. As Perry says, "the very uniformity of our social life would offer nothing tempting to the writer, unless, indeed, to the satirist" (374). American English is so comically artless, Perry argues, that any attempt to depict it would sound satirical to educated readers even if it were not intended as such. So Americans can't be allowed to speak like Americans in the Great American Novel, but neither are they to speak like the British; American authors, it seems, are too unfamiliar with British locution to ape it successfully. When they try it sounds satirical. An example from Sylvester Judd's Margaret will prove this point: "This is a fine mineralogical region," said he, as they entered the spot. "I wish I had a hammer!" "I will get one!" she said. "Let me go for it now!" "You are not in health, you told me, and you do not look very strong....

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