Back in 1868, the novelist and writer John William De Forest penned a phrase in an essay for the periodical “The Nation” that has long survived anything else he wrote — “the Great American Novel.” In the essay, De Forest defines the Great American Novel as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,” and surveys the major novels up until his day to see if they fit his criteria.
De Forest may be largely forgotten now, but his idea of a Great American Novel lives. At one time or the other, most of the major novels of the past have been so labeled. At some point, Great American Novel became an ideal for a novelist to attempt.
There’s an old joke that community college English teachers are teaching only until they have written and published their Great American Novel. I figured out a long time ago that fiction is not my forte. I am amazed by people who can write fiction, especially the longer forms.
Because I am a teacher and not a fiction writer, questions like “What defines the Great American Novel?” and “Which novel or novels fit that definition?” are ones I try to answer. Therefore, I’ve thought about this concept a little bit, but I’m still undecided. Maybe these questions must remain unanswered.
In fact, those questions may be unanswerable, because of the nature of American culture. We very well might be the most multicultural nation ever to exist. We don’t even share a common ethnicity. I’ve heard it said and read it written that 98 percent of Japanese citizens, just to pick one nation, are ethnically Japanese. Americans, on the other hand, come from everywhere, and even Americans who share a common ethnicity don’t necessarily share a common experience.
That idea was never driven home so sharply as during my trip to Ireland, the land of my immediate ancestors, last year. Many if not most Irish-Americans came here as a consequence of the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s. In Dublin, I toured a replica “famine ship,” a sail-driven vessel that brought desperate and starving Irish over. The tour guide asked if anyone taking the tour — almost all Americans — were descendants of Irish immigrants. Almost all of us raised our hands. Many related family history of fleeing the famine. After the tour ended, I told the guide about my family’s immigration to America in 1768, which had nothing at all to do with the Potato Famine. He was mildly amazed and told me that he’d met only a few Americans of Irish descent who hadn’t left Ireland due to the famine.
My family’s immigrant experience wasn’t “usual” for the Irish, so why should there be a “typical” immigrant experience? Why should there be really any typical American experience to chronicle in a novel? Is there anything that constitutes the “ordinary emotions and manners of American existence?” I’m not too sure anymore that such a thing as the Great American Novel can even exist.
One way to tackle the question is to look at novels that have been labeled the Great American Novel over the decades — and there are dozens. Most classic American novels have been labeled such, and new ones are added every year, some retroactively. For example, two novels published decades ago recently were recognized as Great American Novels — John Williams’s “Stoner” and John Fante’s “Ask the Dust.”
Williams’s brilliant “Stoner,” originally published in 1965, has been getting a lot of attention over the past few years. I’d never heard of it until a couple of years back, but I read it last year and cannot believe that it’s been ignored so long. I may have such a high opinion of it because it’s what’s often termed a “campus novel.” The protagonist, William Stoner, is a professor of English; the novel chronicles his career. I have a little bit of common experience with Stoner, but our lives vary quite a bit. A major part of the novel, for example, deals with his failing marriage. I’ve never been married. Stoner’s reasons for why he became a teacher, however, are very similar to mine — it was as if Williams, two years before I was even born, wrote what was in my head in the 1990s.
Fante’s 1939 novel “Ask the Dust” came to my attention a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve bought it but haven’t had time to read it. It came to my attention for one simple reason — I’ve been researching the Great American Novel again, and there was a recent article designating it as such.
I’m researching the Great American Novel because it’s the subject of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute course I’m teaching starting Wednesday. We’re going to talk about the concept in more detail and survey some of the contenders for the title, several in great detail. If y’all would like to join us (or any of the OLLI courses on a variety of subjects), contact Shirley DuPont at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 205-348-6482.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The opinions reflected are his own.