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The Dream of the Great American Novelby Lawrence Buell
Synopses & Reviews
The idea of "the great American novel" continues to thrive almost as vigorously as in its nineteenth-century heyday, defying 150 years of attempts to dismiss it as amateurish or obsolete. In this landmark book, the first in many years to take in the whole sweep of national fiction, Lawrence Buell reanimates this supposedly antiquated idea, demonstrating that its history is a key to the dynamics of national literature and national identity itself.
The dream of the G.A.N., as Henry James nicknamed it, crystallized soon after the Civil War. In fresh, in-depth readings of selected contenders from the 1850s onward in conversation with hundreds of other novels, Buell delineates four "scripts" for G.A.N. candidates. One, illustrated by The Scarlet Letter, is the adaptation of the novel's story-line by later writers, often in ways that are contrary to the original author's own design. Other aspirants, including The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man, engage the American Dream of remarkable transformation from humble origins. A third script, seen in Uncle Tom's Cabin and Beloved, is the family saga that grapples with racial and other social divisions. Finally,mega-novels from Moby-Dick to Gravity's Rainbow feature assemblages of characters who dramatize in microcosm the promise and pitfalls of democracy.
The canvas of the great American novel is in constant motion, reflecting revolutions in fictional fashion, the changing face of authorship, and the inseparability of high culture from popular. As Buell reveals, the elusive G.A.N. showcases the myth of the United States as a nation perpetually under construction.
"Impressive in scope, erudition, and detail, this survey of U.S. literary and cultural history by Harvard professor Buell (Emerson) envisions the 'distinctive and durable preoccupation' of identifying the Great American Novel (G.A.N.) as an endless quest to capture 'the American soul' in 'geographical scope' and 'sociological comprehensiveness,' and as a relevant set of criteria for evaluating works of significance or mass appeal. Nominally the history of an idea, Buell offers a series of seasoned and insightful analyses on the 'defining works' grouped by four different 'scripts': the 'detailed ethnography of early colonial culture and institutions' (Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter); the 'rags to riches' arc (Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and others); the history of slavery (Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Morrison's Beloved); and epic 'megafictions' (Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow). Buell argues that the greatest novels cast a critical eye on 'the gap between democratic promise and actuality' disguised by national myths. In addition, he decodes how these books shape political and social philosophies, accruing 'cultural capital' if not icon status, as with Melville's Moby-Dick. Buell sees well beyond the canonical Great White Males and perceives American studies as a properly 'transnational' and 'transpacific' profession. Buell's engaging book should itself become a landmark of American studies, as it exemplifies precisely why great literature needs to be read and taught." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
The first book in many years to take in the full sweep of national fiction, The Dream of the Great American Novel explains why this supposedly antiquated idea continues to thrive. It shows that four G.A.N. "scripts" are keys to the dynamics of American literature and identity--and to the myth of a nation perpetually under construction.
About the Author
Lawrence Buell is Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature at Harvard University.
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