Why Do We Search for Great American Novels?

The connection between our search for an American literary canon and our national self-understanding.

By Nathan Pippenger

A politics of self-determination is also, and not coincidentally, a politics of self-definition. Some shared purpose or identity is needed to transform a mere assemblage of individuals into a self-governing “We the People,” and in order to sustain that shared life, our commonalities require maintenance. There is no shortage of worry about the loss of common things in American politics—some of it is sanctimonious, but much of it sharply observed and deeply serious. And in acrimonious moments like these, when politics seems an unlikely source of common purpose or shared values, it’s understandable that many look instead to culture.

That, at any rate, is one way to read last Sunday’s brief but provocative thoughts from Cheryl Strayed and Adam Kirsch on the maligned, but persistent, search for the “Great American Novel.” One major strike against the idea is the insistence, as Strayed puts it, that “America isn’t one story,” and so it cannot be reduced to one novel. (Strayed highlights this objection while pointing out that John William De Forest, who coined the term about 150 years ago, was actually arguing for a canon of American novels, not one single book.) Adam Kirsch likewise notes that the search for such a novel has long been mocked, and in many cases viewed with suspicion, as reductive, presumptuous, and imperial. Yet he also notes that the ideal is no mere “patriotic puffery”—instead, the leading candidates (like Moby-Dick or The Great Gatsby) are searing portraits of America’s pathologies and self-betrayals.
“Perhaps what drives these books, and drives us to read them again and again,” Kirsch speculates, “is the incurable idealism about America that we all secretly cherish, and which is continually disappointed by reality.”

This view of the “G.A.N” ideal has the benefit of being both plausible and politically defensible. Not even Moby-Dick, to take one of the best candidates, actually captures the totality of American life, or even 19th-century American life, and it would be difficult to place it artistically in a wholly American category. (For one thing, its style is heavily indebted to Shakespeare.) But many of its themes and concerns are still recognizably American—not least of all, its repeated metaphors for the young American democracy. Melville might have pulled many of them from classic works of political theory: there is not only the obvious “ship of state,” which can be found in Plato; there is the scene of dictatorial Ahab at the dinner table in Chapter 34, which reads like a parody of Aristotle’s comparison of democracy to a pot-luck dinner in Book Three of the Politics. There are many others, and as they accumulate one senses that Melville is searching for ways to articulate and understand the novelty of the United States as a political entity—a search which results in comparisons that are sometimes farcical, sometimes provocative, sometimes scathing. If nothing else, consider simply that the ship, which has been often been read as a metaphor for the American democracy, is run by a megalomaniac who drives it to its doom. The implied commentary about Melville’s America, spanning across the continent like the Pequod over the seas, is less than optimistic.

Of course, to call Moby-Dick a (not “the”) Great American Novel, or to locate it in a pantheon of Great American Novels, is not to suggest that it exhausts everything that can be said about the American experience, or about a particularly American set of dilemmas. But it’s difficult to imagine how the novel could carry its immense force—whether in its comedic or tragic moments—without the backdrop of what Kirsch calls our “incurable idealism about America.” But ideals exist only for people, and an American ideal only exists if most Americans share it.

In that respect, the search for Great American Novels is also a search for some kind of common identity, a literary canon that could help us make sense of ourselves, or (better yet) could help us better articulate the nascent sense of ourselves that we now perceive only dimly. So a novel fit for inclusion into the American pantheon would achieve that same feat of self-articulation about Americans that Melville sought to provide, in Moby-Dick, for American democracy in its youth. When we fear that we are losing common things—or lament the fact that we already have—we are also expressing the fear that no novel, or set of novels, could achieve that feat of self-articulation, simply because there is no self. It’s sobering to imagine that neither politics nor literature might be up to the task of assisting us in our self-definition, since it is only through such a process that we can engage in a shared political life at all.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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