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The phrase “The Great American Novel” means something more than the sum of its parts. There are plenty of great American novels that are not Great American Novels: Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady doesn’t qualify, and neither does Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or Willa Cather’s The Lost Lady, even though everyone acknowledges them as classics. No, the Great American Novel—always capitalized, like the United States of America itself—has to be a book that contains and explains the whole country, that makes sense of a place that remains, after 230-odd years, a mystery to itself. If other countries don’t fetishize their novels in quite this way—if the French don’t sit around waiting for someone to write the Great French Novel—it may be because no country is so much in need of explanation.

Hardly anyone talks about the Great American Novel without a tincture of irony these days. But as Lawrence Buell shows in The Dream of the Great American Novel, his comprehensive and illuminating new study, that is nothing new: American writers have always held the phrase at arm’s length, recognizing in it a kind of hubris, if not mere boosterism. Almost as soon as the concept of the Great American Novel was invented, in the nation-building years after the Civil War, Buell finds it being mocked, noting that one observer dryly put it into the same category as “other great American things such as the great American sewing-machine, the great American public school, and the great American sleeping-car.” It was enough of a cliché by 1880 for Henry James to refer to it with the acronym “GAN,” which Buell employs throughout his book.

Yet Buell warns us against taking all this dismissal at face value: “critical pissiness suggests the persistence of some sort of hydrant,” as he puts it. Even today, in our endlessly self-conscious literary era, novelists are still writing candidates for the GAN. What else are Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, or Don DeLillo’s Underworld, if not attempts to capture the essence of American modernity between two covers?

Lawrence Buell, The Dream of the Great American Novel (Harvard University Press, $39.95)

Buell, now Cabot research professor of American literature, does not spend much time theorizing about the Great American Novel. Instead, he seeks to illuminate the concept by analyzing some of the books that have laid claim to the title. Most of these are, by definition, mainstays of high-school and college syllabi, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter down to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But alongside these classics, Buell ranges a number of lesser-known works, showing how the basic “scripts” of the Great American Novel are played out by writers like Helen Hunt Jackson in Ramona and Harold Fredric in The Damnation of Theron Ware. And he takes account of contemporary works that respond to, challenge, and rewrite the classics, such as Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Gone With the Wind.

Gone With the Wind is not what most people would think of as a Great American Novel—surely it is too middlebrow, not to mention too racist, for that distinction. But as Buell points out, the themes Margaret Mitchell writes about—slavery, the weight of Southern history, “the old-order mystique”—are the same as those of an undoubted GAN, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. (The difference is that “for every reader of Absalom, fifty had read Gone With the Wind.”) Buell proposes that GAN candidates tend to follow a few major “scripts,” and Faulkner and Mitchell are both using the same one: novels that seek to explain America by “imagining across or from within” the country’s major social divisions, especially the divisions between black and white, and between North and South.

The GAN candidates that follow this script manage to remain controversial even as they attain the status of classics. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is Buell’s first example: a huge bestseller on publication in 1852, it was credited by some with helping to hasten the Civil War, thanks to its frontal assault on slavery. Yet as Buell notes, the book tries hard to depict slavery as a national problem, while sparing Southern sensitivities: Stowe “makes her arch villain a New Englander,” while “she makes her most brainy and articulate white character a slaveholder.” Though her depictions of black characters now strike us as deeply racist, “essentializing…Africans as inherently childlike,” Buell urges us to consider the novel as a “white person’s attempt to comprehend nonwhites at a moment when even most white northerners considered them less than fully human.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin inaugurates a long tradition of GANs that try to bridge the racial divide—though later, more sophisticated works would focus on the ways it remained unbridgeable. Here the key example is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the subject of one of Buell’s best chapters. Like many GANs, Buell notes, Morrison’s book “undertakes a far-reaching geographical scan of the…United States,” following its characters from Georgia to Delaware to New Jersey to Ohio. But the horrifying tragedy at its center—an escaped slave, Sethe, murders her daughter rather than see her returned to slavery—means that it remains a far more challenging and refractory work than, say, Huckleberry Finn, another example of this GAN “script.” Buell quotes Morrison’s own feeling that, in Beloved, she was treating an aspect of American history that “the characters don’t want to remember, I don’t want to remember, black people don’t want to remember, white people won’t want to remember.”

Yet as Buell insists, the GAN has always thrived by criticizing American society, not by celebrating it. “Great American Novels are not expected to be rituals of self-congratulation like July 4 celebrations or Hollywood melodramas,” he writes. “On the contrary, the historical record suggests that serious contenders are much more likely to insist that national greatness is unproven, that its pretensions are hollow, and that the ship of state is going down.”

That is certainly the approach of two other prime candidates for GAN-hood: John Dos Passos’s USA and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. These books, for Buell, follow a second script—the one originated by Moby-Dick, the grandfather of all GANs—which tries to encompass all of American life, in almost sociological fashion, through sheer breadth of vision. They are “sprawling performances of encyclopedic scope with multiple agendas from the ethnographic to the metaphysical.” But where the democratic crew of the Pequod is destroyed by the monomania of Captain Ahab, the cast of USA—12 characters drawn from across the range of socioeconomic types—are dragged down by the mediocrity and money-madness of pre-Depression America.

As Buell cannily notes, the language of the characters in USA is not “the speech of the people,” as Dos Passos claims, but a manufactured “slanguage,” showing how Americans’ minds have been colonized by “newsreel argot and the platitudes of professional wordsmiths.” Unlike Steinbeck’s Okies, who are described in a poetic plural of “groupthink, grouptalk,” Dos Passos’s people seem atomized: “social interaction becomes much more diffuse, fleeting, happenstance, compartmentalized, abstract, mediated.” One of the purposes of a book such as The Dream of the Great American Novel is to reintroduce us to forgotten classics, and USA, probably the least read of Buell’s GAN candidates, is perfectly suited for rediscovery in our own Great Recession moment.

If these meganovels seek to take in all of American society, a third “script” for the GAN focuses on the representative career of a single character on his or her quest for the American Dream. Buell calls these “up-from fictions,” and sees their archetype in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, that story of successful self-invention. In novels, however, the journey is rarely so straightforward—whether it is the louche career of Augie in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, or the painful education of the nameless narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

The most famous example, however, and one of the first titles to come to mind whenever the Great American Novel is mentioned, is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gatsby, who remains a cipher even as he transforms himself into a prince of Long Island society, is the antithesis of Franklin, who made a self by making his fortune. “To read Gatsby as a symbol of the great American dreamer, then,” Buell writes, “is to read the dream itself as already sealed and gone, locked somewhere in the remote inaccessible past.” But of course, if the American Dream weren’t still alive, somewhere in our culture and our minds, it wouldn’t be necessary for the novelists to keep writing Great American Novels. And Buell’s erudite study convinces us that the death of the GAN, despite all predictions, is not coming anytime soon.