The Great American Novel

Do the French have a concept of ‘the Great French Novel?’ Or other countries – ‘the Great Canadian Novel,’ ‘the Great Chilean Novel,’ ‘the Great Russian Novel?’

Of those, I can imagine the Russians having such a concept, mainly because of figures like Dostoyevsky, Pasternak and especially Tolstoy – Tolstoy being a sort of towering figure of seeming universality. I say ‘seeming’ because I see things from my own, limited perspective and from the vantage point of being a white, heterosexual, western male (none of which are bad things, but could easily have something to do with seeing three white, heterosexual males who are part of a generally Western culture [not something  universally applicable to all of Russian culture] as the candidates for the role). Also, with Russia, poetry plays a larger role in literature than America. Pasternak only wrote one novel, but reams of amazing poetry. And Pushkin is such a massive cultural figure in Russia. And Yevtushenko (who I once met) is someone who aspires to the role of being the equivalent figure (and poems like Zima Junction and especially Babi Yar aspire to a status similar to ‘the Great Russian Novel’).

Adding poetry, what would it mean to add the possible contenders for ‘the Great American Novel’ poems like Langston Hughes’ Harlem or Ginsberg’s Howl? One, a poet of color and the other a gay poet, so getting beyond the straight white thing (though not beyond the ‘male’ thing). But really, the only contender among poems would be by declaring (not without justification) Whitman’s Leaves of Grass a single, book length work.

Which hits on part of the image of the ‘the Great American Novel.’ It’s got to be big, or at least it can’t be short. The Great Gatsby is barely long enough, really. And it’s got to cover something that we see as unique to ourselves and our American identity. And the candidates tend to be white, male narratives like Huckleberry Finn or maybe On the Road.

Do more recent novels like Pynchon’s or Delillo’s Underworld deserve inclusion (Delillo was certainly aiming for something like that)?

And where am I going with all this? I think I’ve forgotten. Something about concepts of American exceptionalism in views about a certain kind (uniquely American?) of national literature.

Thoughts?

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