Is There Such a Thing as an American Novel?

The Great American Novel is like Moby Dick, the whale, not the book. Ever since the phrase was coined in 1867 as a marketing ploy to sell Rebecca Harding Davis’ Waiting for the Verdict,  it has stirred the Ahab in every author wedged between the shining seas. It haunts their dreams, stalks their waking hours. They want it. They crave it. They must conquer it.

The idea of a Great Scottish Novel is also like Moby Dick, but inspires a very different response. It brings out the Starbuck in folks over here. Like the character in Melville’s tale, many authors want to sail in the other direction of it. They are suspicious of it, fearful of getting dragged under with a flick of its parochial tail.

Both reactions stem from the idea that there is such a thing as a national literature. Like the white whale, it is a mythical beast. The Americans embrace it. The US is a massive, throbbing nation of diverse peoples. It is a big stage to stride upon. Many authors in other countries, usually small in size, struggle with and reject being claimed as speaking for their particular sod of earth. They believe the themes of their novels are universal.

So who is right? Put simply, can a novel ever define a nation? In this globalised world, where we increasingly share the same pangs, desires, sports teams, reading lists, and coffee shops, can the idea of ‘an American novel’ hold on?

Jeff touched upon the problematic nature of defining a book along national boundaries in his list of American books from 1891-1991. At what point does a book become part of a country’s weave and weft? Is it when the author is from a particular nation, because the story is set there, or because it reeks of certain national values?

Take The Sun Also Rises, for example. Is it an American novel? Most people would say yes. It was written by an American, and its main characters are all American. Yet it is deeply European too. It would not exist without the bulls of Pamplona or the cafés of Paris. The manuscript never touched American soil until it was published. Hemingway wrote it in Spain, Paris, and Austria. So is it American or European? Or is the tale of brittle, dissolute friendships universal?

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is the most recent book to lay claim to the ‘Great American Novel’ tag. Yet part of it is set in Lithuania and the themes of unhappy families, disastrous life choices, and aging respect no national boundaries. So is it more than an American novel?

And what about Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh’s tale of Scottish junkies? Its subject matter, characters, setting, language, and author all stem from the same tiny area – Leith, the docks in Edinburgh. Yet it was an international smash hit. Does that mean it’s bigger than a Scottish novel now and is on the world’s bookshelf?

I’m asking a lot of questions because I too am unsure. There is something both seductive and reductive in a national canon. It satisfies a certain Victorian need to organise and classify, but can ensure our reading lists remain prim, starchy and heterogeneous.

We can limit a novel’s power, not to mention readership, by giving it a passport. When was the last time you read something by an African novelist? If On The Road, a book born of the highways and byways of the US, can speak to a kid in Nigeria about wanderlust’s universal fidget, surely there is something for all of us to learn in the works of Chinua Achebe.

But what do you think? Answers on a postcard please. Address it to ‘The World.’

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