The Great American Novel, or just read The Great Gatsby

David Ulin offers a rebuttal to Lawrence Buell salon piece over the idea of the Great American Novel.  I get what Ulin is saying, but I’m not sure I agree with the reality of it. Celebrating our differences, embracing multiculturalism, and appreciating that the backgrounds and experiences of everyone in our society are diverse  and wide-ranging  are all true, good, earnest, whatever things.  I’m not knocking them. At the same time, I think there are some things that sit at the foundation of all our lives. All of us want some level of professional success that provides for a relatively stable life. How each of us defines stable and success might be different, but I think the majority of us want to achieve that for ourselves. We want to be productive. We want to accomplish something. We want to make connections with people. Big, broad things. For me, the Great American Novel tries to find how those things work in America, how we try to blend them together, how our ideas of accomplishment, stability, family, etc. is unique from Japan or France or India. Not better, but different. And I think this changes over time. If we want to say Huck Finn was a Great America Novel, it was great for the time it came out, the time it encapsulated, and the life it represented. Is it the Great American Novel of the “Now?” No, I don’t think so, despite it still staying something to us today about how we interact with each other and how we confront race.

The one book that stands out, for me, is The Great Gatsby. A novel of one character recklessly charging towards wealth and status in the hopes of finding love, only to be confronted with the hollow vacuousness of those he pursues and to eventually find his own death. All witnessed by the midwestern everyman who steps back at the end, sees the horror of it, and retreats to the heartland. It is an aspect of society I think we’ve seen repeated over and over again, in various forms from westerns to mafia movies to wallstreet.  It speaks to an idea of balance in success, weighing the costs of professional/material success versus the damage we do to ourselves in many intangible ways.

I think to dismiss the idea of the Great American Novel solely because we are a nation of differences (superficial and otherwise) or that people tend to drift towards White Guys being the recipe for the Great American Novel is a bit too careless. In an effort to dismiss the idea, it falls into a similar trap as those trying to aggressively sell the idea. Instead, the idea of the Great American Novel is something that should be explored, and that difference cultures in the United States should attempt to appropriate for themselves. While I think there are aspects of The Great Gatsby that transcends boundaries, I think the same could be said for Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Instead of dismissing the Great American Novel because of our differences, we should use it to illustrate the unity in those differences.


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