Why There Is No Great American Novel

As Black History Month approaches, I’d like to ask you to look at literary history and ask, ‘Why is there no great American novel?’

I understand that many readers will scan their shelves and rush to the contrary that there have been ‘great American novels’: The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or <insert your nomination here> and that it is a matter of opinion, subject to disagreement as to what defines ‘American.’

I disagree.

I disagree not because opinions will vary on what constitutes ‘American,’ or the merits of a particular writer, their ability to speak for all Americans, or depict the quintessential ‘American experience.’ I disagree because of a sleight of hand, a matter of literary history; for it is a political turn of the magician’s wrist that affects the ‘canon,’ affects African-American writers, and, in a long, difficult and parallel trajectory, women writers, who have been marginalized because of gender and race. It may explain why there is no great American novel from a Black or White writer.

In 1950, William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” I don’t know about you, but my eyes focus on the word unique in that citation; and I’ll add to this the fact that the Nobel Committee awarded him the Prize in 1950 because there was no unanimous vote when they had met in 1949. Two Nobel Prizes in Literature were awarded in 1950. Bertrand Russell was the other recipient. I should also mention that Faulkner’s book sales and reputation in the United States were in decline, although he was extremely popular among French readers of American literature. Another note: Faulkner’s acceptance speech was unintelligible, for two reasons: the microphone was at a distance from him, and his southern dialect was difficult for others to understand. Therein lies the problem.

When you read about Faulkner in essays it is inevitable that you will find the phrases: ‘southern’ and ‘regional.’ It seems innocuous, almost biographical since Mr. Faulkner was indeed from Mississippi. It isn’t benign, though, and it is more than biographical. It’s that sleight of hand.

Exactly one hundred years earlier, beginning in 1850, the American literary landscape witnessed the publications of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Representative Men (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and Walt Whitman’s first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). Ignore the fact, for the moment, that Emily Dickinson was writing although not published, but Harriet Beecher Stowe did release Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. So what, you say.

The years 1850-1855, the ‘American Renaissance,’ are a scholarly designation that came much later, with F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941). Subsequent scholars have argued for an earlier start date of around 1820 or 1830. The prevailing interpretation was that the literary nexus in America was in New England, Puritan in disposition, and that the intellectual and spiritual struggle was between the American interpretation of Calvinism and its native movement, Transcendentalism. I’d argue that the slanted bias toward the American northeast is also the result of the South’s loss in the Civil War, that writers from that region had been glossed over, if not ignored, because New England writers were championed over southern writers. Northern over Southern.

Not convinced? Let us look westward. Examine how the frontier is portrayed in American literature. Out west is where men and women are rugged, capable of forging new identities, unconstrained by their past, their ethnic and racial origins. Another scholarly work was responsible for that mythos west of the Mississippi. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” bolstered the perception that Americans are pioneers and entitled to expand westwards. Forget about Nobel Savages and Indians for a moment.

And what of the South? ‘The South’ dominated early American history. Berkeley Plantation celebrated the first Thanksgiving, 4 December 1619. Virginia Colony was founded upstream from Jamestown in 1607. These dates are almost a generation before Puritan settlement and Plymouth Rock. The Continental Congress, fearing that Virginia would not lend its support to the revolt against England, appointed George Washington to head the Continental Army. Risking blasphemy and sacrilege here, the historical record shows that Washington was not the best military choice for leadership, but he was the best political choice. Looking forward in history, to April 1861, President Lincoln offered the command of the Union Army to Robert E. Lee, but because Virginia had declared secession the future Confederate general chose to remain loyal to his home state of Virginia. Lee believed in an intact Union and his household owned only two slaves. As one of five Confederate Army generals, Lee chose not to wear the insignia of the rank. He wore instead three stars of a Confederate colonel, equivalent to his last U.S. Army rank. He would write to his wife that slavery was “a moral & political evil in any Country.” His wife and daughter ran an illegal school for slaves. Had the South won the Civil War or the Union split and reached some form of a detente, I imagine literary history and hindsight would have been different.

But the South did lose. And what of ‘southern writers’? They are rehabilitated or marginalized as ‘regionalists.’ Edgar Allan Poe, although born in Boston and associated with Baltimore because he died there, spent his formative years in Richmond, Virginia, published in southern journals, and attended the University of Virginia. Flannery O’Connor, exemplar of ‘Southern Gothic’ is another excellent example. In fact, O’Connor is Southern, a Catholic, and a woman. The novelist and short-story writer crafted stories where her Catholic vision of the sacred and profane, grace and spirit, counters the horrors of Protestant materialism. She is aesthetically the opposite of the New England writers.

Is southern writing regional in speech and dialect and therefore easier to dismiss? Are not Faulkner’s characters in The Sound and the Fury not a modern incarnation of Agamemnon’s family, Caddy not Antigone, or Quentin Compson not Shakespeare’s Hamlet? If a southern writer’s dialect, whether it is Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, or Mark Twain, is difficult on the page to read and therefore dismissed for it, then read it out loud. Shakespeare is also difficult on the page, but makes sense when recited. Do you dismiss dialect in African-American writers, like Richard Wright, or Zora Neale Hurston because it is difficult to understand, non-standard English (whatever that means today)?

The more provocative question is the underlying assumption or latent mistrust that any southern writer is implicitly racist. I don’t believe Flannery O’Connor wrote “The Artificial Nigger” because she was racist. Displaying race and violence in literature does not mean the writer approves of it; it is very often the opposite: it is shown to criticize it.

Dorothy Allison, Ricky Bragg, Edna Buchanan, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Katherine Anne Porter, Caroline Gordon, Sue Monk Kidd, Margaret Mitchell, Walker Percy, Allen Tate, Eudora Welty, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, and Tennessee Williams are all southern writers. Now go find southern African-American writers and then ask as you read: Who decides what is literature, if it ‘the American novel,’ and whether it is it regional or inclusive? Do the differences divide or bind when we share the same language?

About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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