Is the Great American Novel Destroying Novelists?

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, February 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Is the Great American Novel Destroying Novelists?

Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek

Byline: Malcolm Jones

Ellison died trying to finish his last book. That shouldn't stop you from reading it.

Is the idea of the Great American Novel the worst thing that ever happened to great American novelists? Some days it does seem that way. American authors who struggle to define the American experience by cramming it all into one novel almost inevitably come to some version of grief, and no one epitomizes this dilemma better than Ralph Ellison, who published only stories and essays in the 40 years after he dazzled the literary world with Invisible Man. It was no secret that he was working on a second novel all that time--he published excerpts while alive, and a novel-length fragment appeared a decade ago. Now, with the publication of an 1,100-page book that includes false starts, fragments, and finished chapters, we can see what he was up to, how far he got, where he succeeded, and, ultimately, how he failed by biting off more than he--or anyone--could chew. It was his goal, not any lack of talent, that betrayed him--he wanted to do nothing less than plumb once and for all the mystery and dilemma of race and identity in American society. Here was a man clearly undone by his ambition. But then, where would he have been without it?

Thinking big is not unique to American letters. Tolstoy, Mann, Dickens, Proust, Joyce, Tanizaki--the examples of great writers working on a grand scale are easy to spot. Still, compared with their American counterparts, they had it easy. Even Russia--or at least the Russia that Tolstoy wrote about--was a monoculture. The United States has always been a much messier place, its social hierarchies more fluid, its systems of belief more debated, negated, and always up for grabs. Of all the American writers who have tried to wrestle this into focus, perhaps the one who came closest was the poet Walt Whitman ("Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself"). But our fiction writers have been trying to squeeze the American experience into one great novel at least since Herman Melville dreamed up his white whale.

Unfortunately, most of the writers who emulated Melville's ambition produced books that were not great but do resemble white whales. From An American Tragedy to The Bonfire of the Vanities to Blood Meridian, we see authors struggling to create masterpieces that on almost every page threaten to collapse under their own weight. There are also those authors--Ellison and Truman Capote leading the list--who aimed for the stars but then, after years, even decades, of work, failed to produce publishable manuscripts. Then there's the 800-pound gorilla himself, the late J. D. Salinger. Who can say what he was up to for the last four or five decades? Was he writing madly? Staring at the same sheet of blank paper? The only thing we know is that he wasn't publishing anything, and given how steadily productive he was before he went silent, that raises all kinds of questions. Maybe his death will unlock the mystery; perhaps Salinger was one of those unlucky authors whose ambition outstrips their ability and who recognize this all too well. Most certainly, overambition was a near epidemic among the American writers who grew up in the shadow of the absurdly competitive Ernest Hemingway, but you still see traces among more contemporary authors--look at Union Atlantic, the new novel by Adam Haslett, who has tried to cram a bank collapse, the first Gulf War, and a good dose of Emersonian thought between the covers of one book. He almost makes it work, but nobody is that good.

The authors who have caught America on paper best did it incrementally, not all at once. It's the sum of Twain and Wharton and Faulkner that delivers their versions of America, not any single book. Still, there persists that tantalizing possibility that maybe this time, with one roll of the dice, you can get it all down at once. Reinforcing this possibility is the very American belief that the higher you aim, the less shame there is in falling short. …

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