American Literature, American Culture

By Gordon Hutner | Go to book overview

simply the sensual atmosphere of prodigal spenders, but the strong religious impulses moving in new ways to sanctify our lives. I say our novels not the American novel, which is a figment of the newspaper critic's imagination. The newspaper critic seems distressed because he cannot find one book that displays all these powers and riches. He complacently discovers the American novel each season--the one that most nearly pleased him of the last consignment. Every year a number of these discoveries are proclaimed to be the American novel--the epic masterpiece of our civilization. But they quickly fall back into the ranks.

The truth is that we are not yet ready for the masterpiece, if we ever shall be,--if, indeed, one epic, no matter how splendid, will ever serve for the complete record. Before that appears we must have developed a truly national spirit: our society must have a greater solidarity. We must be clearer about what we want to do, what we think about momentous matters, where we stand as a people. We must lose that excessive consciousness of our individualism that characterizes us now, and become more conscious of our nationalism. When in spirit and in purpose we are truly national, we shall doubtless create a national literature. The local and the individual will be merged in the broader type of the nation. Then we may speak of the American novel. {1914}

Edith Wharton


The Great American Novel

What exactly is meant by that term of "American novel" on which American advertisers and reviewers lay an equal and ever-increasing stress--a stress unparalleled in the literary language of other countries?

To European critics the term "great English" or "great French" novel signifies merely a great novel written by an English or a French novelist; and the greatest French or English novel would be the greatest novel yet produced in one or the other of these literatures. It might be, like "La Chartreuse de Parme" (assuredly one of the greatest of French novels), a tale of eighteenth-century Italian life; or, as in the case of "Lord Jim" or "Nostromo" or "Kim," its scene might be set on the farther side of the globe; it would none the less be considered typical of the national genius that went to its making, as, for example, "La Tentation de Saint Antoine" and "Salammbô" of Flaubert are so considered, though the one is situated in Egypt in the sixth century of the Christian era and the other in Carthage, B.C. 150, or as "The Wrecker" or "The Ebb-tide" must be regarded, though the life described in them has so largely an exotic setting. In the opinion of European critics only one condition is needful to make a novel typical of the country of its origin: that its writer should possess, in sufficient richness, the characteristics of his race. "John Inglesant" is not considered less typically English than "Lorna Doone" because it ranges through a cosmopolitan world reaching from the Tiber to the Thames while the other tale concerns the intensely local lives of a handful of peasants in the west of England.

____________________
Wharton Edith. "The Great American Novel," The Yale Review, 16 ( 1927), pp. 646-656.

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