The Great American Novel: how and why?

Uploaded by UCLLHL on 02.03.2012

>> I am going to start with two quotes.
"The 'Great American Novel' continues
to be announced every year;
in good years there are generally several of them."
"Might as well get to work on the Great American Novel."
The first comment is by Edith Wharton,
writing in some annoyance in 1927,
the second by a fictional character
in the cult television series The Wire,
a veteran journalist facing the sack who bears more
than a passing resemblance to the show's creator, David Simon.
These remarks 80 years apart suggest two things, I think:
first, that in the United States it seems
as if a novel is never enough; and secondly,
that the novel -- although announced for as long
as there have been novels to announce --
has not yet been written.
Parodied almost as soon as it was conceived, always a tribute
to - as emphatic as it is ambiguous,
the Great American Novel, or GAN,
project has proved monumental.
It remains the benchmark
for literary ambition, prestige, and sales.
And it sometimes also feels
like fiction's equivalent of proper man's work.
As one reviewer put it, "There comes a time in the midlife
of every male American writer when he feels compelled
to make his big statement about the state of the union."
A recent example -- and I'm sure you'll guess [inaudible] --
is Jonathan Franzen, who,
following the publication of Freedom in 2010 was showcased
on the cover of Time magazine as "Great American Novelist."
"I always hated the expression," he said,
"mostly because I encountered it in stupid or sneering context."
Franzen was not the first writer
to approach the Great American Novel equivocally.
On the one hand, he chose to write a very long book
with a title suggesting national interrogation.
On the other, he seemed a bit embarrassed to have done so.
And indeed, for every writer who turns 40
and buys an extra-large stack of paper,
there is another admitting ruefully
to having outgrown his Ahab-like -- perhaps Ali-like --
obsession with a heavyweight book.
Bill Henderson, for example,
confessed that while once he'd thought
that in Planning Again he would be exposing the crucial
facts of the age -- things like Americans are greedy,
the Bomb is bad -- what he'd really wanted, he said,
was "literary stallionship."
For that reason, the GAN is also a bit of a joke,
as these deflating cartoons suggest.
And perhaps maturity, then, is deciding simply to scale back,
as it - another cartoon says,
and just write the Mediocre American Novel.
Or maybe all that's required is a display of some irony
about a still-lingering ambition --
say, by wearing a T-shirt inviting others to,
"Ask me about my Great American Novel."
I have some of this stuff as research.
But what was -- what still is -- the GAN?
It begins with the partial displacement of epic poetry
by the long novel in the second half of the 19th century
and extends, I would argue, to the partial displacement
of the novel in the 20th and 21st centuries by cinema
and other media, from D. W. Griffith's The Birth
of a Nation in 1915 through -- as I have already suggested --
to David Simon's Zolaesque "visual novel" --
his term -- The Wire.
And nowhere, I think, is the power of the idea
of the GAN more apparent, perhaps, than in its migration
from one medium to another.
But I also want to ask, "Why the Great American Novel?"
Exactly what needs -- social, political, aesthetic,
commercial -- does the enterprise serve?
Exactly what purposes might its realization be expected
to fulfill that so many writers have put
so much effort into realizing it?
And the obvious answer,
the answer that the writers themselves give,
concerns national identity.
One of the distinguishing features
of the Great American Novel is how explicitly, how loudly,
it announces that concern.
Through titles -- say, USA or Vineland
or even America America.
Through characters' names --
Christopher Newman in Henry James's The American,
Undine Spragg, whose initials, of course, are 'U.
S.' in Wharton's The Custom of the Country, and all sorts
of people whose names begin with an A,
such as Willa Cather's My Antonia, the girl -
the character notes, who seemed to mean to us the country.
The edges of text, conclusions and openings, also do a lot
of anxious work in signaling an author's desire
to belong to the GAN club.
Consider, then, the first episode of The Wire --
the first episode of the first series of The Wire.
We see a body and then the detective, McNulty,
on a stoop questioning a boy who has witnessed a murder.
McNulty asks why the boy and his friends kept playing dice
with the dead man even though they knew -
even after they knew he was a thief.
[ Video plays ]
>> I've got to ask you.
If every time, Snot Boogie [phonetic] would grab the money
and run away, why did you even let him in the game?
>> What?
>> I mean Snot Boogie always stole the money.
Why'd you let him play?
>> Got to.
This is America, man.
[ To end of scene ]
>> I'm sure everyone would
like to spend their lunch hour just watching The Wire.
But I mean - but I wouldn't say more about the scene except
to point out the way in which this brief exchange serves
as a kind of prelude to the series
or to the several series -- an announcement that what we are
about to watch is more than gritty neighborhood realism.
The Wire also has its eye on national allegory.
That episode was broadcast in 2002.
In 2006, the New York Times Book Review conducted a survey
in which they asked a group of luminaries
to name the single best work
of American fiction published in the last 25 years.
From 125 replies, the top five were: Morrison's Beloved,
15 votes; DeLillo's Underworld, 11;
McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Updike's tetralogy,
Rabbit Angstrom, with 8 each;
and Roth's American Pastoral with 7.
"To ask for the best work of American fiction,"
observes the paper's journalist A.O. Scott, "is not simply
to ask for the most beautifully written
or the most enjoyable to read.
The best works of fiction, according to our tally,
appear to be those that successfully assume a burden
of cultural importance.
They attempt not just the exploration
of particular imaginary people and places,
but also the illumination of epochs,
communities, of the nation itself.
America is not only their setting,
but also their subject."
And that last sentence sounds like a plausible definition
of the Great American Novel.
But for some people it bets a lot of questions.
What about America itself?
During the last 20 years or so,
critics have become increasingly uneasy with the idea
of an essential or exceptional American-ness expressed
in a unique fictional style or structure.
Surely, they argue, big novels
of national interrogation are a feature
of many literary traditions --
something that was pointed out by Shashi Tharoor
in his satirical The Great Indian Novel.
Moreover, they ask, aren't the most interesting novels those
that reflect our increasingly globalized lives?
Shouldn't we rather be reading hemispheric novels --
works like these, which I am going to talk about --
most notably though, perhaps,
Robert Bolano's total novel 2666, praised for its vision
of our terrifyingly post-national world?
I wonder, though, whether the opposition of national
and post-national fiction really makes a lot of sense.
National literatures, like nations, have always existed
in relation to one another.
And great American novelists have always used foreign models.
The first plea for the GAN --
which I'll discuss in a moment --
was for a realist with the scope of Balzac or Manzoni.
Later, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair openly emulated
Shincovich's Polish national trilogy.
John Dos Passos borrowed elements
from Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Eisenstein's film montage,
and Baroja's Madrid trilogy.
Roth's Human Stain is partly modeled on the Iliad.
And most recently, both Franzen's Freedom
and Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children pay homage
to Tolstoy's War and Peace.
And it's also, I think, misleading to claim somehow
that contemporary fiction such as Franzen's,
which features trips --
its characters take trips to Lithuania in one book
and Paraguay in another --
initiates - this fiction initiates some kind
of novel of globalization.
Perhaps the most persistent subject
of the Great American Novel --
at least since the international crew of the Pequod took
to the oceans in Moby Dick -- has been the mechanisms
and consequences of global capitalism.
To consider just one other example --
something I like to promote since not many people read it --
Theodore Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire, an expiration
of the intricate networks of money, politics, culture,
and sex, at the heart of which can be found Frank Cooperwood,
who Dreiser describes as "a rude, raw titan
and wandering yokel with an epic in his mouth."
In the first book, The Financier,
is set in Philadelphia --
which we are told had once been the heart of the nation;
the second, The Titan, in Chicago,
which had become all America.
And the final volume, The Stoic,
takes its protagonist abroad to Paris, to London, and to India.
But having said that, the cosmopolitan-ness
of these novels shouldn't be exaggerated.
As Bruce Robbins has recently argued in an essay
that specifically queries claims for a New Worlding
of the American Novel, "Other countries are more often
than not simply the means
to a more parochial end, more provincial end.
It's American lives that must be made sense of."
So I want to now kind of go a little -
into a little background to the idea
of the Great American Novel.
The idea was first expounded -- the phrase was first used --
in 1868 in an article by John W. De Forest, a novelist
and former Union Army officer.
In a - in terms that made the writing of fiction sound
like a patriotic duty, De Forest called for " --
a single tale which paints American life so broadly, truly,
and sympathetically that every American of feeling
and culture is forced acknowledge the picture
as a likeness of something which he knows."
The unification of the country -- the United States --
becoming, after the Civil War,
for the first time a singular noun, required the unification
of the novel into a singular tale.
The GAN had to " -- bind up the nation's wounds --
" in Lincoln's famous phrase.
Its job, in other words, was not merely to reflect,
but rather strenuously to consolidate national identity.
What De Forest wanted was a novel of national breadth,
then -- one that would offer a portrait
of American society comparable to the European tableau
of Balzac or of Thackeray.
More particularly, though,
he felt that the GAN should represent -- and I quote -- "--
an eager and laborious people which takes so many newspapers,
builds so many railroads, does the most business
in a given capital, wages the biggest war in proportion
of its population, believes
in the physically impossible, and does some of it."
The "believes in the physically impossible and does some
of it" could also be a definition of the GAN, I think.
Although he discusses many, many novelists in his essay,
De Forest's piece is in some ways an advertisement
for himself.
The previous year he'd published Miss Ravenel's
Conversion from Secession to Loyalty,
a novel that's now largely forgotten except, perhaps,
by Civil War historians.
And on the one hand it is simply a love story set
against the background of the war.
The first page presents a woman, Lillie Ravenel,
and a man, Edward Colbourne.
And nearly 500 pages later, they marry.
But things are more complicated.
Lillie is from New Orleans, and Edward from New Boston --
his term for New Haven.
And so the relationship is a romance of reunion
through which national unification is naturalized.
Rather than the legal matter of contractural obligation,
the South's capitulation to the North is presented
as comparable to nuptial consent.
Although Edward makes a few concessions in the relationship,
the conversion -- as the title suggests -- is Lillie's.
And I could say more about it.
But the main thing, I think, to mention here is
that this allegory of progress --
De Forest's allegory of progress --
also concerns the novel itself.
As marriage means a wife's conversion
to her husband's ways, and union means the South adopting
Northern ways, so the GAN means the sentimental novel --
a literary form associated both with women and the South --
converting to a masculine Northern approach of realism --
a style consonant, as one character put it,
with an age that communicated with the railroad,
electric telegraph, and printing press.
The Great American Novel
as De Forest hoped it would become was able
to combine the impulses of national documentary
and national allegory, the daily paper and --
as the allusion in the title suggests -- pilgrim's progress.
And I think that's also what The Wire is up to.
And in the time that's left, I want briefly
to consider how the GAN goes about this business.
Why, for example, does it have to be so long?
Well that's obviously the national documentary coming in.
The oft-declaration of the Great American Novel which knows -
is never fully realizable is to put a line around the nation
and kind of make a record and an inventory of all
that exists within it.
Circumscription can be geographical or historical
or some kind of combination of both.
And the challenge, as Tom Wolfe put it, is always one
of complete and whole articulation.
If we follow De Forest's contemporary,
William Dean Howells, in equating realism with --
in his phrase -- "democracy in literature," we might argue
that the GAN, in pushing to an extreme the realist project
of full description, is declaring its commitment
to an inclusive democracy or perhaps a manifest destiny
as forcefully as possible.
And of course there are various modes
in which one might attempt democratic inclusiveness,
the most basic of which is probably the picaresque,
or the picaresque buildings [inaudible].
A young person travels around the United States --
perhaps even abroad; has adventures; and in the process,
as it were, inadvertently assembles an inventory
of the state of the nation and a sense of his
or her own American identity.
The sentimental education of a single character --
think of Wolfe's Eugene Gant, Bellow's Augie March,
Kerouac's Sal Paradise, Ellison's Invisible Man --
this sentimental education is presented as a form
of collective knowledge gathering.
And I'm going to show, as an example,
something a little less well known:
Clyde Brion Davis's 1938 satire,
The Great American Novel, the nature [phonetic]
of which is a young journalist who wants
to write an all-inclusive novel.
"I want my novel to be America.
I want it to hold the romance of the Pilgrim fathers.
I want it to hold the romance of the Spanish conquistadores
and of the French padres.
I want it to picture the pushing westward
from the Eastern Seaboard.
I want it to hold the California gold rush and the bones
of pioneers bleaching on the desert.
I want in it the building of the railroads.
I want it to picture the drama
of the cattle kings and the cowboy.
I want the gold miners and the venturesome farmers
and the growth of the iniquitous trusts
which threaten dissolution of the founding fathers' work.
On the surface this all appears
to be too ambitious a program for one man."
Brion Davis makes fun of the ethic ambition of his hero,
the aptly named Homer Zigler, but he also shares it.
Homer's first attempt is called Restless Dynasty
and begins shortly after the War of 1812
in the Lake Champlain region.
He never writes the book,
although having supplemented his reading of Owen Wister
with some Dreiser, he offers a detailed account
of a revised plan, Brutal Dynasty.
What Homer does write, though, is his diary,
which details his life as a reporter
on a daily paper moving steadily west from job to job.
Each chapter is set in a different city --
Buffalo, Cleveland, Kansas City,
San Francisco, and finally Denver.
And by the time we have absorbed his account
of political speeches, prizefights,
and Edison's inventions, we realize that we have read a kind
of Great American Novel after all --
one which De Forest would have been glad to see reads
like a stack of daily papers perfunctorily framed
by a love story.
But of course there is only so much that the perspective
of a single traveling man can accomplish.
And many GANists choose to supplement his position -
his perspective with other voices
and indeed other rival modes of discourse.
Robert Coover said that with The Public Burning,
his novel about the assassination of the Rosenbergs,
he was striving, he said, "--
for a text that would seem to have been written
by the whole nation through all its history.
I wanted thousands of echoes," he said,
"all the sounds of a nation."
And other forms of inventory --
other forms of kind of supplementation in a way --
might include Melville's systematized cytology,
Don DeLillo's data-spew history,
David Foster Wallace's Endnotes,
John Dos Passos's newsreel Ripe for Digital Display,
in which his - somebody has just started trying
to reconstruct all the stuff in Dos Passos digitally,
and Franzen's aggregation of chemical, botanical,
financial, and industrial facts.
"Franzen is seldom happier," wrote one reviewer,
"than when coursing along in cataloging mode."
But what's the point of all this accumulation of information?
Is it, as James Wood complains, simply a way
of telling the culture things that culture already knows?
Or is it rather - or also a homage to authorial labor?
In Freedom, Franzen's character Walter sort
of interrupts one long speech to say, "Are you bored?"
And the other character says, "No, no.
I'm not bored."
And then he kind of launches on into further cataloging.
But of course none of these works can ever achieve what
Gertrude Stein -- reflecting in 1934 on her 550,000-word,
925-page novel The Making of Americans --
termed "complete description.
"If I could only go on long enough and talk and hear
and look and see and feel enough and long enough," she said.
"But one can never go on long enough."
And there are two excuses, really, that are given apart
from the impossibility of just going on long enough:
too much and too fast.
"Document the billion forms of the nation,"
as Thomas Wolfe said, "and
by the time you are done another billion will have emerged."
The idea that life across the United States as opposed to,
say, in Trollope's Barchester won't hold still was first
proposed by De Forest in the 1860s.
"Can a society which is changing
so rapidly be painted anywhere except in the daily newspapers?"
he asked. "Has anyone photographed fireworks
or the shooting-stars?"
So that was 1868.
Writing in 1992, Sven Birkerts agreed: "The rate and magnitude
of change have outstripped the integrating powers
of the psyche," he said.
No one thinks any longer
about writing the Great American Novel."
So is there any point between 1868 and 1992
in which it wasn't going too fast?
I don't know.
De Forest's second obstacle was the fact
that the nation had far too many component parts.
"When you have made," he said, "your picture
of petrified New England life, does the Mississippian
or the Minnesotian
or the Pennsylvanian recognize it as American society?
We are a nation of provinces,
and each province claims to be the court."
"Perhaps," responded one critic,
"the Great American Novel will be
in the plural -- thousands, perhaps."
And this was a kind of common argument at the end
of the 19th century, particularly.
Another, though, thought it might be best constructed
like a single anthology of short stories.
And in 1892, an editorial in The Journal
of the Nation offered a suggestion.
"Wouldn't it be peculiarly American," it asked,
"to bring mechanical labor-saving devices
into the service and creation of the Great American Novel?
Are there not calculators and tabulators in the Census Office
which work via electricity?"
But supposing the tabulators
and calculators did manage to get it all down.
What then?
"Everything described," said Stein, "would not do any more
than tell all I knew."
Which essentially is James Wood's complaint.
It's all - it's just telling you what you already know.
Description, in other words, was not --
as Stein had previously thought -- explanation.
And a concern with explanation, I think,
is what motivates the GAN's kind
of perennial interest in history.
The GAN is historical because it's diagnostic.
Seeing the nation as ailing today --
and that's a frequent starting point --
the Great American Novel habitually seeks
to identify the causes of what Philip Roth calls
"the national disease."
In other words, the GAN's tone is usually less one
of self congratulation --
what Richard Evans dubbed "the Wonderfulness of Us model" --
than "argumentative national self-consciousness,"
which is Henry James's phrase.
The argument, however, has no preordained resolution.
Dos Passos ends his in disgust with the striking image
of a transcontinental passenger flying over the desert
above Las Vegas and vomiting the steak he ate in New York.
Others follow De Forest and opt for reconciliation
and hope for the future.
"We resume," says Richard Ford, " at the end
of the lay of the land.
It's not over yet."
Toni Morrison ends Paradise in her great American trilogy
by allowing her characters to rest before they get back to --
and here I quote -- "--
shouldering the endless work they were created to do."
So a GAN often ends with a kind
of pause before the work resumes.
A novelist's sense of an ending depends, of course,
on the genre, which conventions he or she rely upon
to turn description into explanation.
Biblical allegory offers one kind
of usually hopeful solution,
Zolaesque naturalism another, less hopeful.
Coverage across time as well as space has led the GAN
to the family saga as national saga and into the trilogy,
the form in which Dos Passos was able, he said, "--
to graduate from story, the daydream of a single man,
to history, the daydream of a nation, the daydream of race."
Eminent in the early decades of the 20th century has become -
became pre-eminent at its closure [phonetic].
For Morrison, Ford, McCarthy, Roth, and Ellroy,
some of these will be familiar to you.
Trilogy installed kind of ritualized time
as the explanatory medium of a whole
if not complete articulation.
De Forest said that when confronted
with a Great American Novel,
every American would recognize it as a likeness
of something which he knew.
One way to ensure this recognition --
De Forest's own way and that I have been outlining so far --
is kind of just circumscribed national breadth to try and get
as much - as many people in as possible.
But another way, though,
is to look for a representative microcosm
to present a case study of someone typical
who not only lives someplace typical but whose behavior,
thoughts, and even feelings represent
and just diagnose the national character.
The manners and morals as well as the race and gender
of that character have changed considerably
since the 19th century, but I think a belief
in its existence has been remarkably persistent.
"But where to find the native who has the consciousness
of his people and nation in him?"
as Thomas Wolfe asked in 1936.
And I can give other examples.
"But what," pondered Gish Jen in 1991,
"makes a typical American?"
And many examples have been given,
some of which I have already mentioned:
Dreiser's Financier, Willa Cather's Nebraska Farm Girl.
Richard Wright's Native Son,
who was from the South Side of Chicago.
Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho worked on Wall Street.
Omar Little, in The Wire,
declares himself the American Dream.
In 1903, Gertrude Stein began The Making of Americans only
to temporarily abandon the project
because she felt her subject matter -- and I quote --
"niggers and servant girls
and the foreign population generally" was inappropriate
for the national epic.
"I am afraid," she said, "that I can never write the Great
American Novel."
But 28 years later, as we have seen,
her big book was published.
And so as the century went on were many others
which from diverse points
of view depicted the foreign population
and claimed whole-nation spokesmanship.
"I am an American," Augie March declares at the start
of Saul Bellow's 1953 novel.
And at the novel's end he refers to himself as a sort of Columbus
of those near at hand.
The book's final word is "America."
"I am an invisible man."
begins Ellison's novel from the previous year --
which doesn't sound promising.
But when he concludes by asking, "Who knows but that,
on the lower frequencies I speak for you?"
we know that he means, "I am an American, too."
Bellow was Jewish, from Chicago -- Montreal, Chicago;
Ellison black, living in New York.
And each was keynote to assert that he spoke not simply
as Jewish or black, Chicagoan or New Yorker.
They spoke for you.
And as Don DeLillo updated it in Underworld, "--
in your voice, American."
When Augie March came out, one reviewer complained
that Bellow was aiming too early and too directly
at the Great American Novel, another that he was hustling
for literary promotion in an unseemly fashion.
But one can - but can one really claim representativeness
without hustling for literary promotion?
Don DeLillo described his first novel, Americana --
his title, he admitted, says something -- as "--
a kind of journey into the broader culture.
A curious unintentional form of repetition
of my own parents' journey, my immigrant parents
who came to the US from Italy.
This was their way out of a certain narrowness."
The Great American Novel does not only take
as its subject matter the narrow-to-broad conversion
narrative that is Americanization.
Its form, its claiming
of whole-nation spokesmanship also performs that conversion.
But more than that -- and I'll kind of come to it
and I'll close now -- the GAN also wants to convert the novel,
to "untrivialize" -- to use another DeLillo word --
a genre whose practitioners have often worried
about a certain narrowness.
Mighty themes might require mighty books.
But as Ishmael pointed out in Moby Dick,
the reverse is also true.
Might the novelist need the nation, then,
more than the nation needs the novel?
Does the GAN enterprise tell us more about the development
of American literary culture
than about the United States itself?
And what is the relation between the two senses
of great size and merit?
Back in 19 - back in 1868, De Forest began his essay
by evoking "-- a friend of ours who, having written articles,"
he said, "and other things which he calls 'trivialities,
wished to try something more demanding.
Though a fairly clever person, and by no means lacking
in common sense," he said, "on common subjects,
this friend had the craze in his head
that he will someday write a Great American Novel.
Writing such a book would involve vast labor
and even suffering.
But it would be worth it.
'If I can do it," he said,
'I shall perform a national service --
the American people will say "that is my picture",
and will lavish heart and pocket in remuneration.'" 150 years on,
the Great American Novel's duel promise of national service
and lavish remuneration still continues to inspire.
Thank you.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you very much.
We have a few minutes for questions.
Do we have any questions?
>> Yeah.
>> Yes, we have one here.
Mic's just coming to you.
[ Pause ]
>> Yes. It's actually by way of being a suggestion.
I'd be interested in your thoughts on it.
And that is the possibility that at one time it was possible
to have a Great American Novel.
And what I am thinking
of particularly is in the 19th century.
And it seems to me one could have put up an argument
that Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was a Great American
Novel, because the journey down the Mississippi, learning
and growing, and then at the end not settling down but having
to light out for the territory.
And that seemed, to me, to speak
of a fundamental national issue about America.
And as we have moved on, even relatively early
in the 20th century there wasn't anything as definable as that,
and there never has been since.
So it's almost as if the time
when there could have been a Great American Novel has now
passed -- well in fact long passed.
>> Yeah. I mean Huck Finn is sometimes brought
into the lists.
I mean one of the things that, I think, connects this subject
with my past [inaudible] book is that it's a kind
of sporting activity and that, you know, you find lists
of the Great American Novel in order in Amazon -
not just on Amazon but everywhere.
Everybody wants to read them.
And Huck Finn often appears --
and Huck as a kind of representative figure.
I am not sure that there haven't been subsequent attempts
in other [inaudible] books that's sometimes brought in:
I haven't mentioned The Great Gatsby, say, as -
in somebody's linking from Huck.
And - but certainly it's hard to beat Huckleberry Finn.
>> We have another one.
Go ahead.
>> Oh. I wonder if the Great American Novel has been actually
- or the attempt has been more fruitfully created
by a middle-brow novelist like Edna Ferber, who does things
like - she covers the entire United States: Come and Get It,
Alaska, Giant -- all -
every single region of the United States.
And she was a great best seller, very influential.
>> Yeah.
>> So I wonder if that is something
that could be considered.
>> I think that the idea of the Great American Novel,
that most of my -- I suppose --
examples have been kind of canonical.
It's something that really goes across more popular fiction.
And Gertrude Stein, you know, expands it.
And I think, in fact, the division between the kind
of popular and half experimental sort of breaks
down when you consider it in some ways in relation
to project letters [phonetic].
But there is a - I have forgotten his name now,
but there is a guy at the moment
who is writing alternate histories -- Trueblood?
No. Does anyone know?
-- who does these kind of sequences.
>> We have someone.
>> Yes, who maybe knows it.
[ Pause ]
>> Hi. Thanks for a really interesting talk.
I was struck that a few of your examples are from the 1930s,
and I was wondering if there is something about that decade
that crystalizes this problem or - kind of in terms
of representation, maybe the rise of the documentary --
and also if, kind of like the end of the Civil War,
there are other kind of particular periods that kind
of dramatize - where the urge
to write the Great American Novel is really strong.
>> I think that's definitely true in that -
I mean that particular periods of kind
of national anxiety interrogation have resulted
in a kind of clusters of these works.
The 20s through the 30s:
I mean it's not only the Great American Novel.
There are lots of other kinds of works
of national interrogation are going on --
the essays and poetry and so on.
But certainly, I think, the kind of popular novel and the kind
of experimental novel both were drawn to that -
those questions in the 30s.
Particularly in the 18 - there is a period from the 1870s
through 90s, in the immediate postwar periods, 1950s again.
And, you know, some people would argue a kind
of post 9/11 there -
is one reason why there is suddenly a revival of interest.
But actually if you start kind of tracking them,
there doesn't seem to be any moment
when there is none at all.
So it kind of implies that there is something kind
of going on all the time.
But certain the 30s was a kind of boom period,
particularly also for the trilogy.
I am quite interested in the rise of the trilogy
as a form really in the 1890s through the 30s,
and why that became so popular
and why people later were drawn to it as well.
>> There is a --
[ Pause ]
>> Excuse my voice.
Thanks for the interesting talk.
I'm wondering what you think about the dissemination by film
of the Great American Novel helps to categorize it.
For instance, Gone With The Wind,
which is probably the greatest
and most widely global film of all time.
And I wondered if you'd thought, actually,
Angelina Mayo [assumed spelling] had written anything
that would be described as a Great American Novel
in her series, because you haven't mentioned many women.
>> No. I haven't mentioned many women,
I think because there are fewer women who are interested
in doing this kind of project.
I think recent writers - Morrison is one,
and back in the 30s someone
like Josephine Herbst is also interested.
Joyce Carol Oates probably would - some of her books would kind
of come into this category.
But I mean women have more often debunked the idea
of the Great American Novel than attempted it.
There was quite a lot of controversy
when Franzen's Freedom got a lot of publicity from a group
of women writers who were saying,
"Why is this book suddenly on the cover of every magazine
and reviewed so much?"
Because he gives it this kind of title.
Because he kind of markets himself in that way.
To come up to the film question, I think absolutely.
As well as kind of individual films like Birth
of a Nation or Gone With The Wind, often dealing
with the Civil War and over a long period and the kind
of North-South questions, there are I think,
kind of -- again -- trilogies.
Orson Welles, I think, was so interested in trying to kind
of create a trilogy of -
sometimes called The Mercury Trilogy from Citizen Kane,
The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Stranger as a kind
of - the fall of the Lincoln Empire --
his equivalent of Dos Passos.
Or more recently, somebody like Oliver Stone, say,
with both the kind of Vietnam trilogy and his kind
of presidential trilogy.
So there are different ways.
I think film - and, you know, one could talk about again -
and television, sort of those long Ken Burns documentaries
which are in some ways of the Civil War but do other things --
the kind of narrative history that they provide overlaps,
I think, with the Great American Novel in certain ways.
>> Well I think that's the end.
We can't have - we don't have time for anymore questions.
So I'm sure you'd like to join me in thanking Electra.
[ Applause ]