The Great American Novel
M. Cooper Harriss
C. E. Morgan’s 2012 foreword to William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) resurrects a literary category long out of critical currency—the Great American Novel:
[M]ight there be a category for a text that, while intellectually acute, stylistically idiosyncratic, and emotionally profound like any other great novel, also explores an aspect of American life with such unmistakable brilliance and force that we can barely keep from saying that this—this— is not just a great novel but a Great American Novel?”1
Introducing Faulkner in this way, and invoking Light in August as exemplary of such a category, we might also understand Morgan to refer to the ambitions surrounding her own work-in-progress at that time, her novel The Sport of Kings (2016): a sprawling, flawed, gorgeous, affective novel that proves willfully, cussedly great—even if a precise definition of that modifier remains difficult to finger. Like Morgan recognizes in Faulkner’s work, The Sport of Kings offers a profound examination of big themes (race, inheritance, betrayal, desire) that “signify a reality both universal and distinctly—perhaps incontrovertibly—at the heart of the collective American experience, if such a thing can be said to exist.”2 In the process she saddles the reader with an almost unbearable excess of complicity in no small part because such novels offer, by design, little didactic relief. Concerning Light in August, Morgan claims that readers “are never told to change by a severe didacticism. Rather, they are prompted to change by…their emotional response.”3 The question of whether sufficient change shall happen, or the degree to which it even proves possible, remains open. The diagnosis requires courageous, creative engagement with a text that fights back, not the passive tears of a sideline observer.
Morgan’s Foreword proves fascinating because, while it speaks in praise of literary “greatness,” through an appeal to an unambiguous expression of American exceptionalism (note that she remains silent on non-US novelistic traditions), this exceptional nature, this “greatness,” remains ambivalent. In contrast to an uncritical exceptionalist mode—that notorious greatness to which America should return, “again,” for instance—Morgan adopts a critical position. In this way she gestures toward a (Reinhold) Niebuhrian irony, acknowledging national “greatness” to derive from the necessity to come to terms through literary production with ongoing exceptional violations of such greatness—which in turn reify that greatness. “Even the best human actions involve some guilt,” Niebuhr writes, reflecting the same complicity that Morgan foists on the reader: “The irony of our situation lies in the fact that we could not be virtuous [as Americans] if we were really as innocent as we pretend to be.”4 Virtue, ironically, requires the viability of sin; otherwise for Niebuhr (and this holds true for Morgan as well), it can bear no moral traction.
Such irony derives as well from Morgan’s anachronistic language. Who, in this global and transnational age, even speaks of a “national character” or “collective American experience”?5 Who—so unabashedly—defends literary canon? Morgan deploys these terms as deliberate, even audacious anachronism. She aims to provoke and, while remaining cognizant of the historical wrongs perpetuated by the terms of such singularity, maintaining the discomfort that uncritical expressions of US exceptionalism generate, I find myself solidly on Morgan’s side. How, then, to square this—what I feel, not what I ought to say—with better critical judgment?
This essay considers the category of the Great American Novel, and especially Morgan’s deployment of it in her Foreword to Light in August (and elsewhere), as theology of American exceptionalism that, rather than exulting in such chauvinistic excess, tempers it. It does so by representing the profound limits and betrayals of professed “national” ideals in order to explore and determine more ambiguous conceptions of these fraught terms—“great” and “exceptional.” Like the Great American Novel itself, such intemperance and excess must be met head-on, engaged in struggle that remains ever in progress in order to prevent their institutionalization as the nightmare political caricatures that they can, if unchallenged in this way, come to represent.
Tracking the Great American Novel
The notion of a—or especially the—Great American Novel dates to an 1868 article by John William DeForest (“The Great American Novel”) published in The Nation. DeForest contemplates “the painting of the American soul within the framework of a novel,” a task he reckons possible yet, nevertheless, a fait unaccompli by the likes of James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Gilmore Simms.6 Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) comes closest to achieving Great American Novel status in DeForest’s estimation because of “a national breadth to the picture, truthful outlining of character, natural speaking, and plenty of strong feeling. Though comeliness of form was lacking, the material of the work was in many respects admirable.”7 Such terms offer a clue to the category as DeForest envisioned it. So do the novels he omits—most notably the perennial favorite for Greatest of the Great American Novels, Moby-Dick (1851).8
Lawrence Buell, in The Dream of the Great American Novel (2014), charts two primary periods of historical viability for the notion of a (or the) Great American Novel. The first, ranging from the 1860s (with DeForest) through roughly 1920, surveys an age of anxiety surrounding the emergence of an American literary tradition, drawing upon both the unsettled identity of “America” in its early republican days (those very problems that John Marshall’s juridical grand narrative of America seeks to address in Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s contribution to this collection) and especially ongoing repercussions of civil war. Buell argues that DeForest concerns himself as much with shoring up ambiguities of “reunion” at the outset of Reconstruction as he does the vagaries of literary tradition. Accordingly, Buell notes that Great American Novels in this first period skew toward literary realism—a decidedly non-Faulknerian narrative mode—and focus on socially representative individuals (DeForest’s “character,” as cited above) who offer “some consequential reflection on US history and culture and its defining characteristics.”9 In this way we may conceive of the Great American Novel as an aspirational project, seeking singularity of purpose in the midst of ongoing trial and error. This is not the Great American Novel to which Morgan appeals.
Buell’s second period, ranging from the 1920s to the 1960s, reflects more security in the establishment and quality of American letters, even as it diagnoses the messy state of this union. It was during this timeframe that seven American writers (five of them novelists) would win a Nobel Prize for literature.10 A stronger sense of literary inheritance also became codified through critical studies such as F.O. Mathiessen’s The American Renaissance (1941) and R.W.B. Lewis’s The American Adam (1955), and novelistic technique shifted away from realism and toward “romance,” the highly symbolic form favored by the likes of Melville and especially Hawthorne and one more rife for irony. “Americanness” and the novels that negotiated its fraught terms did so through a quality that Leslie Fiedler, writing in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), calls “depth and resonance.”11 In this way a canon of Great American Novels both clarified and limited potential contenders to “select masterworks by a few practitioners.” Buell lists Hawthorne, Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.12 Additional candidates qualify, yet they also owe evident debts to this battery of exemplars.
By the 1960s, of course, the feasibility of the Great American Novel was in decline. Shifts in literary criticism toward critical theory and deconstruction, recognition of authorship beyond work produced by white men and select women, fragmentations of the presumed American “consensus” (Morgan’s “national character”) that such recognition disrupted, and even changes in reading habits effectively transformed the category, whatever its durability in popular conceptions of literary life and labor, into a punch line.13 It is into this compromised set of cultural assumptions that Morgan fires her Foreword to Light in August and follows with The Sport of Kings, marking it, among other things, as an anachronistic move, invoking an unfashionable category deliberately to jar readers toward a more subtle and urgent point about the risks of abandoning exceptionalism to the exceptionalists.14
The preparation of this essay and the argument I wish to advance about Morgan and the Great American Novel as theology of American exceptionalism cannot be separated from my own intellectual situation, having recently finished one project on the novelist Ralph Ellison and well immersed in another concerning the boxer Muhammad Ali. Ellison and Ali both share Morgan’s ambivalence toward exceptionalism even as they deploy it definitively in their work and public personae. Ellison, whose Invisible Man (1952) ranks high among every shortlist of candidates for the Great American Novel, intimately knew the outrageous violence inherent to “America.”15 He witnessed first-hand the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa massacre as a child and later found himself caught in-between more strident racial factions in America—never more than black in the eyes of white supremacy, yet an Uncle Tom to certain black activists disenchanted by Ellison’s level and tenor of engagement with racial politics. At the same time, Ellison also recognized possibility in the promise of the founding documents, which became scriptural in his estimation. The US Constitution—which literally enslaved his grandparents—also established conditions for democracy and thus for Ellison bestowed unique freedom, a virtue without which the violence and exclusion he endured would cease to be outrageous, settling instead into unexceptional banality. America’s promise in Ellison’s work derives from the “more perfect” prospect of knowing better. He insists upon the foolish hope that knowing better leads to doing better, to living up to standards of liberty central to these founding documents—“sacred documents” as Ellison calls them on more than one occasion. Such ambivalence reflects the irony of a virtue that so deeply depends upon treachery for its own traction.16
In a similar vein, Muhammad Ali famously takes exception to American exceptionalism in the 1960s, refusing military induction on racial and religious grounds, paying dearly with the prime years of his career and becoming a pariah to many exceptionalists among the American public. At the same time, this very act of exception-taking in the 1960s becomes the ground for his sanctification as an “exceptional” American later in his life and certainly at the time of his death. Having become a champion for religious freedom through the exercise of his sincerely held belief, Ali’s betrayal of supposed US ideals transform him into an exemplary American, a Great American. He becomes an emissary for the State Department, encouraging leaders of several African nations to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, negotiating with Saddam Hussein for the release of hostages in 1990, and representing the US as Olympic torch lighter in the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta games.17 In this way a figure of dissent against American exceptionalism found himself transformed into its mascot.
The reasons for this metamorphosis remain varied and complicated, but it bears out, in short, the ironic sensibility at the heart of the exceptionalist myth for Ali (as for Ellison): that anything “exceptional” in this way must also carry the terms of its own betrayal.18 Morgan notes tautologically in her Foreword that “One reads Huck Finn to understand America, and when one strives to understand America, one reads Huck Finn.” One may say something similar about Ali, who became exceptionally American by taking exception to “America.” For Morgan, exceptionalism qualifies as both “part of” and “indispensable to” whatever it is we might deem “American experience” or even a “national character” to be. Indeed, she continues—and Ellison and Ali would be quick to concur: this sense of exceptionality, such a myth of greatness, may be all that distinguishes “America” from the “mad constellation of differences unified just barely by a handful of common concerns” that it actually is.19 In this way Great American Novels become most necessary because they establish both the myth of US exceptionalism and its limits. Thus I want to argue, in the space that remains, that the Great American Novel offers a theology of American exceptionalism precisely because it carries the terms of its own betrayal within whatever redemption it may possibly enact.
Theology as Novelistic Depth and Resonance
Novels—whether Great, American, or neither—bind together Morgan’s exceptionally fragile unity-amid-difference described above as a matter of course. In this way it helps that the novel itself—an intrinsically modern genre—bears such close association with American national tradition.20 One rationale for such uniqueness holds that the genre itself emerges at the same time “America” does. Don Quixote, for instance, first appeared in 1605—predating Jamestown by only two years. The novel form flourishes as the early republic comes of age (beginning in the eighteenth century). Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great novels emerge roughly a decade before the Civil War, offering serious rejoinders framed by post-Calvinist anxieties in an age that no longer took original sin seriously—even as debates over slavery, what some call the American original sin, augured bloodshed. In the process these novelists become the “true” theologians of their time, surpassing the more sanguine (and “traditionally” theological) ministers Henry Ward Beecher or Charles Grandison Finney who, in losing touch with original sin, focused on the prospect of human improvement.21
Buell’s post-Civil War periodizations of the Great American Novel as what I call aspiration (1860s to 1920s) and diagnosis (1920s-1960s) reflect the coterminous development of America and the novel as well, highlighting the epistemological crisis that novels, since their inception, have been understood to address: “how the external social order is related to the internal, moral state of its members,” as Michael McKeon puts it.22 Articulated differently, while we cannot know the relationship between a society and the moral standing of its constituents, novels give us a space to work out what these correspondences might be—versions, to be sure, of Mark Twain’s distinction between who we are and who we say we are—public and private selves, identities at home and abroad contained, and often constrained, by nationalist myths.23
I want to emphasize two points here: First, novels qualify as “theological” not because they are god-obsessed (though they certainly may be and frequently are god-obsessed). Rather, their focus on interiority, the way novels foster correspondence between personal and social dimensions narrates subjectivity within objective frames. Riffing on Anselm’s well-trod construction (faith seeking understanding), they seek understanding through the provisional stylization of reality, acting generatively, speculatively, and not shying away from matters of ultimacy. Novels therefore concern themselves with the kind of significant specificity that theology offers within the category of religion. At their best, as Morgan claims in the Foreword to Light in August, novels should not offer didactic positions but, rather, appeal to hard-fought imaginative representations of reality that aspire to and construct broader political comprehensibility.
Toward these ends, it makes sense to return to the phrase “depth and resonance” that Fiedler deploys in Love and Death in the American Novel. Ellison himself echoes this phrase in a draft for a 1971 letter to his close friend, the theologian and literary critic Nathan A. Scott, Jr., writing: “I sense more than I can say, perceive more than I’ve been able to reduce to form. . . . I read your book and I felt most poignantly the loss of depth and resonance that occurred when a concern with the sacred went underground . . . [in] modern literature. How our efforts to depict the grandeur, [and] moral breath of human assertion are muted.”24 This sense of the “sacred” and its signification of “depth and resonance” bolsters an earlier letter from Ellison to Scott in which the novelist confesses a long-time concern “with the relationship of modern theology to literature.”25 Amid the post-1960s historical pivot away from the Great American Novel, Ellison also detects (much to the detriment of novelistic craft) a tack away from the sacred, away from theological inflections of this exceptionalist mode that remains his métier. Morgan concurs in an interview, reflecting unapologetically upon the surplus that characterizes her taste in literature: “I’m not interested in books that are just clever and well executed; polish doesn’t impress me, and I don’t care about a merely capable sentence. Life is short; I want a confrontation with high art. I want soul. Great literature rattles the mind and makes the body sing. It’s an unmistakable, electric feeling, and too rare. That is what I want.” This excess, this resonant depth, is theological.
Second, the “great” iterations of this theological function among so-called American writers appeal to the kind of American exceptionalism reflected by both Ellison and Ali: not uncritical aggrandizement but insisting, rather, that the central irony (some may say tragedy) of “America” rests in the notion that its subjective potential (“who we say we are”) renders objective reality (“who we are”) unbearable. Great American Novels qualify as “great” because they bring the full brunt of this reality to the fore. As “novels,” they offer literary ritualization of McKeon’s internal moral state of its people. As “American” they do so through recourse to race, violence, and (re)memory (Light in August, The Sport of Kings, Toni Morrison’s Beloved ), the ship of state (Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), or notable disjunctures between appearances and reality (Invisible Man). Certainly, reader, you may supplement this list.
Moreover, Morgan’s words prove prescient when American “greatness” filters in the present age through certain noxious tributaries of inscrutable malice—the logical, if carnivalesque, extension of uncritical exceptionalist legacies in the postwar era. To sneer at or abjure American exceptionalism effectively abandons this theology to its fundamentalists. Those who would resist such abandonment, or who even seek to correct the political climate it has wrought, will not find “the answers” in Great American Novels. There are no answers, only horizons. Sounding the distance between internal moral condition and external social order, Great American Novels provide the unbearable evidence of just what such gods require. Indeed, the novels ambiguate and ironize this reality, providing rhetorical and dramatic laboratories for the hard work of resistance—Ali as the fighter who wouldn’t fight; Ellison’s protagonist rendered invisible by his most visible attribute. Sources such as these bear new urgency for the taking of exception demanded by the exceptional age we now (and always) confront.
C. E. Morgan, “Foreword” in William Faulkner, Light in August (New York: Modern Library, 2012), x.↩
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Scribner, 1952), 21, 23. Elsewhere Niebuhr cites Tocqueville’s recognition of the representative “American” as well as his “troublesome and garrulous patriotism” (28).↩
Morgan, “Foreword,” x.↩
John William DeForest, “The Great American Novel,” The Nation (9 January, 1868): http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/articles/n2ar39at.html↩
Herman Melville and Moby-Dick in particular, of course, remained obscure until the 1930s— tellingly at a moment of pivot in the periodization of Great American Novels that follows. See William V. Spanos, The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Literary Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).↩
Lawrence Buell, The Dream of the Great American Novel (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2014), 29.↩
Ibid., 46-47. The winners are Sinclair Lewis (1930), Eugene O’Neill (1936), Pearl S. Buck (1938), T.S. Eliot (1948), William Faulkner (1949), Ernest Hemingway (1954), and John Steinbeck (1962).↩
Buell traces the terms of the Great American Novel through John Updike and Toni Morrison’s work near the turn of the twenty-first century, but also readily recognizes the exhaustion of the category (60-67). For more on shifting reading patterns (and the mid-century trends from which they turned) see Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America (1933-1973) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015)↩
For more on the risks of abandoning exceptionalism to the exceptionalists, see Matthew Scherer’s contribution to this volume. Concerning Faulknerian greatness, in a telling twist, Light in August was named by Oprah Winfrey as a selection for Oprah’s Book Club—surely another category of Great American Novel—in the summer of 2005. Indeed, Winfrey dubbed that season the “Summer of Faulkner,” encouraging readers to tackle As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, culminating with Light in August. Oprah’s Book Club would intersect with debates surrounding the Great American Novel at other junctures, perhaps most notably in 2001 when Winfrey selected Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for her Book Club. Franzen, who once appeared on the cover of Time magazine emblazoned as “Great American Novelist,” dismissed Winfrey’s “literary taste--suggesting at one point that appearing on her show was out of keeping with his place in ‘the high-art literary tradition’ and might turn off some readers.” Winfrey disinvited Franzen from appearing on her show, though the two made nice in 2010, when Winfrey profiled Franzen’s novel Freedom and Franzen finally appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/29/books/oprah-gaffe-by-franzendraws-ire-and-sales.html↩
Echoing Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s question about reframing the American original sin, this “breathtaking originary violence” she associates with John Marshall, to Indian genocide in lieu of slavery, Ellison hailed from Oklahoma—the frontier or “territory” as he called it—and understood US racial violence always to carry the specter of the Indian.↩
For more on Ellison’s Niebuhrian qualities—including his ironic bent—see chapter two of M. Cooper Harriss, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (New York: NYU Press, 2017).↩
Jonathan Eig, Ali: A Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2017), 476-77; 518; 523-24. The official word on Ali’s meeting with Saddam Hussein is that the US government did not sanction the trip, though one never knows what future declassified information may reveal.↩
Sullivan puts it this way regarding Marshall’s decision in Johnson v. M’Intosh: “the very expansiveness of Marshall’s opinion carries the seeds of its own subversion.”↩
Morgan, Foreword, xviii.↩
To clarify, novels bear generic associations with national traditions across the board (consider the English novel or the Russian novel, for instance, in addition to this essay’s meditations of American novels. In this way national novelistic traditions bear and reflect certain characteristics understood to emerge from national grammars and tropes. For an excellent version of such thought see Ralph Ellison’s “The Novel as a Function of American Democracy,” in John F. Callahan, ed., The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 75969.↩
Martin E. Marty, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (New York: The Dial Press, 1970), 117.↩
Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 20.↩
Ellison cites Twain in “The Novel as a Function of Democracy,” Collected Essays, 762. Thus, in a manner of speaking, this is Ellison’s Twain.↩
Quoted in Harriss, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, 97. The draft in question is for a letter to Scott thanking him for dedicating his book The Wild Prayer of Longing to Ralph and Fanny Ellison held in Ellison’s papers at the Library of Congress. I cannot say if a fair draft of the letter was sent or, if sent, it retained Fiedler’s phrase “depth and resonance.”↩