In 1867, two works of fiction appeared that would have wildly divergent and lasting claims on the American character. Horatio Alger’s serialized Ragged Dick followed a poor but tenacious New York City shoe-shiner who, through a series of fortunate events, becomes a respectable esquire. It became a best-seller upon publication and cemented Alger’s name as synonymous with the rags-to-riches narrative.
By comparison, John William DeForest’s Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, which told the story of a Southern belle’s passionate support for the Confederacy during the war, and for the Union during Reconstruction, was a flop. But Miss Ravenel is partially responsible for cementing DeForest’s legacy. Soon after its publication, he penned a pugilistic essay for the Nation in January 1868, titled “The Great American Novel” forging and tempering a term that would become this country’s literary Excalibur. Though DeForest failed to wield it with Miss Ravenel, he saw that failure as nationally ubiquitous, and took a hatchet to “classic” works by Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper to exemplify the inability of American novelists and poets to produce works that spoke on behalf of the times:
“We may be confident that the Great American Poem will not be written, no matter what genius attempts it, until democracy, the idea of our day and nation and race, has agonized and conquered through centuries, and made its work secure. But the Great American Novel — the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence — the American “Newcomes” or “Miserables” will, we suppose, be possible. […] This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially — in the production of a few outlines.”
Ragged Dick and Miss Ravenel both turn 150 this year, and the innumerable novels published in their wake have distilled the legacies of Alger and DeForest into, respectively, an oft-cited myth and cliched aspiration. The originators wouldn’t recognize these modern creations. Rags-to-riches stories have evolved into Americanized bildungsromans, where instead of coming-of-age, a protagonist is ushered into prominence from the cultural fringes. As New Yorker writer Nathan Heller wrote in a review of Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries: “Every New York bildungsroman has essentially the same plot. A wide-eyed outsider drifts among the city’s urbane and jaded lions with fear and amusement, acutely aware that she is not one of those powerful, entrenched, kind-of-terrible New York people, until, one day, she wakes up and discovers that she is one of those powerful, entrenched, kind-of-terrible New York people.”
The Vanity Fair Diaries not only charts Brown editor’s movement from New York outsider to insider but also Brown’s own surprise of arriving there. It’s also, cleverly, a very modern and glamorized immigrant’s tale, only with flight cabins instead of ship decks. Another non-novelized but otherwise literary example can be found in Patti Smith’s Just Kids, who in the course of New York rollicking 1970s rises from newcome nobody to cultural icon. Both offer something voyeuristic and fetishized, the American dream as only New York can nurture it.
While this ushering into New York has long been a trope of the city’s literature, so are those works where New York is essential to the narrative. While the notion of New York as a character is well-trodden, the city, serving long as the country’s gateway and cultural epicenter, may actually be America’s greatest character, dependably documented year after year in literature, film, visual art, music, and thus providing the country with an unbroken timeline of its growth. One feature particular to New York is nearly all major events that occur within it will inevitably be novelized; you could almost set a watch to their fictional apparitions — Hurricane Sandy, Occupy Wall Street, the gentrification of Brooklyn, and even Marina Abramovic’s performative work “The Artist Is Present,” being recent examples.
While some of these novels have national concerns, New York is generally a poor setting to address the state of the union. It writers live on an island, and thus, for the most part are insulated from the culture wars of the mainland. This hasn’t stopped many of its writers from attempting Great American Novels, even if these works tend to regard the American dream over the American portrait. “It’s no accident that my first novel was called Americana,” the novelist Don Delillo told the Paris Review in a 1993 interview. “This was a private declaration of independence, a statement of my intention to use the whole picture, the whole culture. America was and is the immigrant’s dream, and as the son of two immigrants I was attracted by the sense of possibility that had drawn my grandparents and parents.”
These days, regarding America as as immigrant’s dream in the age of Trump, where immigration has become a contentious issue, sounds more like a fantasy, one that may be a privilege to imagine. Like most American cities, New York is a spot of liberal blue surrounded by a largely conservative red state, and where it can feel like the only thing everyone has in common is a NYS driver’s license. Which is why “Great New York Novel” is much more achievable, even plausible, in ways the Great American Novel no longer can be. How can the Great American Novel remain something to aspire to when the optimism it traditionally sought to convey no longer resonates? How can a work seek to capture the spirit and struggles of our times when people are divided over them? If America was founded on a shared dream that we can no longer agree upon, then how can a Great American Novel even exist?
In an interactive feature published right after the 2016 election, the New York Times visualized this stark contrast by mapping “two Americas” and the result was striking. A conservative America is a land of many lakes; a liberal America is an archipelago with islands surrounding an ocean. A generous majority of novels published in American come from writers based in those islands, or about 15% of the country’s landmass.
If New York novel has had a great impact on American literature, it is as the progenitor of the Great American “City” novel — the great mass of novels set in that 15%—where generations of youth are most commonly immortalized. But youth have a habit of coming to the city by escaping more small town origins where progressive ideas don’t jive with more traditional merit, including highfalutin prose. In her introduction to the Library of America edition of Faulkner’s Light in August, Kentucky novelist C.E. Morgan (whose recent Sport of Kings is one of the few recent Great American Novels to be set in the 85%) all but channels DeForest as she scrutinizes contemporary attempts by writers, now largely trained in MFAs and living in cities, at attempting the Great American Novel:
“Rarely neat and carefully ordered, they are neither quickly read nor readily comprehended in their full complexity…they are intellectually ambitious but imperfect, expansive in their vision, often shocking with their unwelcome insights and the intensity of their language. These novels are storehouses of information regarding the human in a specifically American context, but not in the fulsomely empty manner of so many contemporary novels, where linguistic abundance is too often a reflection of authorial egotism while purporting to be a commentary on culture…And these novels bear something else in common: a wildness, even madness…as a result, these works can seem almost unmanageable.”
And yet, to simplify a narrative for the masses — to quell its music — is to enter dicey territory. It would be inconceivable for a novel such as To Kill a Mockingbird, largely considered to be the seminal literary portrait of race in 20th-century America, to get published now without being taken to task for cultural appropriation and white saviorism. While it is more culturally acceptable to consider the uphill battle that is being black in America, it is less appropriate for non-black novelists to narrate those struggles. If To Kill a Mockingbird were to be published today, it would likely receive as many lambasts as laudations.
But while such constraints should now concern the contemporary novelist, the novel as nationwide allegory can also feel incapable in portraying country now collaged together by many issues — race, immigration, gun control, cultural values, political beliefs, etc — rather than a single abysmal division. It’s not like these issues don’t affect New Yorkers, but rather, they don’t divide New Yorkers the way they do the many other parts of the country. And it’s these divisions that an American Novel would need to address in order to approach “greatness.”
And that’s by no means an easy task. Consider the difficulty reporters have had with profiling figures on the alt-right. The New York Times, for instance, recently published a controversial profile of a Nazi sympathizing American that sparked backlash with its readership. In responding to his inability to discern why his subject necessitated a seemingly humanistic portrait, the journalist Richard Fausset stated how he sought to learn what caused an “intelligent, socially adroit [man], raised middle class amid the relatively well-integrated environments of United States military bases — [to] gravitate toward the furthest extremes of American political discourse? His answer spooled out from an album title by The Minutemen What Makes a Man Start Fires?:
“To me, that question embodies what good journalism should strive for, as well as the limits of the enterprise. Sometimes all we can bring you is the words of the police spokesman, the suspect’s picture from a yearbook, the acrid stench of the burned woods. Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both reader and writer…”
I considered this when thinking of mass shooters such as Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter, Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter, or Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter. In all cases, the motives for such atrocious acts remain unknown. Bringing voice or narrative to sociopaths opens a new chest of moralistic problems, yet these crimes, which have too often shocked the nation, recede almost too quickly into memory. There are few better memorialists than a writer, so why does it seem like so few are stepping up to the task?
Perhaps because America isn’t ready for Pulse, a novel. Or Charlottesville. Or Ferguson. Or maybe no novelist is singularly capable of adequately speaking on behalf our times. The most contemporary Great American Poem, to rebuke DeForest, is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a book length work about what it means to be black in a white police state. And if there’s a contemporary Great American Narrative, it is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s epistolary work, Between the World and Me, the most significant book to address race in the 21st century. In an interview with Robin Young of the NPR show Here and Now, Coates contested of writing a classic American story, instead giving a more sobering account of what it is to write on the country as an African-American:
“My job is to tell the truth as I see it. I’m not anybody’s pastor. I’m not anybody’s prophet. That’s not my job. But I think for a lot of black writing, because this thing is so close to the bone of who we are as Americans, there’s this idea that you should get a bedtime story. And I’m just not gonna do that. I’ll never do that. It’d be a massive betrayal of the form.”
So who gets to tell an All-American story when there are many Americans to speak of? Surprisingly, it may be a non-American. In the novel American Warby the Egyptian-Canadian writer Omar el Akkad, where, in a very-near future, a Second Civil War has erupted in the USA. Whether a work written by a non-American can be considered a Great American Novel is debatable, but el Akkad has a unique advantage of being able to be a non-participant observer. It’s a compelling vision of our country’ s future and, considering how close the country feels at times into breaking into another domestic war, just barely speculative. Are there American novelists who could provide similar observations from the inside?
I believe so. And if there is a contemporary writer who has used his own background to incredible effect, it is George Saunders, the Syracuse-based short story writer and award-winning novelist. A former conservative Republican, Saunders has a familiarity which gives his characters a dimension that city novelists often struggle with. To read Saunders reporting from the front lines of Trump rallies, or reflecting on his own conservative past, or to read his stories of broken homes, impoverished citizens, and PTSD veterans, is to experience a Great American compromise: a willingness for an educated and liberal writer, regardless of color, to consider a vaster undereducated, conservative, increasingly estranged, white America. That’s the challenge one would have to take up to write the Great American Novel, but having New York City in conversation with New York State seems like an ideal place to start.