On a new book that aims really, inspiringly high.
Over the last few decades, Americanist scholars have largely abandoned a goal that characterized much of the first half of the 20th century’s scholarly work: to come up with sweeping visions of our national literature, culture, history, identity. They’ve had good reason to do so, as such all-encompassing frames tended to be both highly selective (focusing only on texts, figures, histories that related to their particular lens) and reductive (smoothing out or at least minimizing many of the complexities in those focal points in service of the sweeping vision). But on the other hand, to say that such sweeping scholarship can’t do everything, and thus must be complemented by other kinds of scholarly work, is not necessarily to say that there isn’t still a place in our conversations for those kinds of broad takes—and as the author of a book titled Redefining American Identity, clearly I think that there is.
Among the broad, previously prominent and even dominant ideas that have gone by the wayside over those same decades is the concept of the Great American Novel. The phrase certainly seems silly in our 21st century moment, not only because it has almost always been applied to works by white male writers (Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Fitzgerald chief among them), but also and more importantly because it envisions literary production as a zero-sum game rather than an accumulation, a competition for singular greatness rather than a conversation between multiple voices and works, an enduring definition of success rather than a contextualized, constantly evolving set of perspectives. But on the other hand, an AmericanStudier doesn’t have to believe in the existence or even the possibility of a single Great American Novel to be interested in the concept itself, in how it has developed and been debated over the centuries, in what it can tell us about ourselves and our ideas and ideals.
And indeed, one of our foremost AmericanStudiers, Lawrence Buell, has in his most recent book used the concept in precisely that way. Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel (2014) is old-school Americanist scholarship in the best possible senses, hugely ambitious and sweeping and capacious; but it’s also nuanced and analytical, not only about the (ginormous roster of) authors and works it includes, but also about its own categories and ideas, its relationship to other voices in the conversation (full disclosure: I’m briefly quoted/cited in a section on Cable’s The Grandissimes). Which is to say, Buell’s book offers an impressive and inspiring model for bringing the best of what AmericanStudies has always been into our 21st century AmericanStudying future. May the same be said of all our work!
Next new book tomorrow,
BenPS. New (or classic) AmericanStudies books you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post!
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