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Stalking the Hippogriff

February 02, 1992|DEAN STEWART | Stewart is a Santa Barbara journalist. Lately he has been writing a novel

Every so often over the years, when I've told someone I'm a writer, they ask either ingenuously or sarcastically (I'm never sure which), "Are you going to write the Great American Novel?"

It occurred to me long ago that the less literary a person is, the more likely he is to pose this question. But I never thought critically about the expression; it was merely a cliche and a part of our national vocabulary. Then, a few years ago, I suddenly wondered where this strange phrase, with its longed-for paragon, had come from.

The difficult search and odd enigma were soon upon me. I waded through a score of indexes and a number of anthologies. I confounded a good reference librarian and stumped a couple of university professors. Novelists couldn't help me and even the most over-read friends didn't know the answer. Reviewing Van Wyck Brooks and F. O. Matthiessen, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, Daniel Aaron and Granville Hicks--all the books I could think of as the principal texts on the literary history of the United States--I found no mention of the Great American Novel.

It was easy enough to know the figure of speech as the title of a novel by Phillip Roth. His book is a slapstick panorama of America, a very self-consciously literary work, and a parody of what it mockingly represents itself to be. Roth, however, was not the first to use the phrase as a title--not even the second. Earlier, in 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote a short prose work of the same name, though it is not a novel at all but rather digressions and impressions, full of banter and gibes at American society. As it deepens and mellows, it anticipates Williams' work of a few years later, "In the American Grain."

Clyde Brion Davis, a little-known novelist I came across, also wrote "The Great American Novel" (the quotation marks are a part of his title) in 1938. And he did a nice job of it too. His quietly comic story is about a journalist who hopes he will one day write the American epic, but is always not getting around to it.

And that's as far as it went for a long time. That is as much as I could find out.

Then, suddenly, I got my answer. I got it when I least expected it and wasn't looking for it. Reading Edmund Wilson's "Patriotic Gore," his book about the literature of the Civil War, I came across his remarks about John W. DeForest, a Union officer and postwar novelist. It was DeForest, Wilson notes, who first gave "currency to this still all too current phrase." DeForest's 1868 essay in the Nation was titled, "The Great American Novel."

If DeForest gets the credit, I soon realized, it is an ironic tribute. Searching out the essay, I found that he wrote virtually in opposition to the sanguine idiom. DeForest says at the beginning of the piece that a friend has proposed to write such a book. Taking a dubious tone, he reviews what American literature has produced. James Fenimore Cooper is simply inferior, his characters "less natural than the wax figures of Barnum's old museum." Nathaniel Hawthorne "staggered under the load of the American novel," and all his works truly "belong to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality."

A novel, DeForest insists, which might propose to be "a tableau of American society" comparable to those of Thackeray and Trollope in England or Balzac in France, would face "a nation of provinces" in which "each province claims to be the court." It is this discontinuity that defies the creation of a national paradigm or overarching fictional work of art. "The nearest approach to the desired phenomenon," DeForest says, "is 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' " He goes on to laud that book as "a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait." But this is limited praise; clearly he does not see the book as an apex but only as a solid rung on the ladder. What lies ahead offers dim prospects; the society is too fragmented and changing too rapidly. All this, DeForest reasons, will confound the creation of an ideal Great American Novel.

The thread of this argument ran well over 50 years and was bound up completely with the discussion of the creation of an American literature. In the heyday of the debate the issue was unavoidable and the varying arguments cut a wide swath through the literary magazines of the late 19th Century. Among serious writers, the notion of the representative novel was taken at least seriously enough to be disliked. And at least in this respect the Great American Novel became a key phrase and paradoxical springboard in arguments for the creation of a more native literature.

"Lay the story," wrote T. S. Perry in the North American Review, "on the limitless prairie or in the limited Fifth Avenue, but let the story rise above geographical boundaries."

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