Searching for the Great American Novel
Great books can connect us in ways other mediums cannot. They just have to be written.
“I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
—Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
As a kid I was a loner, caught between my responsibilities as a student and my commitment to sports. I didn’t have any friends outside of my brothers and would often skip lunch at the cafeteria or find some corner after school to bury myself where I knew I belonged: in the pages of the books I brought everywhere, reread over and over, and consumed as if the words themselves were life-sustaining. It didn’t matter to me what the author looked like, what were his political beliefs, or what social causes he supported. Only that he could tell a story that spoke to me, captured my imagination, and let me discover another angle of life that broadened the possibilities of what I could dream — and live.
John William DeForest argued the Great American Novel should embody the national character, coining the phrase in an 1898 essay in The Nation; it should be “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” It would take time for the relatively young nation to develop its essence and though there were a few honest attempts, none could capture “this eager and laborious people, which takes so many newspapers, builds so many railroads, does the most business on a given capital, wages the biggest war in proportion to its population, believes in the physically impossible and does some of it.”
If nothing else, America has proven to be a place blessed with endless stories, those that feed the soul through tales of heroism, struggle, war, deep strife, and division — and overcoming it. Wilfred McClay, the historian and Victor Davis Hanson Chair in Classical History and Western Civilization at Hillsdale College has lectured often on the importance of telling the whole American story as necessary for a complete civic education, “It is about promoting a vivid and enduring sense of what we have in common, of our belonging to one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the astonishing, perilous, and immensely consequential story of our own great country.”
From the heroes of Hawthorne and Cooper and the harrowing tales of a growing frontier, Stowe and Upton Sinclair on slavery and social reform. Then the rich cynicism of Fitzgerald gave way to the despondency of Steinbeck, chased with the dawning of a new post-war age marked by an era bursting with creative advancement, new frontiers, and — once the identity had been established — a deeper exploration of the meaning of our existence as Americans: writers like Twain, Hemingway, Bellow, Ellison, Faulkner, Harper Lee, and more contemporary writers took up the challenge with a unique voice as Walker Percy, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, Cormac McCarthy, and Toni Morrison.
But imagine if one or more of these important voices was missing. It would leave a gaping wound. When we punish writers — with their unequaled perspective and singular ability to connect these stories directly to our soul — is removing an eye or a limb from the American body. It distorts how we perceive the country in which we live, how we live with each other, and how we relate on a basic human understanding of each other’s journey. But that is precisely what is happening — limb by limb we are being cut from the legs on which we stand the hands with which we grasp our history and our humanity because of bitter clingers who see themselves as the gatekeepers to America’s novels.
The writer Alex Perez, who defies categorization but defines himself as one of masculine fiction recently brought this startling trend to light in an interview with Hobart Pulp’s editor Elizabeth Ellen in September. In it, Perez detailed the present state of the literary community, now defined by white, very liberal, very woke virtue-motivated women.
Ellen: It is my opinion we should be allowed to humanize everyone in art, in writing, because we are all humans. Just because someone has different opinions than us doesn’t mean they are wrong and we are right. It just means we view things differently. They don’t have to be bad people. Unworthy of being written about.
What is your take on this? do you see this sort of…one-sided representation… in literature today?
Perez: My take is the only take and the one everyone knows to be true but only admits in private: the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals. This is a mindset that views “whiteness” and America as inherently problematic, if not evil, and this sensibility animates every decision made by publishers/editors/agents. White people bad. Brown people good. America bad. Men bad. White women, I think, bad…unless they don a pussy hat. This explains why nearly every book is about some rich fuck from Brooklyn confronting his white guilt or some poor black girl who’s been fighting “whiteness” and “patriarchy” all her life. All this stuff is ideologically-driven horseshit propagated by some of the most artless people on the planet. We know who they are…
These women [agents/editors/publishers], perhaps the least diverse collection of people on the planet, decide who is worthy or unworthy of literary representation. Their worldview trickles down to the small journals, too, which are mostly run by woke young women or bored middle-aged housewives. This explains why everything reads and sounds the same, from major publishing houses to vanity zines with a readership of fifteen. The progressive/woke orthodoxy is the ideology that controls the entire publishing apparatus.
This is a far cry from the salons of New York City of the 1920s or the new journalism boom of the 1960s in which competition and ideas and groundbreaking narratives and stories allowed writers to capture the imagination of millions of Americans, helping shape our collective existence and whittle away at the lingering existential questions that illuminate our dreams and haunts our nightmares.
What’s just as striking as Perez’s admonition is the reaction: a collective resignation from Hobart’s editors punctuated by a letter so full of ideological gobbledygook at first glance it seems like a plant from the Babylon Bee.
The content that started all this was regressive, harmful, and also just boring writing. The misogyny and white supremacy were treated with empathetic engagement, and that sucked beyond measure. All this led to attention being taken from the work we are proud to have published, much of it by the very writers Perez denigrated in his interview.
And in a stunning act of bravery usually reserved for Hollywood actors bemoaning conservatives in front of flashing cameras, contributing writers to Hobart demanded their work be taken down so as not to be associated with offending Perez.
It’s nothing new to declare the impending death of the American novel. Phillip Roth said as much in a “Daily Beast” interview here. But for all of the naysayers and defeatists, there are those who defiantly stand as bulwarks against such prophets of doom. Tom Wolfe — the purveyor of modern America’s greatest stories — spends most of his 1989 Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” arguing for the vast wealth of stories yet to be written. Three years earlier in that same publication, the brilliant Walker Percy writes in his essay “The Diagnostic Novel”
[T]he sense of the wholeness and well-being of society, or at least much of educated society, outweighed the suspicion that something had gone very wrong indeed. Something is indeed wrong, and one of the tasks of the serious novelist is, if not to isolate the bacillus under the microscope, at least to give the sickness a name, to render the unspeakable speakable. Not to overwork the comparison, the artist's work in such times is surely not that of the pathologist, whose subject matter is a corpse and whose question is not "What is wrong?" but "What did the patient die of?" For I take it as going without saying that the entire enterprise of literature is, like that of a physician, undertaken in hope. Otherwise why would we, writer and reader, be here? Why bother to read, write, teach, study, if the patient is already dead? For in this case the patient is the culture itself.
The danger of these empowered gatekeepers to literature isn’t simply that one writer or book will branded hate speech or misogynistic, or doesn’t comply with the current grievance trends that inflict great struggle sessions within the publishing houses. It is that writers, like Wolfe, Percy, Hemingway, Cooper, Fitzgerald and so on never bother to write the stories at all. It is this form of censorship, this ill wind of silence and scorn, that will have the most profound effect on the American literary psyche and on the very nature of how we identify as Americans.
To condemn a great literary work because of the color of the writer’s skin or his sex or panoply of toxicities, or that he told a story that didn’t meet some silly BIPOC quota is a crime against art and a disservice to human imagination. Hemingway’s one true sentence is because beautiful words transcend the superficial. Hemingway satisfies our sense of adventure and wistful youth at once; Percy gives us hope in a world drowning in despair; Twain simplifies the complexities of life and distills them into each reader’s own journey; Wolfe can combine them all into the retelling of America’s race into space. The opening lines of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March evoke a sentiment of America in the same vein that Percy’s Love in the Ruins anticipates the national rancor of the past two years, even though it was written nearly a half-century ago.
I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
Maybe the search for the Great American Novel has always been in vain, not least of which because America cannot be distilled in a singular experience or told through the eyes of one protagonist. But just the same, our story cannot be forced into something it is not: defined only by its sins and constructed of notions that don’t exist. The important thing is that is pursued in the minds of writers who see in the experiences and lives of people from the grittiest urban centers to the rural outposts where the dark skies threaten to swallow one’s soul — that Americans have a common humanity, whose internal strife and weakness create stronger bonds with their fellow Americans than any superficial identity can divide.
It is here, in this space, that the exploration of man’s being, his meaning for life, what gives him joy, spurs pursuit of his passion, stand boldly in the face of uncertainty, is taking some respite in the pages of heroes, who are seldom perfect, or anywhere approaching it, that thousands of others see themselves in that very same struggle. We are not alone, we are not to be bound by gatekeepers who refuse to tell these stories because of the color of one’s skin or the leanings of their politics. Americans are hungry to see their stories spread out in the pages before them, written but not foreseen. That the ending is just one possibility of hundreds that is of one’s choosing.
Great novels will always be read. The question is whether they will be written.
I am sincerely grateful for your readership and appreciate everyone who has offered their advice and insight and would love to hear how novels have shaped your life and outlook and any great books you’ve consistently recommended to friends and family. I am a firm believer in the creation and sharing of books as a way to sustain free speech. Thank you for investing your precious time reading A Pilgrim’s Progress.
Great post. Impressive the way you covered the whole expanse. It is blasphemous the way great books like Huckleberry Finn have been edited or cancelled outright. Not great American, but two favorites if mine are J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, contemporaries and good friends. Tolkien got Lewis back to Christianity and Lewis convinced Tolkien to finish "Lord of the Rings"
Interesting post. It is tragic that ideology has overtaken truth in the minds of the publishing gatekeepers. It seems that with all the great novels over the past 200 years, it would be a real achievement to write something that could honestly stand up with them. The greatest American novel I’ve read is To Kill a Mockingbird (but admittedly there are many very great ones I’ve not read). Greatest overall novel I’ve read is Brothers Karamazov. The books that most deeply affected me were Gulag Archipelago and A Tale of Two Cities.