The great (American) Novel by meeks
July 2, 2008, 5:39 pm
Filed under: art, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I open with an except from N+1 magazine discussing the history of the novel’s social significance.

“To what extent is the bulky, unmemorizable novel (as compared to the portability of poems, or the locality of theater) an oil-dependent technology—an ambitious expansionist form for an ambitious expansionist system? The “American Social Novel” arose as a strategic retaliation against American society—the inhumane industrial city, and then the inhumane suburbs. America was big, and so the American Social Novel had to be big. It partook in a kind of arms race, an escalation. Novelists wanted (and want) the novel to continue to matter, in a way it maybe never did, and so the novel scaled up and globalized.”

In discussing the trajectory of the novel, the author frames the novel’s point of dispersion and social signficance as an american creation; he further asserts that the novel’ssignificance may have been overemphasized. I first off do not doubt the great tradition of the novel, a conduit for generations a great mind to exchange ideas. I more emphatically reject this notion that the tradition of great novels is somehow inextricably American. I personally associate great cars with the Japanese, great food with Italians, and great novels with the Russians. I’ll take a book full of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Nobokov over Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck any day – and this is coming from an American.

America is still young for social movements. The tradcindentalists of the 1860s are known as the first purely American literary movement. The novel was alive and thriving (thank you very much) when Walden pond was nothing more than a ponderous pond. Sure America has had a fruitful tradiation of novelist from Thoreau and Emmerson, through Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, up to Pynchon and Roth. I still contest that America is but a blip in the history of the novel and believe that nationalism distorts our objectivity in evaluating our own significance.

Of course, it is more likely that an American could name five Hemmingway novels before they could even name the country of The Ramayana’s origin, but then againit is more likely that an American could name five battles from the civil war before they could name any of the two countries involved in the Boxer Revolution. This does not prove that Hemmingway is a better novelist than the Ramanaya’s any more than it proves that American history is greater and more important than Russo-Japanese relations. American knowledge of an event is not a fair litmus test of its “greatness”. Countries in many ways tend to distort (whether intentionally or unintentionally) their own significance to their citizens.

In high school, I was taught two full years of America history but only one dealing with the rest of the world. I do not think this was an anomoly and is probably representative of the vast majority of history cirrculums across US highschools. The American education system’s overepresentation of itself is perhaps one among a slew of other factors that leads the general American population to have a much greater knowledge of American history than hisotircal knowledge of the rest of world combined. So, the fact that so many Americans wax poetic about the importance of the great (American) novel indicates more about our own country’s nationalism than any contribution that America has made to world literature.


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