Sunday, October 25, 2009
The Great American Novel
What a phrase! What a concept! What a crok!
It's supposed to be the American writer's ultimate goal and guide and is sometimes even referred to as "the Holy Grail" for American men and women of letters.
Don't get me wrong. I have no intention of "dithering" with this iconic notion in any way. For those somewhat unfamiliar with the background of the phrase and the ideal it has come to represent, it was first mentioned as the title of an essay written by John William DeForest, a Civil War novelist, in The Nation magazine on January 9, 1868.
I need not mention the numerous candidates that have been informally submitted to receive this honorific title, since that's not the point of my asseverations at the moment. What I want to do is allege the "crok-ness" of this idea -- an idea which many have noted is Platonic form to its core. Plato believed that the truly ultimate and perfect "reality" is "formalized" in a reality beyond our sensory dimension -- its forms not ever being achievable in our sensory world.
So the "ideal" form of "the American Novel" -- in it's platonic sense -- is never achievable in actuality as we know it.
My problem is this: the very use of this "ideal" suggests that there are criteria (somewhere) that define a "great" novel. If so what are they? And who is responsible for them? What can it possibly mean?? I want to suggest that it can only mean that a lot of people like it! If it means anything more than this, I'd like to know what.
The upshot of this notion is and always has been that the evaluative process of aesthetic creations relies on some kind of absolutist guidelines, when in actual fact there are no such things -- nor can there be.
I think, for example, that Bram Stoker's Dracula is "the great American novel"!!
Am I wrong????