Most credentialed literary critics disdain it as a grandiose hyperbole, and creative writers tend to speak of it in jest. But for almost 150 years, all of us—writers, readers, cultural trend-watchers—have been obsessed with the idea of the “Great American Novel,” a piece of literature that somehow captures the gestalt of the whirling multitudes that make up our ambitious country at a crucial or defining moment.
What first drew me to the subject of the Great American Novel idea was the strange obstinacy of its persistence. After reading hundreds of candidates and thousands of critical commentaries on those books, it dawned on me that the leading contenders, as a group, offer us something uncannily close to a DNA scan of the American imagination.
We know precisely when the Great American Novel entered public culture as an idea with legs: Jan. 9, 1868, in an essay by a now-forgotten Connecticut novelist…
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