Saturday, June 03, 2006


Turns Out The Great American Novel...

...Isn't American.

This week in The Stranger I track down the historical origins of the phrase "The Great American Novel," a challenge I relished mainly because it gave me an excuse to write this sentence: "Unlike Carl Van Doren, I was backed by the greatest intellectual resource in human history: a university library that sells Mountain Dew in the lobby."

Some of the phrase's early appearances reflected the ugly nativist politics of the 1850s, but there's another early use that I don't mention in the piece. The phrase was trumpeted by Rebecca Harding Davis's publisher in ads for her 1867 novel Waiting for the Verdict. My reading of Davis doesn't extend beyond Life in the Iron Mills, but I'm curious to find this one -- if it's not what we call the Great American Novel now, it at least is what the Great American Novel was then. The first and latest GAN involve slavery. And -- surprise! -- apparently Waiting for the Verdict involves the fate of free blacks seeking their fortune in the North.

Race, it seems, remains the Great American Topic....

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