The Great American Novel

Edith Wharton

What exactly is meant by that term of “American novel” on which American advertisers and reviewers lay an equal and ever-increasing stress—a stress unparalleled in the literary language of other countries?

To European critics the term “great English” or “great French” novel signifies merely a great novel written by an English or a French novelist; and the greatest French or English novel would be the greatest novel yet produced in one or the other of these literatures. It might be, like “La Chartreuse de Parme” (assuredly one of the greatest of French novels), a tale of eighteenth-century Italian life; or as in the case of “Lord Jim” or “Nostromo” or “Kim,” its scene might be set on the farther side of the globe; it would none the less be considered typical of the national genius that went to its making, as, for example, “La Tentation de Saint Antoine” and “Salammbo” of Flaubert are so considered, though the one is situated in Egypt in the sixth century of the Christian era and the other in Carthage, B.C. 150, or as “The Wrecker” or “The Ebb-tide” must be regarded, though the life described in them has so largely an exotic setting. In the opinion of European critics only one condition is needful to make a novel typical of the country of its origin: that its writer should possess, in sufficient richness, the characteristics of his race. “John Inglesant” is not considered less typically English than “Lorna Doone” because it ranges through a cosmopolitan world reaching from the Tiber to the Thames while the other tale concerns the intensely local lives of a handful of peasants in the west of England.

It would appear that in the opinion of recent American reviewers the American novelist must submit to much narrower social and geographical limitations before he can pretend to have produced the (or the greatest, or even simply an) American novel; indeed the restrictions imposed appear to differ only in kind from those to which a paternal administration subjects drinkers of wine, wearers of short skirts, and upholders of the evolutionary hypothesis. The range allotted is so narrow that the feat of producing the “greatest” American novel, if ever accomplished, will rank the author with the music-hall artist who is locked and corded into a trunk, and then expected to get out of it in full view of his audience.

First of all, the novelist’s scene must be laid in the United States, and his story deal exclusively with citizens of those States; furthermore, if his work is really to deserve the epithet “American,” it must tell of persons so limited in education and opportunity that they live cut off from all the varied sources of culture which used to be considered the common heritage of English-speaking people. The great American novel must always be about Main Street, geographically, socially, and intellectually.

In an address made not long ago Mr. Kipling cited the curious fate of certain famous books which, surviving the conditions that produced them, have become to later generations something utterly different from what their authors designed, or their original readers believed, them to be. The classic examples are “The Merchant of Venice,” a rough-and-tumble Jew-baiting farce to Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and “Don Quixote,” composed by Cervantes, and accepted by his public, as a gently humorous parody of the picaresque novel of the day; but Mr. Kipling found a still more striking instance in “Gulliver’s Travels,” fiercest and most brutal of social satires when it was written, and now one of the favorites of the nursery.

Some such fate, in a much shorter interval, has befallen Mr. Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street,” that pioneering work which with a swing of the pen hacked away the sentimental vegetation from the American small town, and revealed Main Street as it is, with all its bareness in the midst of plenty. The novel was really epoch-making; but the epoch it made turned into something entirely different from what its author purposed. Mr. Lewis opened the eyes of the millions of dwellers in all the American Main Streets to the inner destitution of their lives, but by so doing apparently created in them not the desire to destroy Main Street but only to read more and more and ever more about it. The dwellers in Main Street proved themselves to be like the old ladies who send for the doctor every day for the pleasure of talking over their symptoms. They do not want to be cured; they want to be noticed.

No subject is foreign to the artist in which there is something corresponding to a something within himself.

It must not be regarded as diminishing Mr. Lewis’s achievement to remind his readers that he was not the first discoverer of Main Street. Over thirty years ago, Robert Grant situated “Unleavened Bread” in the same thoroughfare; and so, a little later, did Frank Norris his “McTeague,” and Graham Phillips his “Susan Lenox”—and they were all, as it happens not only “great American novels,” but great novels. But they came before their time, their bitter taste frightened a public long nurtured on ice-cream soda and marshmallows, and a quick growth of oblivion was trained over the dreary nakedness of the scene they had exposed. It was necessary that a later pioneer should arise and clear this vegetation away again, and if Mr. Lewis had done no more than demolish the tottering stage-fictions of a lavender-scented New England, a chivalrous South, and a bronco-busting West he would have rendered a great service to American fiction. This having been accomplished, however, it is permissible to wonder whether, as a theme, Main Street—in a literary sense—has not received as much notice as its width and length will carry, or even more. The difficulty is that it is now established as a canon, a first principle in the laws of American fiction; and thence it will be difficult to dislodge it.

The term is of course used to typify something much more extended, geographically, than Mr. Lewis’s famous thoroughfare. “Main Street” has come to signify the common mean of American life anywhere in its million cities and towns, its countless villages and immeasurable wildernesses. It stands for everything which does not rise above a very low average in culture, situation, or intrinsic human interest; and also for every style of depicting this dead level of existence, from the photographic to the pornographic—sometimes inclusively.

The novelist’s—any novelist’s—proper field, created by his particular way of apprehending life, is limited only by the bounds of his natural, his instinctive interests. The writer who sees life in terms of South Sea cannibals, as Herman Melville did, will waste his time (as, incidentally, Melville did) if he tries to depict it as found in drawing-rooms and conservatories; though this by no means implies that the cannibal is intrinsically a richer and more available subject than the inhabitant of drawing-rooms. No subject is foreign to the artist in which there is something corresponding to a something within himself. The famous theory of the “atomes crochus” is as true of affinities between novelist and subject as of those between one human being and another. To the creator the only needful preliminary to successful expression is to have in him the root of the matter to be expressed.

Nevertheless, there remains—there must always remain—the question of the amount and quality of material to be extracted from a given subject. Other things being equal, nothing can alter the fact that a “great argument” will give a greater result than the perpetual chronicling of small beer. And the conditions of modern life in America, so far from being productive of great arguments, seem almost purposely contrived to eliminate them.

The mere existence of art as a constant form of human expression… proves man’s inherent inability to live by bread alone.

America has indeed deliberately dedicated herself to other ideals. What she has chosen—and realized—is a dead level of prosperity and security. Main Street abounds in the unnecessary, but lacks the one thing needful. Inheriting an old social organization which provided for nicely shaded degrees of culture and conduct, modern America has simplified and Taylorized it out of existence, forgetting that in such matters the process is necessarily one of impoverishment. As she has reduced the English language to a mere instrument of utility (for example, by such simplifications as the substituting of “a wood,” or, mysteriously, “a woods,” for the innumerable shadings of coppice, copse, spinney, covert, brake, holt, grove, etc.), so she has reduced relations between human beings to a dead level of vapid benevolence, and the whole of life to a small house with modern plumbing and heating, a garage, a motor, a telephone, and a lawn undivided from one’s neighbor’s.

Great as may be the material advantage of these diffused conveniences, the safe and uniform life resulting from them offers to the artist’s imagination a surface as flat and monotonous as our own prairies. If it be argued that the greatest novelists, both French and English, have drawn some of their richest effects from the study of narrow lives and parochial problems, the answer is that Balzac’s provincial France, Jane Austen’s provincial England, if limited in their external contacts compared to a Main Street linked to the universe by telephone, motor, and wireless, nevertheless made up for what they lacked in surface by the depth of the soil in which they grew. This indeed is still true of the dense old European order, all compounded of differences and nuances, all interwoven with intensities and reticences, with passions and privacies, inconceivable to the millions brought up in a safe, shallow, and shadowless world. It is because we have chosen to be what Emerson called “mixed of middle clay” that we offer, in spite of all that patriotism may protest to the contrary, so meagre a material to the imagination. It is not because we are middle-class but because we are middling that our story is so soon told.

Another reason is to be found precisely in that universal facility of communication, the lack of which might seem to have made the life of Balzac’s narrow towns all the narrower. In fact, that life was not only fed from the deep roots of the past, the long confused inheritance of feudalism, burgherdom, diocesan and monastic influences, the activities of the guilds, the dogged labors of the peasants, and the fervors of an ornate religion; it had, besides, the concentrated flavor which comes of long isolation. Bad roads, slow communications, dangers from flood and foe, all these factors, for generations, for centuries, combined to make of each little town a hot-bed for its own idiosyncrasies. Even in the English novels of Trollope’s day, a day so much airier and more sanitated, the weight of a long past, and the comparative isolation of each social group, helped to differentiate the dull people, and to give a special color to each of their humdrum backgrounds. Only when mediocrity has achieved universal diffusion does it become completely unpaintable.

Nothing is less easy to standardize than the curve of an artist’s secret affinities; but literary criticism in modern America is a perpetual incentive to standardization. The public (as everywhere and always) likes best what it has had before; the magazine editor encourages the young writer to repeat his effects; and the critic urges him to confine himself to the portrayal of life in the American small town—or in New York or Chicago as viewed from the small-town angle.

Still more insistent is the demand of reviewers that the novelist shall deal only with what the wife of one of our late Presidents touchingly described as “just folks.” The idea that genuineness is to be found only in the rudimentary, and that whatever is complex is unauthentic, is a favorite axiom of the modern American critic. To students of natural history such a theory is somewhat disconcerting. The tendency of all growth, animal, human, social, is towards an ever-increasing complexity. The mere existence of art as a constant form of human expression, the recurring need of it shown by its reappearance in every age of history, proves man’s inherent inability to live by bread alone. Traditional society, with its old-established distinctions of class, its pass-words, exclusions, delicate shades of language and behavior, is one of man’s oldest works of art, the least conscious and the most instinctive; yet the modern American novelist is told that the social and educated being is an unreality unworthy of his attention, and that only the man with the dinner-pail is human, and hence available for his purpose.

It is useless, at least for the story-teller, to deplore what the new order of things has wiped out, vain to shudder at what it is creating.

Mr. Van Wyck Brooks makes much of Howells’s resonant but empty reply to Henry James’s complaint that there was little material for the novelist in a rudimentary social order: “There is the whole of human nature!” But what does “human nature” thus denuded consist in, and how much of it is left when it is separated from the web of custom, manners, culture it has elaborately spun about itself? Only that hollow unreality, “Man,” an evocation of the eighteenth-century demagogues who were the first inventors of “standardization.” As to real men, unequal, unmanageable, and unlike each other, they are all bound up with the effects of climate, soil, laws, religion, wealth-and, above all, leisure. Leisure, itself the creation of wealth, is incessantly engaged in transmuting wealth into beauty by secreting the surplus energy which flowers in great architecture, great painting, and great literature. Only in the atmosphere thus engendered floats that impalpable dust of ideas which is the real culture. A colony of ants or bees will never create a Parthenon.

It is a curious, and deeply suggestive, fact that America’s acute literary nationalism has developed in inverse ratio to the growth of modern travelling facilities, and in exact proportion to the very recent Americanism of the majority of our modern literary leaders.

Like all Anglo-Saxons, the old-time Americans came of a wandering, an exploring stock; unlike the Latins, we have never been sedentary except when it was too difficult to get about. Old New York and old New England (owing to this difficulty) sat chiefly at home, and, as Henry James somewhere has it, brightened their leisure by turning the pages of a volume of Flaxman Outlines in a bare parlor looking out on a snowy landscape; but in those steamless and wireless days Poe was letting his fiery fancy range over all heaven and earth, Melville was situating his tales in the tropics, and Hawthorne coloring his with the prismatic hues of a largely imaginary historic past. Our early novelists were, in fact, instinctively choosing those scenes and situations which offered the freest range to their invention, without fear of being repudiated as un-American if they wandered beyond the twelve-mile limit.

America’s sedentary days are long since past. The whole world has become a vast escalator, and Ford motors and Gillette razors have bound together the uttermost parts of the earth. The universal infiltration of our American plumbing, dentistry, and vocabulary has reduced the globe to a playing-field for our people; and Americans have been the first to profit by the new facilities of communication which are so largely of their invention and promotion. We have, in fact, internationalized the earth, to the deep detriment of its picturesqueness, and of many far more important things; but the deed is done, the consequences are in operation, and it is at the very moment when America is pouring out her annual millions over the old world that American reviewers and publishers are asking for a portrayal of American life which shall represent us as tethered to the village pump.

It seems as though it would not only be truer to fact but would offer far more lights and shades, more contrasts and juxtapositions, to the novelist, if he depicted the modern American as a sort of missionary-drummer selling his wares and inculcating his beliefs from China to Peru, with all the unexpected (and, to the missionaries, mostly un-perceived) reactions produced in the societies thus edified. It is not intended to suggest that the wandering or the expatriate American is the only fit theme for fiction, but that he is peculiarly typical of modern America—of its intense social acquisitiveness and insatiable appetite for new facts and new sights. The germ of European contacts is disseminated among thousands who have never crossed the Atlantic, just as other thousands who have done so remain blissfully immune from it; and to enjoin the modern novelist to depict only New Thermopylae in its pristine purity is singularly to limit his field.

It is doubtful if a novelist of one race can ever really penetrate into the soul of another, and hitherto the attempts to depict foreign character from the inside have resulted in producing figures very much like the Englishman of the French farce, or the Frenchman of “Punch.” Even Meredith, James, and Trollope never completely achieved the trick, and their own racial characteristics peep disconcertingly through the ill-fitting disguise. But there is another way of “catching the likeness” of the foreigner, and that is as his idiosyncrasies are reflected in the minds of the novelist’s characters who are of the latter’s own kin. This is the special field which the nomadic habits of modern life have thrown wide open to the American novelist. Thirty years ago, in attempting this kind of reflected portraiture, he was hampered by the narrowness of the reflecting surface. The travelling American of that day was almost always a mild dilettante en route for the Coliseum or the Château of Chillon; and his contacts with the indigenous were brief and superficial. Now innumerable links of business, pleasure, study, and sport join together the various races of the world. The very novelists who still hug the Main Street superstition settle down in the Quartier Latin or on the Riviera to write their tales of the little suburban house at number one million and ten Volstead Avenue. And the exploring is no longer one-sided. The same motives which send more and more Americans abroad now draw an annually increasing number of foreigners to America. This perpetual interchange of ideas and influences is resulting, on both sides of the globe, in the creation of a new world, ephemeral, shifting, but infinitely curious to study and interesting to note, and as yet hardly heeded by the novelist. It is useless, at least for the story-teller, to deplore what the new order of things has wiped out, vain to shudder at what it is creating; there it is, whether for better or worse, and the American novelist, whose compatriots have helped, above all others, to bring it into being, can best use his opportunity by plunging both hands into the motley welter. As the Merry Person says in the Prologue to “Faust”: “Wherever you seize it, there it is interesting”—if not in itself, at any rate as a subject for fiction, as a new opening into that “full life of men” which is the proper theme of the novelist’s discourse.

The “great American novel” continues to be announced every year; in good years there are generally several of them. But as a rule they turn out to be (at best) only the great American novels of the year. Moreover, the proof of their greatness (according to their advertisers) is usually based on the number of copies sold; and this kind of glory does not keep a book long afloat.

Of really great novels we have hitherto produced fewer than the future traveller from New Zealand will be led to infer from a careful study of our literary statistics; but we have perhaps half a score to our credit, which is something; and another, and the greatest, may come at any moment.

When it does, it will probably turn out to be very different from what the critics counsel, the publishers hope, or the public is accustomed to. Its scene may be laid in an American small town or in a European capital; it may deal with the present or the past, with great events or trivial happenings; but in the latter case it will certainly contrive to relate them to something greater than themselves. The ability to do this is indeed one of the surest signs of the great novelist; and another is that he usually elaborates his work in quietness, and that when it appears there is every chance that it will catch us all napping, that the first year’s sales will be disappointingly small, and that even those indefatigable mythomaniacs, the writers for the jackets, may for once not be ready with their superlatives.

Edith Wharton was an American novelist and critic.
Originally published:
July 1, 1927


Cancel Culture and Other Myths

Anti-fandom as heartbreak
Kathryn Lofton

Ode to Babel

The ecstasy of Michael K. Williams
Roger Reeves

A Moral Education

In praise of filth
Garth Greenwell

You Might Also Like


Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.