Thoughts Of A Would-Be Writer (rough draft - 06/25/01)


One great question plagues many Americans.  Well, it plagues some Americans. Specifically this question plagues serious students of literature who wish to write and be revered for their writing. The question? “What is the Great American Novel?”


Why are so many would-be writers here in America asking themselves this question? Very simply, they are plagued by this question because no one has ever written or been able to define what “The Great American Novel” is or would be about.


But, you say to yourself, Europeans have been living here for between four and five hundred years, do you mean to say that in all that time with all of our great thinkers and all of our great writers no one has written what is considered the definitive, the penultimate, the one and only “Great American Novel”?


That is correct.


Not Thomas Paine?




Not Mark Twain?




Not even Jack Kerouak?


Not even close.


But, you protest, all of these are great writers who have made tremendous contributions to literature. How can you so easily dismiss them?


Quite simply, I can dismiss them because their works, while speaking to aspects or facets of the American experience, do not define it.


Each of these writers was in touch with a spirit that was sweeping the country at the time they were writing, and yes, their voice has carried through time, but how much of our culture did each of their works truly define?  How many voices did they each represent.


I hold to a much simpler principal in which, strive though we might, no one will ever achieve “The Great American Novel” because it is impossible to define America.  Yes, you can draw a map and put borders on it. Yes, you can look it up in Webster’s Dictionary and discover that America frequently refers to the United States of America which is a democracy (a republic really, but that’s another topic for debate) located in the Northern and Western hemispheres on the planet Earth.


But what does that say of our culture? What of the people? What of our thoughts? Our hopes? Our dreams?  What can that possibly say of the myriad of people scattered throughout the 50 states and the dichotomy of interests, beliefs, backgrounds and ideals?


True, that to most of the rest of the world America is the sum total of Hollywood’s movies and the international political stage, but, again, that’s not who we are. It’s not what America is any more than France is Berets, England a racy tabloid or the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”.  Thus we, as humans, look for the easy classification of our fellow creatures so we might dismiss them and continue on with our own small kingdoms.


But how true is any of that? Can any label define a human? Can any person be so easily plucked up, labeled and stored away on our shelf to be drawn off when needed?


But I digress. The above is meat for another rant entirely.


I would state that “The Great American Novel” can not be written because we, as a nation, do not understand what America is.


You can now all stop gasping in horror. I had history in high school & college too. And that’s part of the problem.


In school we learn the facts, the names and the dates. If we go to very good schools we even learn the political and world climate of the time, the thoughts of the important men and women and even the normal living conditions. When, though, do we learn what America is?


Is America nothing more than a set of ideals binding a people and land together? Is it nothing more than a band of people facing daunting odds and overcoming them by working together against a common foe (whether that foe be England, the wilderness, Germany, disease or something else)?


And what are we to make of the impossible to reconcile image and reality of America?


To what am I referring? I am referring, simply, to the idea of Americans as “Rugged Individuals”. 


We as Americans pride ourselves on our individuality and need to rely on no one but ourselves, but history has proven time and again that America is and can only be America if people are working together.


It was not a solitary man who incited and won the Revolutionary War; it was a group of men, thinking men who wished to live in a land of ideals.


Nor was it a solitary cowboy who rode across the country displacing the native peoples and settling in what was frequently only marginally arable land; it was wagon trains – large groups of people who reached out to each other for support, comfort and encouragement. It was together that they dreamed of a better life, a new hope, a new land.


Even our trips to space, landing on the moon, submarines diving to the deepest depths of the ocean are not instances of individuals working alone to conquer the unconquerable. They are instead tributes to American teamwork, the American ability to rely and trust others with enough confidence that we put our lives in their hands.


What America has… Well there are many things that make up America and not all of them can be accounted for in a book, and certainly not in an essay/rant. 


Even foregoing the subtleties of America, how is it possible to reconcile the innocent optimism, the confidence, our naiveté, our incomparable creativity, the drive toward the future, the firm faith that tomorrow will be better today and the blind faith of the American people in our ability to overcome anything?


Putting these in a character is possible. Even taking all these and letting them be the overarching background of a novel is possible. Neither of these, however, would even come close to defining even the smallest portion of America or what it is to be American. There comes a point where you realize that America is too big, is too much to be defined. We are immigrants and blue-bloods, we are 10,000 year old cultures and giving birth to new cultures every day. We are the cutting edge and the old standard.


We are easy for people to hate because in America, people see things that they dream and long for, and yet, we as Americans so easily dismiss these things because we can. We are easy to hate because, just like the big kid in class, we are strong enough to demolish anyone else without trying, but don’t understand our own strength or how to use it; we don’t understand what we’re capable of doing. We just know that we can do a lot of damage if we’re not careful.


Yet we continue walking into the world stage, sometimes stumbling over our own feet as does a gangly, awkward adolescent, with the best of intentions and completely oblivious to the contradictions we create for ourselves.


America is far too difficult to define because it is something different to every person in it. Therefore there never can be a “Great American Novel” because it would have to be several thousands of pages long and have over 250,000,000 voices, views and opinions.


Even if such a book could be written, we are left with the question of it’s readability. Could such a book ever be read? Could such a work ever be comprehended by the human mind? Would such a work ever define America and Americans?


Or, more likely, is the hunt for the “Great American Novel” nothing more than a drive of human nature to define that which we do not, that which we can not, understand?