October 20 - November 6, 2016

Concord, Massachusetts

Two weeks of talks, readings, and discussions celebrating the written and the spoken word.
  • Larry Tye
    Larry Tye
  • Hank Phillippi Ryan
    Hank Phillippi Ryan
  • Christopher Castellani
    Christopher Castellani
  • Jane Kamensky
    Jane Kamensky

Lawrence Buell

Events: The Dream of the Great American Novel and Why It Continues to Thrive

Book: The Dream of the Great American Novel

Lawrence Buell is Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature Emeritus at Harvard University, specialist on antebellum American literature and a pioneer of Ecocriticism. He is the 2007 recipient of the Jay Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary studies. He won the 2003 Warren-Brooks Award for outstanding literary criticism for his 2003 book on Ralph Waldo Emerson. His Writing for an Endangered World won the 2001 John G. Cawelti Award for the best book in the field of American Culture Studies. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Thoreau Farm.

The idea of “the great American novel” continues to thrive almost as vigorously as in its nineteenth-century heyday, defying 150 years of attempts to dismiss it as amateurish or obsolete. In this landmark book, The Dream of the Great American Novel, the first in many years to take in the whole sweep of national fiction, Lawrence Buell reanimates this supposedly antiquated idea, demonstrating that its history is a key to the dynamics of national literature and national identity itself.

The dream of the G.A.N., as Henry James nicknamed it, crystallized soon after the Civil War. In fresh, in-depth readings of selected contenders from the 1850s onward in conversation with hundreds of other novels, Buell delineates four “scripts” for G.A.N. candidates. One, illustrated by The Scarlet Letter, is the adaptation of the novel’s story-line by later writers, often in ways that are contrary to the original author’s own design. Other aspirants, including The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man, engage the American Dream of remarkable transformation from humble origins. A third script, seen in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beloved, is the family saga that grapples with racial and other social divisions. Finally, mega-novels from Moby Dick to Gravity’s Rainbow feature assemblages of characters who dramatize in microcosm the promise and pitfalls of democracy.

The canvas of the great American novel is in constant motion, reflecting revolutions in fictional fashion, the changing face of authorship, and the inseparability of high culture from popular. As Buell reveals, the elusive G.A.N. showcases the myth of the United States as a nation perpetually under construction. In this session he will discuss these concepts in depth and briefly explore how they relate to a subject he has covered in a previous book: The Concord Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau.