Lawrence Buell’s essay, “The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel: Moby Dick as Test Case”, attempts to define the long debated definition of “The Great American Novel” (GAN). Buell asserts a few main qualifications for a novel to be considered part of the GAN category, a “text…that might encapsulate national experience…with fictional narratives that promise to sum up the national essence” (Buell 133-135).
The problem with defining a novel as part of the GAN category is the debate over the geographical area of the nation that needs to be represented within the novel’s narrative, with some critics stating that it needs to encompass the entire nation and other critics stating it need only represent a specific time and regional area of people – it is in the particular and unique stories that we experience America, not in a cursory overview of the nation as a whole where the lens has been cast so broadly as to not experience anything authentic.
The Great American Novel is Always Evolving
I agree with the latter defining qualities of the GAN category and it is with these qualities in mind that Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom will be examined to show how the work not only meets these requirements as brought up by Buell, but also the other conception Buell brings up in his essay that addressees the idea that the GAN category is continuously evolving with society, enabling a fluidic formula for determining what can be considered GAN worthy.
For example, Buell states that at one time The Great American Novel constituted a narrative that must be “the product of a particular background and time: a white Anglo-American Yankee writing in the immediate aftermath of the civil war” (Buell 135). That was true to that particular time period of the GAN category, however now that notion has become somewhat archaic and irrelevant in our modern day society. This in turn has paved the way for a new generation of Great American Novels that speak to our modern day American life; Freedom is part of this new generation.
Freedom is the Next Generation of The Great American Novel
The Guardian review by Curtis Sittenfeld gives an effective plot summary of the novel:
“Franzen kicks off with a sort of panoramic introduction to Walter and Patty Berglund as seen through the eyes of their neighbours in the gentrifying section of St Paul, Minnesota, where the couple have lived and raised their two children for close to 20 years. The Berglunds are earnest and socially conscious and admirable; they are annoying and judgmental and self-congratulatory. The implosion of their pleasant existence starts, but doesn’t conclude, when their smug, smart and decidedly underage son Joey begins sleeping with the slightly older girl next door” (Sittenfeld 1).
Flash forward a few years later and the Berglunds are nearly unrecognizable, with Patty and Walter having moved to Washington D.C. where a story in The New York Times exposes a scandal:
“The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally— he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now— but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“ arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow…then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds” (Franzen 2-3).
This passage sets the stage not only for the geographical span of the novel, but also the mindset and outlook of the both the subsidiary characters and the main characters.
The narrative of this novel speaks to the current narrative of America life, with its commentary on suburbia, the “perfect” American family, life for parents after children leave the home, the cultural disparity in relation to the Midwest and the Coasts, the media and its cementation into our American cultural conscious, as well as the divisive nature politics and political affiliation have created in current times.
The discrepancy in nailing down a concrete definition of what constitutes a Great American Novel is not a detriment to the genre, rather it is what defines the genre as well as America: America is perpetually progressing and the fact that the category of the Great American Novel allows for this assures that this category will stand the test of time; for as Lawrence Buell declares, the “US literary-cultural history is not unique in its fascination with fictional narratives that promise to sum up the national essence” (Buell 134).
Buell, Lawrence. (2014). The Dream of the Great American Novel. Cambridge,
Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674051157
Franzen, Jonathan (2010-08-31). Freedom: A Novel (Oprah’s Book Club). Farrar, Straus
and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
Jones, Jonathan. “Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: the novel of the century.” The Guardian
23 Aug. 2010.
Sittenfeld, Curtis. “Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.” The Guardian 18 Sep. 2010.