January 9, 2011

De Forest: The Great American Novel

The Nation for January 9, 1868 published an article by a Connecticut-born former Captain in the Union Army: John William De Forest (pictured), whose article titled "The Great American Novel" began the never-ending quest of nearly every American fiction writer to follow.

After dismissing the idea that a great American epic poem could be written before the country had "agonized and conquered through centuries," De Forest opens the door for the possibility of a Great American Novel: "the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence." Early writers, he claims, were unsuccessful. Washington Irving "was too cautious" and James Fenimore Cooper "produced something less natural than the wax figures of [P. T.] Barnum's old museum."

Most early American writers, De Forest claims, "are ghosts, and they wrote about ghosts, and the ghosts have vanished utterly." The key, he believes, is creating realistic images of distinctly American characters and events, something he has yet to see. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne, he concludes, created people who "belong to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality." The closest thus far may be Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book, De Forest writes, has "a national breadth... truthful outlining of character, natural speaking, and plenty of strong feeling."

Three years after his essay, De Forest published one of many novels of his own. Overland (1871) meets the author's own criteria for the Great American Novel by depicting a realistic slice of the American experience (coincidentally? Or, perhaps De Forest invented the term "Great American Novel" to market his own work). The novel opens:

In those days, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was an undergrown, decrepit, out at elbows ancient hidalgo of a town, with not a scintillation of prosperity or grandeur about it, except the name of capital.

It was two hundred and seventy years old; and it had less than five thousand inhabitants. It was the metropolis of a vast extent of country, not destitute of natural wealth; and it consisted of a few narrow, irregular streets, lined by one-story houses built of sun-baked bricks. Owing to the fine climate, it was difficult to die there; but owing to many things not fine, it was almost equally difficult to live.


  1. There's just no way this de Forest character could have written The Great American Novel! I've written it! I've actually written two of them! They just haven't seen the public light of day, but that's immaterial! Humpphh!

    (Actually, I may be related to "this de Forest character" - de Forests (de Forets) inhabit my family tree (now this is ripe for some kind of pun) back into the 1630s in Nova Scotia.)

    Very fine to see you last evening at the Longfellow House. I plan to try to get to your "Born in Boston" show. Break a leg!

  2. Excellent detective work, Mr Vellela. Writing some four months ago, I was able to date the phrase no earlier than 1869. I should have known there were earlier uses, since the editors of the Round Table complained then that “the great American novel” was already “much-talked-of.”


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