If you were to think of one novel that sums up and embraces the sweep of American experience and identity, what would it be? Herman Melville's "Moby Dick"? F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"? What's your choice for the Great American Novel?
The phrase — Great American Novel — was first introduced in the 1860s by a now-mostly forgotten writer from Connecticut named John W. De Forest. Back then, De Forest argued that the book had yet to be written. There were certainly great American novels, but the Great American Novel? No, not yet. Maybe not ever.
Over the years, writers and literary critics have debated what constitutes the Great American Novel. Many have tried to write it; many others, to define it. Henry James made fun of the concept. And in fact, some dismiss the very idea as silly and meaningless. Given the vastness and diversity of America, is it even possible, or worthwhile, to talk about the Great American Novel?
Whatever the answer, the phrase is full of meaning and it's still very much with us, as Lawrence Buell reminds us in his new book, "The Dream of the Great American Novel."
This segment aired on February 25, 2014.