Search

The Great American Novel in Transition and Translation



I am 36 years old.


According to Wikipedia, I am on the upper end of the age range for Millennials, which means I am young enough to navigate my iPhone successfully, post to Instagram and Twitter, and have a healthy suspicion of Wikipedia that doesn’t prevent me from using it as a source. This also means I am old enough to have processed negatives in a dark room, to remember when phones had cords, and to have accessed the internet through a cranky dial up modem that only worked when it was in the mood to do so.


I learned about the American Dream in high school at the hands and letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. I once dreamed of writing the Great American Novel until I lost thread of it when the attacks of September 11 changed the complexion of my senior year and the world I was about to inherit.


Now, amid endless screaming headlines, social unrest, and an America more divided than we’ve been in a long time, I wonder if writing the Great American Novel is still possible.


As a high school English teacher who has consulted Wikipedia, I know the Great American Novel is supposed to be written by an American author who has captured America’s character in a story that pursues the American Dream.


There are many who hold The Great Gatsby as the prime contender for the title. Fitzgerald, who published the book in 1925 to very little critical success, wasn’t among them. He died in 1940 before The Great Gatsby found true popularity and became a staple of American high school English classes.


The eponymous Jay Gatsby lives out a rags-to-riches tale in which he turned a dirt-poor existence into the life of a successful businessman. As related by Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby bought a mansion in West Egg across the bay from Daisy Buchanan.  Everything Gatsby did was designed to earn his place in among the “old money” society of East Egg and become worthy of the debutante Daisy. Marriage to Daisy would have been the consummation of Gatsby’s American Dream.


With Daisy as his bride, Jay Gatsby would have had it all: a wife, a house, a car, and money. This is the quintessential American Dream, and if it sounds generic, that’s because it was. The prosperity of the early 20s eventually gave way to the Great Depression, during which Herbert Hoover supposedly claimed he would provide “a chicken in every pot and a car in every driveway.” As is perhaps fitting, the American Dream was partially born in a debate between presidential candidates. What became the American Dream was born of a country united by economic hardship and two world wars. It was rooted in the same idyllic national identity that gave rise to Superman in 1938, a hero who fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”


If the notion of America as an ideal nation in which such dreams are possible sounds patriotic and glorious, that’s because it was. It was also superficial and shallow and placed a great deal of racial tension left over from slavery and a Civil War that still existed in living memory on the back burner to boil over decades later.


Almost a century has passed since Gatsby hit the shelves. Change happened quickly. We advanced from propeller-driven planes to walking on the moon, from telegrams to text messages, and from a white-centric ide