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William T. Vollmann

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  • Review: 'The Dream of the Great American Novel' by Lawrence Buell

    Review: 'The Dream of the Great American Novel' by Lawrence Buell
    This is an ambitious work about an enduring ambition — "The Dream of the Great American Novel." As Lawrence Buell's title suggests, there's something both wide-eyed and not-quite-actual about the idea of the G.A.N., an abbreviation first coined by — of all people — Henry James. As early as 1868, John W. De Forest used the phrase to describe a collective aspiration, claiming that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had a "national breadth to the picture." That so sizable and various a nation could have a single central text is of course open to question, but in a union whose motto is E Pluribus Unum it makes a sort of sense. The idea itself has taken hold, no matter how often debunked. As Buell, a professor of American literature at Harvard University, reports, "A standing joke in the household of a former student of mine, as her novelist father later confirmed, was his standard exit from the dinner table: 'Got to head back upstairs and write the great American novel.'"
  • The great American novel? What's that?

    The great American novel? What's that?
    Can we finally get beyond the Great American Novel? It’s the fantasy of an earlier America, like Manifest Destiny. And yet, to read Harvard professor Lawrence Buell’s “American Literature’s Holy Grail: Franzen, DFW and the Hunt for...

    The Millions looks at the year ahead in books

    The Millions looks at the year ahead in books
    The year 2014 is a banner one for big readers. That's according to the readers at the Millions, whose editors have compiled a list of the books they're looking forward to -- 89 titles in all. Think about that for a moment: 89 titles. I bet you didn't...

    Some notes on the National Book Awards

    On Wednesday night, the National Book Awards were presented at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan. “The Oscars of the Book World,” host Mika Brzezinski called it, although, as Fran Lebowitz once sniffed, “It’...

    Why are writers being curbed by NSA surveillance?

    PEN American Center’s report “Chilling Effects,” officially released Tuesday morning, offers some disturbing data about the effect of government surveillance on free expression and self-censorship in the literary world. Of more than...