I think the search for a Masterpiece of American Literature, or more specifically, the Great American Novel, is generally amusing. The idea that we have the judgement and foresight to know greatness when we see it, and to predict the longevity of any single work into the ages, is patently sort of silly. We can know if we respond to literature, if we think it's strong, but absent some sort of Harry Potter-like phenomenon, we can't know if something is important at the level of the culture. And even with a phenomenon like Potter, we just can't be sure that something will last beyond our lifetimes.
But more importantly, I tend to think America is too big for the Great American Novel to exist. Maybe the country was small enough once, though the divisions between New England, the South, and the mid-Atlantic were always considerable. America's essence is in its sprawl, its ungovernableness, its quarrelsome and competitive diversity, its flux and evolution. We can have a Great American Library. But any Great American Novel is bound for obsoleteness, for incompleteness.
I’ve always been confused by the periodic question asked whenever a media-hyped novel gets published—“Is this the Great American Novel?” The question implies that the mythical beast has already been found; but, like many dreams, we already have a perfectly good reality: you could spend quite a few years reading just the really great American masterpieces, so it seems to me that the Great American Novel has already been written, several times over.
So what’s behind the quest? One novel to define everything behind America as a handy one-stop shop? That seems foolish.
And while America is among the biggest, most sprawling, most competitively and quarrelsome diverse countries in the world, surely other big important historical countries lack a great defining novel: there surely isn’t a Great British Novel or Great Russian Novel or Great French Novel. If there is a Great Novel of your country, it’s a sign that you live in a small, somewhat but not too interesting country. Otherwise there are too many people doing too many interesting things to get all of them to sit still at once for a masterpiece portrait to be painted.