This essay is an interim report on a long-term study of the chimera of the great American novel—the dream either of writing it or seeing it written. The project has three main facets: a chronicle of the dispensations of authorial, critical, and readerly pronouncements (a story with a distinct beginning, several middles, and no end); a historical-formalist comparative examination of several dozen aspirants and/or nominees; and a nation-and-narration metaperspective conceptualizing “American” narrative, in broadest terms, as part of a world system inflected by what Pascale Casanova calls the “Herder effect” (78–81), the postulate of each nation speaking in its own voice, within and against which its writers must thereafter contend, even such resolute cosmopolitans as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

This might seem a distinctly unfashionable project, out of phase with the push to think beyond/outside the confines of nationness for which Americanists, myself included, have lately been calling as...

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