[(essay date spring 2006) In the following essay, Boone discusses The Great American Novel as a metafictional work and deems it an innovative and unique text that "anticipates postmodern fiction."]
In the early 1920s in Rutherford, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams had serious doubts that the "Great American Novel," as it was then conceptualized, could ever be written. Though generally known for his revolutionary work in poetry, Williams was also quite an experimentalist in prose, claiming in Spring and All that prose and verse "are phases of the same thing" (144). Williams showed concern for the future of American literature in general, including that of the novel. In response to what he viewed as specific problems facing the American novel, problems with American language, and problems inherent in the nature of language itself, Williams created The Great American Novel in 1923. Williams was troubled by the derivative nature of American novels of the time, their lack of originality, and their dependence upon European models; the exhausted material and cliché-ridden language of the historical novels of his day; the tendency of such novels to oversimplify or misrepresent the American experience; and the formulaic quality of genres such as detective novels. At the heart of The Great American Novel is Williams's concern with how these conventional novel forms obscure the play of language and fail to engage readers in the defamiliarization that drives his poetics. Growing out of these underlying premises, The Great American Novel engages the techniques of what we would now call metafiction to parody worn out formulas and content and, ironically, to create a new type of novel that anticipates postmodern fiction.
The Great American Novel has received infrequent yet varied responses from scholars. In an interview with Edith Heal published as I Wanted to Write a Poem, Williams himself calls the work "a travesty on what [he] considered conventional American writing" (IWWP 38). He adds, seemingly offhandedly, "People were always talking about the Great American Novel so I thought I'd write it. The heroine is a little Ford car--she was very passionate--a hot little baby. Someday you should read it. You'll have fun" (IWWP 38-9). From this attitude (as well as some of the work's content), we might gather that parody of American writing as usual was at least a part of Williams's aims for the work.
Linda Wagner, however, in The Prose of William Carlos Williams, claims that the "Language is neither so playful nor erudite as Joyce's; tone is not that of parody, as Williams later suggests" (48). Wagner further states, "No jokes or puns, no neologisms, no portmanteau words--Williams's novel asks nothing from the reader except the seriousness of mind to shape the fragmented parts into a whole ..." (58). To view The Great American Novel in this light, though, is to completely miss the work's unmistakable humor (much of which does involve wordplay such as puns). The reader of this work inevitably must confront this question of how seriously we are to take...