The mostly-forgotten novelist Coningsby Dawson, speculated in 1920 that America would have difficulty producing great novels moving forward.
“I believe American novelists as a class to be the most unobservant and the least local in their affections. When I say local, I use that term in its best sense. Hardy and Kipling and Tolstoy and Balzac are local, but none of them is provincial. They select a certain area which they know and love and make it the mirror of the passions of the entire world. Very few American novelists have that love of a locality; they seem to lose their traditions and sense of race in the cosmopolitanism of the larger cities.”
Dawson also pinpointed another problem, at least in his view: the limited urban perspective of the novels being produced at that time.
“America, as she is today, is in the main totally unrepresented in the fiction of her contemporary novelists… New York, which is decidedly not a representative of the States, would certainly provide the setting for the biggest percentage of the novels; Chicago and Boston would tie for second place. Those three cities together would probably afford the background of 75 percent of the year’s output. To choose another great city at random, I can think of only one novel of consequence which places Cincinnati on the map — Susan Lennox [sic] — and Susan Lennox does not picture Cincinnati in such a way that you could recognize it.”
The novel Dawson references, a misspelling of 1912’s Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise is largely forgotten today but was adapted into a 1931 film with Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.
Dawson, for what its worth, seemed unable to write a great American novel himself. The man at least has a Wikipedia entry, but not a single one of his 20+ works does.
At least his 1920 article took a cautious tone on whether America will continue to write great novels. By contrast, a 1916 New York Times article — which SundayMagazine.org previously covered in 2016 — was pessimistically and more definitely titled “The Great American Novel Never Will Come.”
Still to be written in 1920 were many of what are now considered among the greatest American novels:
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)
- Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
- Roots by Alex Haley (1976)
America’s Unwritten Novels: A Chart of the Country Shows What Has Already Been Done and Suggests the Vast Possibilities Still Open for Fiction Writers
Published: Sunday, July 4, 1920