Neil Swaab

The question seems simple enough, even if the answer is not: "What is the best work of fiction of the last 25 years?" The idle American contest in the New York Times two weeks ago asked 124 critics, authors, and editors for the best work, not a best work, the implication being that there can only be one. Toni Morrison's Beloved was duly cited. But the singularity of that question begged the cliché that Times critic A. O. Scott immediately invoked in his introductory essay: the Great American Novel. Granted, Scott classes the Great American Novel as a fantastical creature along the lines of Sasquatch, but then he promptly straps on his snowshoes and tries to hunt it down anyway.

Where did this mythical beast come from?

The Great Gatsby is one of the other usual quarries whenever critics don their dorky orange hunting vests. Yet even by that novel's publication in 1925, our literary Sasquatch was old and toothless, because a few years earlier critic Carl Van Doren had spotted the Big Hairy Phrase loping through an 1872 North American Review essay by T. S. Perry. Dig up that volume and you discover that the first thing Perry did was dismiss the idea: "We have often wondered that the people who raise the outcry for the 'Great American Novel' did not see that, so far from being of any assistance to our fellow countryman who is trying to win fame by writing fiction, they have rather stood in his way by setting up before him a false aim for his art, and by giving the critical reader a defective standard by which to judge his work."

That's hardly an auspicious beginning. But I couldn't help feeling that I'd encountered the phrase even earlier. And unlike Carl Van Doren, I was backed by the greatest intellectual resource in human history: a university library that sells Mountain Dew in the lobby. Along with its endless aisles of crumbling bound magazines, there are also millions of searchable pages of 19th-century periodicals now digitized by everyone from the New York Times and the Times of London to the Making of America project and Newspaperarchive.com. But even before I sat down and booted up, I remembered where I'd first spotted the phrase: in a book by that most astute of American observers, P. T. Barnum.

"In what business is there not humbug?" he asks in his 1866 book Humbugs of the World. Barnum immediately cites crooked milkmen, shifty land agents, and of course, "the publisher with his great American Novel." Lest you suspect that old P. T. is a little hard on the publishers, dialing our library Wayback Machine a decade backward materializes this bit of fluffery from the Tioga County Agitator for February 1, 1855: "This is the great American novel so loudly called for by the new party." And what immortal novel is it? Stanhope Burleigh, by Helen Dhu. You know, the famous novel about... oh, you don't know.

Still, the choice of Helen Dhu is telling: It was the pseudonym used by Ellen Brown Lester for what was in fact a deeply bigoted and anti-Catholic novel. The full title of the book is the almost comically baiting Stanhope Burleigh: The Jesuits in Our Homes. And that "new party" that the newspaper had referred to as demanding a Great American Novel? That would be the xenophobic Know-Nothing Party. I won't go into 1850s political history, but let's just say that if they were still around today, they'd send the National Guard to build a 20-foot high fence around Ireland.

All of which makes the very notion of the Great American Novel sound, well, un-American. And so it is. The earliest use I found dates to August 7, 1852, where it was used not by a critic but by a publisher—right you were, Mr. Barnum—to hype the first serialized issue of a new book. The great novel in question? Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe's work certainly has a historical claim, if not an aesthetic one, to that honor. But the granting of such a title does seem curiously restrictive in a country composed of a multitude of regional voices and genres, a defiant and unruly mess of democratic artistry. To create a hierarchy—to coronate the Great American Novel—smacks of the monarchic class system this country was founded to spurn. And perhaps that's because the idea was invented by Stowe's publisher—in London.

"The Great American Novel" is not American at all: It's British.

Paul Collins is the author of several books, including Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World.