During the height of my ambition, perhaps around age 10, I thought I might write the Great American Novel. I wasn't really clear what exactly the Great American Novel was, but I was sure it involved summer camp, and I spent a great deal of time hashing out the details of my character's names and personal appearance and the number of brothers and sisters they had -- all crucial details in such literary serials such as The Baby Sitters Club which the girls in sixth grade passed around during study hall. These were the sort of seminal works in which you learned all you needed to know about the characters by description of their personal appearance: such girl had frizzy reddish hair and braces and wore a turquoise turtleneck! This one had her ears double-pierced and wore big sweaters and leggings! 'Nuff said. And these were the minutiae that had to be wrestled with by the budding author of the Great American Novel, which could only be written with a mechanical pencil in a fresh lined notebook (not one in which half the pages had been torn out or scribbled upon by younger siblings, or with the wire binding twisted and warped), or preferably, upon one's mother's collegiate electric typewriter, when the ribbon could be unraveled and rewound upon the spools.
I think I first encountered the term Great American Novel in the place where I first encountered so much literature: in the back of our set of encyclopedias. This particular repository of knowledge has passed out of our family, so I can't give any details about the age or the title of the set, but at the end of each volume one could find synopses of novels whose titles fit within the alphabetical confines of that book. I owe much of my knowledge of literature of a certain provenance -- the works of Theodore Dreiser or of John Steinbeck, God's Little Acre (referenced somewhere in P.G. Wodehouse, and I knew what he was talking about), Trilby, Silas Marner -- to these encyclopedias. I don't know what the editors' criteria for inclusion was, as Don Quixote and The Picture of Dorian Gray were included, but not such novels as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. (I can state this with confidence not because of my own encyclopedic memory, but because the plots of both were new to me when I read them.) Nor was a novel I would consider a leading contender for the Great American moniker: The Great Gatsby.
My enthusiasm to write the Great American novel waned along with my fondness for the nifty names with which I endowed my juvenile characters (but none of my actual children), and I try to avoid the kinds of novels in which the height of characterization is to describe the clothes the characters wear ("her Prada handbag brushed against her toned thigh as she strode down the hall, her Manolos clicking on the parquet floor with each step..."). Still, I miss the idealism of the days in which a vast literary potential could be unlocked if only I had the proper writing instrument and a fresh blank notebook. Then, time was on my side.
Speaking of Great American Novels, drop in on our discussion of Absalom, Absalom! at Reading for Believers.