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Is the Great American Novel Destroying Novelists?

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Is the Great American Novel Destroying Novelists?

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Is the idea of the Great American Novel the worst thing that ever happened to great American novelists? Some days it does seem that way. American authors who struggle to define the American experience by cramming it all into one novel almost inevitably come to some version of grief, and no one epitomizes this dilemma better than Ralph Ellison, who published only stories and essays in the 40 years after he dazzled the literary world with Invisible Man. It was no secret that he was working on a second novel all that time—he published excerpts while alive, and a novel-length fragment appeared a decade ago. Now, with the publication of an 1,100-page book that includes false starts, fragments, and finished chapters, we can see what he was up to, how far he got, where he succeeded, and, ultimately, how he failed by biting off more than he—or anyone—could chew. It was his goal, not any lack of talent, that betrayed him—he wanted to do nothing less than plumb once and for all the mystery and d

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