The category of the “big, ambitious novel,” circumscribing works by authors such as Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, David Foster Wallace, and William Vollmann, has come to constitute one of the major forms through which postwar U.S. fiction is sorted and evaluated. A history of this form must not start in the 1970s, however, nor with distant forerunners such as James Joyce's Ulysses, but from 1945. After the Second World War, critics and novelists negotiated the sort of literature that would count as great after the end of high modernism, in service of a new humanism. The novels Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow succeeded stylistically and thematically where Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and William Faulkner's A Fable did not. They offered a new vitality to overcome critics' discourse of the “death of the novel” and probed new forms of human peculiarity that managed fears of the decline of the will of “man.” This long history helps to extend our understanding of the origins and significance of interminable and system-centered fictions denounced by critics such as James Wood as mere “hysterical realism.” It reorients contemporary criticism of these books to the shared, credible subjects of enforced liveliness and endlessness in narration, and a longer-term questioning of the human in a wider range of American fictions. It also shows how the novelists' apparent betrayal of humanist concerns actually emerged from earlier stages of interaction between novelists and mistrustful critics.

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