Scott Anderson is a disgruntled graduate student who prefers browsing through used bookstores to writing his dissertation. Scott always assumed that he would become a literature professor, but when a member of his committee criticizes his work, Scott is as angry and ashamed as any spurned lover, and he seeks out the pleasures of reading (as opposed to studying) books. One day he discovers a novel called Lesser Revolutions by a 1960s author he has never heard of named Richard Morton. Scott is so moved by Morton’s work that he decides to quit his Ph.D. program and to ask his father for a loan so he can write Morton’s biography.
The novel humorously intersperses chapters of Scott’s life with the life of Richard Morton as it shuffles together memoir with literary biography (both of which are fictional, in this case). Part of the humor comes from Scott’s inability to refrain from telling his own story while he tells Morton’s: all biographies, he insists, are really autobiographies. More of the humor comes from the fact that Morton really isn’t as good as Scott thinks he is: a self-centered alcoholic who abandons his family and who callously rejects love in favor of art, Morton comes across as a cad, and probably a cheap imitator of his literary hero, Jack Kerouac. Morton only managed to produce two novels and a handful of short stories, and he died obscurely at the age of 36. Still, Scott defends his subject as long as he can, realizing that he has staked his own career on Morton’s.
Scott, a native of Mason City, Iowa, moves to the wealthy coastal town of Marblehead, Massachusetts in order to research Morton’s life. Frustrated by his inability to discover anything about Morton by poking around the author’s native town, Scott is ready to give up when he stumbles across a woman named Sarah Taylor reading Lesser Revolutions on the beach. Sarah is unhappily married. She is beautiful and rich. And, Scott learns at an awkward moment, she is Richard Morton’s illegitimate daughter. She has taken pains to reinvent herself as a member of Marblehead’s upper-class yachting community, but she is clearly unfulfilled. Scott becomes her lover, and she becomes his unofficial patron as well as his editor, partly to control what he will say about the father who abandoned her and partly to give herself a sense of purpose.
The Great American Novelist involves a number of topics: the value of literary biography weighed against fiction, the cost of literary fame, the choice between career and family, and the difficulty outsiders face when they try to break into closed communities. Above all, though, it is a story about a romantic intellectual who believes in love and in fiction and a cynical socialite who won’t allow herself to believe in either. Having risked everything to write this biography and to pursue a life with Sarah, Scott learns that love doesn’t conquer all, at least not in Marblehead: money does. Still, he isn’t completely jaded by the end of the novel. He has grown up enough to lose some of his priggishness, but he has not completely given up on his original love: literature.