There’s an interesting post at RealClearBooks musing over candidates for the title “the Great American Novel”. One of the first candidates to be nominated (back in 1868) for that eminence was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That’s almost certainly the most influential American novel, not just here but worldwide. Huckleberry Finn, certainly a perennial candidate, was also hailed almost from the time of its publication. Here are other candidates:
That said, the list of books bestowed the unofficial G.A.N. title over the centuries include “Moby Dick,” written a decade before the Civil War, “The Virginian,” “My Antonia,” “Ethan Frome,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Citizen Kane,” “All the King’s Men,” “Lonesome Dove,” “Beloved,” and many more.
I note that the only genre fiction nominees on that list are westerns, which to me suggests the prejudice of the author who goes on to mention other novels with western settings he’d put forward:
I’d personally lobby for inclusion on the list two books set in the American West, though they are not westerns, precisely. These contenders are Wallace Stegner’s 1972 “Angle of Repose,” and the more recent “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson. A few years ago Time magazine put a contemporary writer, Jonathan Franzen, on its cover with the headline, “Great American Novelist.”
and goes on to mention some sports novels.
Our British cousins, apparently, do not believe that any American novels are genuinely great:
Academics and writers have reacted angrily to plans to drop classic American novels including To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the GCSE curriculum as a result of the insistence by the education secretary, Michael Gove, on students studying more British literature.
The new English literature GCSE syllabus to be published this week by OCR, one of the biggest UK exam boards, will leave out Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prizewinning 1960 novel of racism in the American south. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible – in which the Salem witch-hunts serve as a metaphor for McCarthyite anti-communist zealotry – will also disappear from the list, according to the Sunday Times. Another exam board, Edexcel, is expected to follow suit.
In the course of my formal education I read not only American novels but English, French, German, Spanish, and Russian novels. To the best of my ability to determine no American novels are a formal component of French, German, or Russian primary or secondary education.
Is there a singular “Great American Novel”? Are there other candidates for GAN? Are there genre novels which belong in the canon? IMO The Big Sleep is better than most of the novels on the list above and certainly a better novel than Uncle Tom’s Cabin (albeit not more influential). And it’s better than My Antonia or The Virginian. For goodness sake, Kiss Me Deadly is as good a novel as The Virginian.