Is There a Great American Novel?

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.

35 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    As a reference point, I read Anna Karenina a year or two ago, and while I enjoyed it, I don’t believe it is the best novel ever; it may not be my favorite Russian novel(*), but it did appear to me to be the Great Russian Novel. It seemed almost self-conscious in creating a cast of characters that represent or depict various aspects/themes of Russian life, and arrange discussions where what it may mean to be Russian is explored. The writing style and deep psychological characterization of the subjects are representative of Russian literature as well.

    For the Great American Novel, I would vote for Huckleberry Finn, as floating down the river gave Twain opportunities to explore different facets of American life, most importantly the central issue of race and slavery. The writing style (as well as some of the plot elements) are consciously intended to be non-European, and reflect American plain-speaking dialect.

    (*) Either Fathers and Sons, or Crime and Punishment.

  • PD Shaw

    Last year we drove up the Ohio River from Cincinnati, I thought about reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as we would be stopping at the location that inspired the scene where the escaping slave carried her baby across the ice flows. Couldn’t bring myself to do it; reviews strongly suggest that it was not particularly a good novel, which has to be a criteria.

    I’ve also never quite understood the claims of The Great Gatsby and the Catcher in the Rye, as the focus is rather narrow. I’ve never been able to finish a Faulkner book, but the focus seems rather regionalized, unlike for example, All the King’s Men or the Moviegoer. I question whether Nabokov is American, or whether Hemingway’s novels are particularly American.

    I might go so far as to argue that the Great American novel must be at least 50 years old, not simply so as to have passed the test of time, but increasingly American writers have written within an international stage, wrestling with foreign ideas like existentialism, that may make great literature, but not necessarily with any uniquely American contribution.

  • Andy

    No Faulkner?

  • ...

    Does the Great American Novel need to be about Americans? If not, that opens up more genre fiction.

    Other suggestions would be Catch-22, American Tabloid (yeah, I’m an Ellroy fan, shitbird), and the true GAN of our times, Bonfire of the Vanities.

  • Ebenzer_Arvigenius

    While checking it is difficult due to the state-based curricula almost all English higher education in Germany contains either The Catcher in the Rye or Death of a Salesman.

  • PD Shaw

    The piece about the British dropping American “novels” is kind of funny, because I think only one of the three is an actual novel, the others are a novelette and a play. But I’m not just being pedantic, these are the types of short, approachable works that are often selected to be representative of a style or author for which better, but longer, novels exist. I’m glad it’s not just American education that strives for efficiency.

    During one of the recent hububs about how colleges are removing classics, in favor of whatever is relevant at the moment and doesn’t require a warning label that minotaurs may be killed, someone linked to this NAS list of recommended books for colleges that I found interesting:

    http://www.nas.org/resources/recommended_books

  • English higher education in Germany

    I think that’s possible, especially for specialist education. I was mostly referring to general primary or secondary education rather than specialist higher education. We read Madame Bovary, Les Miserables, and Crime and Punishment in high school. Some Molière. Not to mention Dickens, Milton, Shakespeare, Defoe, and Fielding.

    We also read The Iliad and The Aeneid in Greek and Latin, respectively but that’s a different story.

  • PD Shaw

    @Ebenezer ; I don’t know much about German world literature curricula, but I’ve seen a survey of college level history study, and the Anglo-Americans have a higher ratio of concentrations in foreign versus domestic history. I think the countries surveyed were the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, and Italy. I’m not sure that this should be surprising; for example, the study of India is more pronounced in U.K. and the U.S., where the former had a deep colonial relationship and the later is a significant recipient of immigrants from India and many other Asian countries. German history scholars are significant in Arab studies, but that is just as relevant to imperial designs as any.

    But I don’t find these two American works you identified very reflective of American letters. Perhaps that is the question to be asked: if one were to say, this is what American writing is about, what is the answer?

  • ...

    [I]f one were to say, this is what American writing is about, what is the answer?

    Why should it be one thing? We’re a huge nation geographically, and rather diverse in our domestic culture, especially over time. That last is important as the frontier nature of the country has led to very rapid changes in culture. I’m not sure the change in what it means to be French has changed as much over the last 200 years has changed as much as what it means to be a Southerner, or a Westerner (especially given how the West kept moving West rather rapidly for a good deal of time before settling down into the current accepted meaning), or a New Yorker, or what have you. I think a reasonable argument could be made that certain large parts of the settled part of the country weren’t even properly civilized until around 1970 at the earliest.

    All this is to say, I think asking what American writing is all about is about as useless a question as asking what Western European writing is all about.

  • PD Shaw

    The answer might be in the “short stories.” (*) But if asked what novels reflect America, my list might be:

    The Last of the Mohicans (1826)
    Adventures of Huck Finn (1885)
    The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely (1939-1940)
    All the King’s Men (1946)
    Invisible Man (1952)

    (I added the dates, as I made the list I wanted a bit of separation, but I obviously failed. I could flip out All the King’s Men for The Sun Also Rises (1926), but the former has something to say about American-brand politics that you won’t get in other places)

    (*) Poe, Twain, Bierce, Henry James, O. Henry, Hammett, Hemingway, O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, etc.

  • PD Shaw

    Ellipses, you beat me to giving my answer, which given that England and Germany might pick two pieces, I was going to pick a few myself. I think each of those reflects something unique about American experience. I’m not suggesting that these are the only great American novels, but the more universalist the themes, the less necessary that an American wrote it.

  • Ben Wolf

    Ah, the Russian novel. A thousand pages of woe, at the end of which somebody’s aunt dies.

  • ...

    Ben, you make them sound like such fun!

  • PD Shaw

    It’s usually a female suicide, but yeah.

    I sort of envision one of those maps that identifies the movie that best reflects each of the U.S. states. Fargo in North Dakota, the Big Easy in Louisiana, Chinatown in California, the Sting or Untouchables in Illinois, the Godfather in New York, etc.

    One Hundred Years of Solitude in Columbia, Terra Nostra in Mexico, Midnight’s Children in India, Don Quixote in Spain, Things Fall Apart in Nigeria . . ..

  • Your list above is a good one, PD. To it I’d add:

    Moby Dick (1851)
    Little Women (1868)
    The Call of the Wild (1903)
    Ethan Frome (1911)
    Jurgen (1919)
    The Great Gatsby (1925)
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

    and maybe

    Rabbit, Run (1960)

    but I think you’re onto something. Most of America’s finest writers are better known for short stories than for novels. The first notable American writer, Washington Irving, wrote no novels but wrote some fine short stories. Arguably the greatest American writer, Edgar Allen Poe, was a master of the short story. Sam Clemens was no slouch at short stories.

  • If anyone wants recommendations for Russian novels that might change their view of the corpus, I’d be happy to make some suggestions. Don’t read it (please!) but Oblomov certainly doesn’t fit that characterization. Dead Souls doesn’t either and it’s marvelous. Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is one of my favorites. Or how about The Twelve Chairs or its sequel, The Little Golden Calf?

  • mike shupp

    Great Soviet fiction, hmmm…. Bulgakov THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, Solzhenitsyn ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH or AUGUST 1914, Pasternak DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.

    American fiction … I understand the attractions of Raymond Chandler, I think I’ve read all his novels three times or more, but I’ve always thought his style was a little more … fleshy? ornate? more florid? … than served his material. Dashiell Hammett’s really the Go To Man for American Noir, either THE MALTESE FALCON or RED HARVEST.

    Great American War Novel is a hard category. Wouk’s THE CAINE MUTINY is a contender, also Shaw’s THE YOUNG LIONS. CATCH 22 has been mentioned, and there probably are some Vietnam War-related works which merit attention. I’m trying to think of wortks which aren’t conventional military fiction, you’ll understand. My impression is that Americans write quite a bit of non-conventional war fiction, perhaps more than Europeans in fact.

    There probably ought to be a Great American Science Fiction Novel, but I’ll be damned if I can identify it. Not that there isn’t some great American SF, but it’s hard to compare the stuff at the top. Brackett’s THE LONG TOMORROW and Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION and Miller’s A CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ and Bradbury’s MARTIAN CHRONICLES and Sturgeon’s MORE THAN HUMAN and Brown’s THE LIGHTS IN THE SKY ARE STARS and Kuttner’s FURY …. Apples and oranges and kumquats and watermelons and hazelnuts and kiwi fruit! These things just don’t lend themselves to comparison the way mainstream works do.

  • htaptia

    Not much Faulkner (or any on the non-(hard) left Southern writers –O’Connor, or Wolfe, etc.) and no James.
    Excluding “Moby Dick”, most of the books your mention are just “Progressive” propaganda of the sort that were pushed on the Boomers after WW2, or were more narrowly read by leftist intellectuals in the 1920 and 1930s as the Left took over “The Arts” in America.

    As “literature” they hardly rate at all.
    “To Kill a Mocking Bird”? “The Invisible Man”? “The Adventures of Huck Finn”? Claptrap parroting leftist/liberal memes–at the level of Toni Morrison. It is no wonder that other nations are not moved by them–they can see through the charade.

    (And, in a nutshell, this is all plainly seen by the leftist infatuation with “To kill a mocking Bird”; What ever one thinks about race in America, this look as literature is little more than yellow journalism, a sort of 20th Century “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”–just pathetic and drab writing, and even on its subject matter, not to mention its “solution” it does not really ring true. It is just for New England Elites to tumb their bellys and feel superior, all at a time when tey were greating ghettos in their own cities.)

    American Literature looks to be all the world like a miniature golf course, and this is acerbated by the fact that Liberal Arts in our colleges and Universities have been reduced to indoctrination centers for Anti-Western Communists. The nonsense they teach, and the third rate writers they push have ruin education in these matters and pretty much precluded even a mediocre National Literature.

    This really true of all the traditional arts. There was a moment when America could have produced some serious Literature (or Music, or Painting or Architecture for that matter), but the Left moved in and destroyed that opportunity. We have substituted propaganda and political fronts for higher culture and higher art.

  • I didn’t include Flannery O’Connor for the same reason I didn’t include Poe or Washington Irving: because her metier was the short story. Do you really think Wise Blood is the Great American Novel?

    I didn’t include Faulkner or Wolfe for reasons of preference—I don’t care for their writing styles. I didn’t include James because I think he’s barely an American writer—I tend to consider him an English writer. I always found his stuff boring. Prolix.

    I didn’t include Steinbeck for reasons along the lines you describe.

    Have you actually read the works in PD’s or my lists or are you just reacting to them? I’d be interested in your thoughts on Jurgen (Cabell was a Southern writer, BTW), The Big Sleep, or even The Great Gatsby as leftist propaganda.

  • PD:

    I guess it’s a difference of opinion that makes a horserace. I love Chandler’s writing style. The reason I think that either Fitzgerald or Chandler belongs on any good list of the greatest American novels is for their beautiful writing styles.

  • PD Shaw

    htaptia ; Clemens signed up to fight for the Confederacy, so he’s got that going for him.

  • PD Shaw

    @Dave, I don’t have any criticisms of Fitzgerald or Chandler in terms of writing style. A nominee for the Great American Novel needs to be great, American, and a novel. “American” could refer to the nationality of the writer, his or her writing-style, or the thematic content. Ideally, I think it should be all three. I agree with you that Henry James does not come across wholly American; to a lesser extent that is how Edith Wharton strikes me.

    I had meant to write earlier that I simply didn’t find “the American Dream” theme in the Great Gatsby that significant, and was just as easily present in a number of crime noir novels.

  • BTW, PD, before I leave this subject, are you familiar with Sam Clemens’s critique of James Fenimore Cooper? The Deerslayer? It’s one of the most famous pieces of American criticism. Just Google it.

  • PD Shaw

    @Dave, I believe I’ve read that criticism before, or at least excerpts from it in high school. When I moved South, one of my closest friends, a U of Virginia alumnus told me on many occasions that Twain was a local conceit, that Faulkner was all that mattered. He also told me that one does not drink beer in the South, but distilled spirits, and try as I might to achieve this conformity, I could not drink bourbon to the satisfaction I might attain from beer. I think Twain might have appreciated the unrequited desire placed in a hobby, much as his reading of Cooper. Betwixt them both and others, I choose Twain.

  • Ebenzer_Arvigenius

    I think that’s possible, especially for specialist education. I was mostly referring to general primary or secondary education rather than specialist higher education.

    Education categories translate very badly. I was talking about titles I remembered from highschool.

    But I don’t find these two American works you identified very reflective of American letters.

    Different question. Foreign novels are usually read in foreign language classes. Language is the defining category. Nobody really cares whether they reflect the American experience. And that’s really the same the world over. Nobody ready Madame Bovary for its insipid plot or Moliere for deeper insight into the minds of French hypochondriacs :-).

  • I agree with most of your list, Dave. Here’s mine(Partial):

    “Moby Dick”and/or “Typee”

    “The Great Gatsby”

    “Call Of The Wild”

    “Gone With The Wind”

    “Last Of The Mohicans”

    “The Caine Mutiny”

    “The Short Timers”

    “On The Road”

    “The Sand Pebbles”

    “Day Of The Locust”

    “The Killer Angels”

  • A great novel is nothing more or nothing less than one that challenges the reader to go beyond what he believes is possible. Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Of course! “Well, then, I *will* go to hell.” Magnificent. Moby Dick? Seldom read front-to-back, but it’s something that everyone should read. Try something new and strange: Top Dog, perhaps. A moral tale of a man given a new chance. Or Philip Kerr. Forget the teenage-wizard-vampire-dark force theme. Go to your local library and browse.

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