What is the Great American Novel?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEvery writer, professes or secretly aspires to one day write the Great American Novel. But the Great American Novel, it seems, is as elusive as Ahab’s white whale or perhaps is as elusive as Gatsby’s green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. American writer Frank Norris expressed it this way: “the Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff.” [A hippogriff is a beautiful mythical creature with the body of a horse and the wings and head of an eagle.] Using today’s tech culture parlance, one would say that the Great American Novel is a unicorn. Surprisingly, this well-established phrase is not found in most printed dictionaries. So what exactly is the Great American Novel?

The phrase was coined by John William Deforest in an essay titled “The Great American Novel” published in The Nation on January 9, 1868. This date is important because it was several years after the end of the Civil War, when the young nation’s identity was still being forged. Deforest writes: “We may be confident that the Great American Poem will not be written, no matter what genius attempts it, until democracy, the idea of our day and nation and race, has agonized and conquered through centuries, and made its work secure. But the Great American Novel—the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence—the American “Newcomes” or “Miserables” will, we suppose, be possible earlier. “Is it time?” the benighted people in the earthen jars or commonplace life are asking. And with no intention of being disagreeable, but rather with sympathetic sorrow, we answer, “Wait.” At least we fear that such ought to be our answer. This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially—in the production of a few outlines.”

Deforest goes on to dismiss the work of such respected authors of that period, such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and James Fenimore Cooper, who he considers quintessentially “American” but not serious candidates for the Great American Novel. He does believe, however, that there is a work on the horizon that such deserves such an honor: “The nearest approach to the desired phenomenon is Uncle Tom’s Cabin [by Harriet Beecher Stowe]. [There] was also a national breadth to the picture, truthful outlining of character, natural speaking, and plenty of strong feeling… It was a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait.”

Thus Deforest provides the primary definition of the Great American Novel: a masterfully written novel by an American author that captures American experiences or values or evokes the ethos of a specific time in the country’s history. In her essay, “What is the Great American Novel” for the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Kellogg provides a more eloquent definition: “The Great American Novel: A book that most perfectly imagines the kaleidoscope of our nation, its social fabric and its troubled conscience, its individual voices and strivings, our loves and losses. If some of the classic examples – Moby-DickThe Great Gatsby – are as much about failure as success, the arc of those narratives is always anchored in hope.” The secondary meaning of the Great American Novel focuses on its metaphorical use: the Great American Novel represents a literary aspiration, a literary benchmark “to be devoutly wished,” as Shakespeare would say, as opposed to an attained ideal.

Like choosing the best film of the year, choosing which novel is the Great American Novel is challenging; it is a matter for thoughtful and passionate debate among scholars, literary critics, writers, and readers. As Kellogg mentioned, two novels often come to mind: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Although particularly relevant to the period in which they were written, as great works of literature, they have endured because they continue to speak to successive generations. Below is a list of novels that are considered to be a Great American Novel:

19th Century
1826: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
1850: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
1851: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
1876: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
1884: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

20th Century
1925: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
1925: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
1932: Light in August by William Faulkner
[1936: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
1936: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1938: U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos
1939: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
1940: Native Son by Richard Wright
1951: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
1952: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1953: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
1955: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
1960: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1960: Rabbit, Run by John Updike
1973: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
1975: J R by William Gaddis
1985: Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
1985: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1987: Beloved by Toni Morrison
1996: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
1997: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
1997: American Pastoral by Philip Roth
1997: Underworld by Don DeLillo

21st Century
2000: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
2004: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2010: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

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Read related posts: The Books That Shaped America
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The Most Assigned Books in College Classrooms
The Most Influential Novels of the 20th Century

For further reading: http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/articles/n2ar39at.html

2 responses to “What is the Great American Novel?

  • Hannah and her Books

    Brilliant post! I’ve read many of these novels throughout my ongoing experience as an English major, but I think it’s hard to single out any one as the “Great American Novel.”

    • Alexander Atkins

      Hi Hannah: Thanks for your kind note. Yes, claiming that one is THE Great American Novel is next to impossible; however, the amazing thing is that they are great literature, and as such, are timeless — they speak to every generation. Cheers. Alex

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