What is the Great American Novel?
Posted on June 30, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 77 Comments
As part of my Los Angeles Times critic-at-large gig, I was asked — and answered — the perennial question: What is the Great American Novel? And not only did I answer this question, but so did eight other of the critics-at-large, in the process suggesting a number of books that make for an excellent reading list. You can check out all the books — and the reasons they were suggested — from here, or if you’re just interested in my piece, it’s here.
If you have a recommendation for the Great American Novel not suggested by us, feel free to put it into the comments.
To Kill a Mockingbird. There is America it’s perpetually-ending adolescent wonder.
Obviously it’s Of Human Bondage. Where’s my tea?
Huckleberry Finn. Arguably the first Great American Novel, and in my opinion still one of the best.
Somerset Maugham was English, not American…
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, hands down.
My gosh: How could you guys leave out “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”? That novel captures a crucial formative period of America’s history in ways that range from gentle and amusing to scary and deeply poignant. Ways that still resonate today, sadly. Arguments could be made for several other of Twain’s books (e.g., “Connecticut Yankee”), but Huck gets my vote.
John Kennedy Toole, “A Confederacy of Dunces”
Although in retrospect, given events of the past several years, perhaps the novelization of this song would be the great (post-WW II) American novel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_Is_a_Warm_Gun
“Moby Dick”, a story of Man vs. Nature, Nature always wins because it’s a stacked deck of cards in the game…..
I’ll make an argument for Time And Again, a novel of how nostalgia can poison us and yet let’s not blind ourselves to the good things of our past as well.
Before I even saw the list, I knew my selection was “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I’m rather pleased that was your selection too, Scalzi.
If you are of a grimmer frame of mind: Peace by Gene Wolfe. “If This Goes On-” could be the Great American Novella.
Obviously, the one by Phillip Roth. Roth details out the lost history of the Patriot league. How much more American can it get than Baseball? I vote for “The Great American Novel” by Phillip Roth.
Ah, well, I’ll go with the first one that came to mind, which was Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.”
The Great American Novella is certainly “Of Mice and Men”. “Grapes of Wrath” could be in the running for novel.
I recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird (with my son for his English class) and it is a wonderful book. Buy in my opinion Moby-Dick is the Great American Novel.
Little, Big by John Crowley.
I am a little surprised Grapes of Wrath was not chosen or at least mentioned by very many folks. I need to read more, much more.
“Confederacy of Dunces”, absolutely.
I like this choice. Racism is fundamental in our country’s history and this book poignantly captures our condition — along with addressing classic American themes about small towns, justice, and youth. It’s the quintessential American morality story. Plus with the release of the first draft (incongruously and incorrectly billed as a sequel) we can see how a master writer evolves a story until it’s right and ready. Certainly a strong case could be made for other books – Huck Finn, Grapes of Wrath, The Crucible (expanding novel to include a play). But I’m happy to call it for TKAM.
Unconventional choice: Stephen King’s The Stand (one of my favorite books ever) is something I like to reread every couple of years, always in the summertime, and really stands out to me as an incredible representation of a pre- and post-apocalyptic USA. Maybe because it goes all over the map and encompasses all kinds of people, or maybe just because I’m generally not a classics fan, but this is it for me.
I join the chorus singing the praises of Huckleberry Finn. The Lee, Fitzgerald and Hawthorne novels are all wonderful books and worthy candidates but none exceed Huck. Moby Dick? Couldn’t even get through the movie!
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
“Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.”
I’m nominating The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. If the day ever comes when Americans won’t find them as fresh as the day they first came off the press, we’ll know that Americans no longer exist.
Lots of good choices in the paper and the comments. What about Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright? A novel about sustainable development, written in his spare time by an American who set it in an imaginary country he devised as a child and explored for the rest of his life.
Or Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness (or The Dispossessed or Earthsea?)?
I like the older, classic choices (and I don’t believe that there is A great American novel – America is too big and widespread as a country and a concept to be encapsulated by one novel) – but my default remains A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve re-read it more than just about any other American novel, and it’s always done well with students in any of my classes where I have time for that big of a novel. There are pieces of it that speak to just about every students’ experiences.
The “Ubiquity” criterion in the LA Times essay on Mockingbird requires me to omit many candidates that aren’t sufficiently widely known, as much as I’d like them to be. That leaves me with Lonesome Dove. I have an easy traverse through that book every 5 years or so. (Other American mega-novels that were once well-known and had film adaptations, such as John O’Hara’s From the Terrace, faded away long ago. How did McMurtry achieve the longevity that Lonesome Dove evidently has? And why did he go and spoil it with prequels and sequels? It was just right as it was.)
I have a candidate for non-fiction great American book (or at least one that deserves to be better known): Final Cut by Stephen Bach.
Not being American I’m not entirely certain what “The Great American Novel” means, but as an outsider there was one book which summed up everything I’ve been told America is about. Freedom, innovation, youthful rebellion, idealism, family, unexpected erudition, the great out doors and living wild, etc. I think it is Jean George’s “My Side of the Mountain”.
I gotta go with To Kill A Mockingbird. I just re-read it earlier this year, and it had just as much of an impact on me as it did when I first read it nearly 50 years ago.
I tend to agree with Mr. James: there is no singular American experience, thus no American novel. While it’s true that I’ve met a surprising number of people whose only read novel is TKaM, I don’t think ubiquity is enough. Mockingbird is another story about racism and Jim Crow from the perspective of saintly white folks. And while maybe that’s instructive in-and-of-itself, I don’t think you can make a valid argument from meta-morality. Why is it such an entrenched part of our curriculum? Why not have kids read Ellison’s Invisible Man or Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain? (Or for that matter, something more contemporary that might have more resonance with their lived lives?)
[Deleted because, dude, pimping your own novel in this thread is just tacky – JS]
I can’t argue with your choice, but for me, it’s East of Eden: Epic in scope, a near-perfect example of literary craftsman ship, American in character, and the most morally and philosophically profound book I’ve ever read.
Matt W: Why not have kids read Ellison’s Invisible Man or Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain?
Ellison’s Invisible Man would be a rough slog for high school kids, especially younger ones; I know from experience that To Kill a Mockingbird works brilliantly to teach the fundamentals of the novel even to high school freshmen. It’s a book that works on several levels, from novice to sophisticated. Teaching Huck Finn to high school students can also be tricky–it really is an adult novel. That said, when the students are a few years older (college age), I usually teach Huck Finn and Invisible Man together . . . can I vote for a dual Great American Novel?
Go Tell It on the Mountain is also a Great Book, just for the record; I just don’t have as much experience with it in the classroom.
Tequila Mockingbird is a great choice.
I would add beloved to the short list.
Oh, my MFA program seemed to believe it was Great Gatsby.
There were two I thought of instantly. To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
A library colleague and I recently agreed that American Gods was “a” Great American Novel. But I concur that America is too big, too wild, too aberrant (is that a word?) to be confined to one reading experience.
Given current events, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is somewhat prescient.
Cryptic Mirror: yes, My Side of the Mountain is a great, unforgettable book. We read it in public school.
As many have pointed out, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has to be on the list. Not just because it is a great novel, not simply because it changed what novels were but it also broke the European novel style and was truly an American novel. The others on the list are all great novels and certainly TKaM is up there as a great American novel Huck is THE great American novel.
Just to make sure it’s on the list here: Martin Amis has bestowed the title of “the Great American Novel” on Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. (Atlantic Monthly, October 1995.)
Lotsa great choices by the LAT columnists and here. My choice would be ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert. Just the first one, not any of the prequels or sequels. It has many of the aspects of a novel that appeal to the American Experience: socioeconomic reversals and love stories tied up in a kind of manifest destiny. With the underdog coming out on top, against the establishment odds, of course. It’s what we as a people used to believe we could do until we became so enamored with our own navel.
I agree with the America is too diverse crowd.
That said, I’d add The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton to the list.
As I clicked on your link, I thought to myself “To Kill a Mockingbird”, definitely. I wonder if any of them chose it. Lo and behold… :)
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’ is a possibility not mentioned yet. But I would probably end up choosing Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ over ‘ To Kill a Mockingbird’ using Scalzi’s criteria. But what about …. Please don’t make me choose.
The Stand by Stephen King seems topical and appropriate. :P
I’m torn on this question, between Huckleberry Finn and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Both are about quintessential American experiences that are so very different.
Another article in the New York Times mentions “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. If you have not read it, it will rip your heart out. It certainly had impact. And the themes and words are still with us today. When you hear someone mention his boss is Simon Legree, that name is straight from the novel. And occasionally we hear the term “Uncle Tom” applied but I sometimes wonder if those folks read the whole book.
iamzenu: And occasionally we hear the term “Uncle Tom” applied but I sometimes wonder if those folks read the whole book.
For what it’s worth, the phrase “Uncle Tom” as an insulting stereotype seems to have been drawn more from the largely post-Civil War “Tom Shows” than from the novel itself. These were blackface minstrel shows based very loosely on the book, that often turned the African American characters into heavy-handed stereotypes and/or figures of fun. The shows were unauthorized–Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t approve stage versions of any of her works, including this one–but they were widely, wildly popular, from the novel’s publication clear up to the 1900s. There were even pro-slavery versions, which . . . yeah. That must have been a stretch.
Mind you, I personally don’t think that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a strong candidate for the Great American Novel, but it certainly was popular and had a massive cultural presence in its day.
Years ago, I would have probably said “Huck Finn”, but not many Americans can identify with floating down the Mississippi in a raft these days. “To Kill A Mockingbird” would probably be my current choice. It’s got rape and racism and loss of innocence and a big ol’ quagmire of trouble that a lot of Americans can identify with these days. The only problem is Atticus Finch is getting to the point of being too perfect for most people to identify with. The next Great American Novel will likely have to be in the Noir genre, no one is good, everyone is some shade of grey, people get murdered, and no one lives happily ever after
It’s near future, but Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson would be my pick
My first thought was ‘To kill A Mockingbird’ but the more I think about it I’m going with ‘Nothing But Blue Skies’ by Thomas Mcguane. Because we need to laugh more.
Most surprising thing on that list was “The Princess Bride”. Great book, but not at all the sort of thing one expects to see on such a list. Not really sure I bought his argument for it, but an interesting starting point for discussion. Also a bit surprised that only one reviewer picked something I’d never heard of. Like many others, my personal pick would be Huckleberry Finn.
Well, if ubiquity is a criterion, I nominate the works of Danielle Steel. Failing that, I’ll take a note from the person who recommended Of Human Bondage, and nominate The Brothers Karamazov.
My vote would be for Huck Finn. It edges out Mockingbird for the reasons Matt W lists above. Plus it has both the South and the Frontier in it; crucial to our conception of ourselves. But Mockingbird truly is an amazing book and a window for many white people into the importance of race in our history.
But I also have a soft spot for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” It’s got the other part of America — New York and cities! And immigrants’ experiences. And comics. And movies. And the vision that was California.
Anyway, I loved reading of all the books listed by your fellow columnists, and many of them were new to me, so that’s awesome.
While I applaud recognition here in the comments for some of our excellent American fantasy and SF authors, I would have a hard time choosing as ‘a’ or ‘the’ Great American Novel a book that was set in an imaginary place. Sure, books like that can be symbolic and full of parallels and teach us stuff about the present day, but in my book a candidate for The Great American Novel would have to be about, you know, America.
I’m going with Invisible Man over To Kill a Mockingbird. Ellison does a far better job at portraying both how American society changes with extreme rapidity and how it remains the same due to, and in spite of, universal human nature.
I find it fascinating that the article achieves an admirable diversity of opinions and authorships–and then the article comments (not the comments here, mind, but the LAT article comments themselves) appear to fall into the same old-same old White Man Trio of Twain, Steinbeck, Faulkner, with no regard given to the fact that novels written after theirs might be equally great, or in some cases greater. Best comment: the stuffy beardo who claimed not to be able to identify any of the novels in the accompanying photos. One imagines reading the article was just too much for the poor fellow.
As for myself, I think too much regard is give the idea of the great *American* novel, generally at the expense of the international literary community at large. It hints far too much of the dreaded “American exceptioinalism” for my tastes, and is far too limiting a concept.
The first book I thought of was written by an Englishman but it is a Great American Novel nonetheless:
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I note that all the books on the LA Times list seem to be 20th century. Books written prior get no love?
Oh, ye gods, what a tough one. I agree with others that there is no single G.A.N. – America is just too big and has too big of a national experience. Some of my nominees would be: Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, Foundation, TKaM, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Color Purple.
But if forced to pick just one, I have to go with ‘Lolita’ by Nabakov.
I will put in my plug for Willa Cather’s My Antonia; I prefer The Bohemian Girl, but that is a novella rather than a full novel.
The setting is American–in place and in people–and I have loved it since I was a teenager.
I thought about Lolita. Absolutely brilliant book. BTW, for audible fans the book is read by Jeremy Irons who was in the second film adaptation. He does a good job with the book.
I’m seconding the vote for My Antonia, and, what, 23rding? the vote for Huck Finn.
My son read “The Help” in high school and thought it taught him more about racism than “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
I’m inclined toward “U.S.A.” (John Dos Passos) or “The Sound and the Fury”.
Or “Plainsong” (Kent Haruf). That is an amazing book.
“The Human Comedy” (Saroyan) is a personal favorite. I’m not sure it belongs on a greatest list, but there is something essentially democratic and american in the story. No great men, just regular people.
There are different “Great American Novels” for each section of the country. My Antonia is the great Midwestern novel. There are too many competitors for the the great Southern novel for me to pick, but a number have been mentioned here already.
I like your criteria because it includes ubiquity. “Moby Dick” is a jellaba novel but few have read the whole thing in my experience. I also like that you’re separating “best” from “great”. “Gatsby” always makes these lists because of that and I don’t think it deserves to (not saying it’s a bad book, it’s just not a great one writing-wise).
@greg: I like the noir idea! What would you nominate?
Okay, jellaba? Yeah, tried to type hellava…
One of the other critics-@-large mentioned Thomas Pynchon, & that was my choice too, but not sure whether to nominate Vineland or Inherent Vice.
I will agree that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a great American novel. I don’t know that it’s THE great American novel, but whatevs. The rest of those critics were awfully agenda-specific: I haven’t read ANY of the books except “The Princess Bride,” and don’t especially want to. I think if you’re going to call something “The Great American Novel” it ought to be something that the average American would want to read.
My personal nomination is “The Dead Zone,” by Stephen King. Its queasy intersection of religion, politics, and violence says a lot about the America of its time and the unfortunately-mostly-unchanged America of today.
I thought The Great American Novel was what all our perennially unpublished friends were writing.
Put me in the camp of folks who think there are too many iconic books to choose just one Great American Novel, but the first book that came to mind for me was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I’ve read that every year for the last 35 (soon to be 36) years and it’s still my favorite book.
Another vote against the whole notion of there being anything but a long-list for the title of The great American novel. A very long list. The American literary landscape is like the city of Rome: you see a terrific building and think, “Wow, that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” Then you walk down the block and it’s Wow again. And you step into the Piazza del Popolo and there’s a matched pair of baroque churches. Holy cow. And eventually you stumble into St. Peter’s Square and your hair stands on end. (And we haven’t even gotten to the magnificant vulgarity of Victor Emmanual’s tomb. . . .)
(That said, there are a bunch of really good books listed above. Also more than a few I’ve found unreadable for various reasons. Good thing there’s more than one book.)
The whole point of The Great American Novel trope is that it hasn’t been written yet, that no one has managed to really write one; but that someday you, yes you, if you are a tormented soul toiling in the salt mines of Wall Street, Madison Avenue, or a big law firm, will retire to Amagansett, Duchess County, rural Connecticut, or Milford, Pennsylvania, and release the poetry that has been trapped inside you for so long, and through your sensitivity tempered by your worldliness the result will be the Great American Novel that everyone has been waiting for for so long.
(As Bugs Bunny was wont to say, leaning against something while eating a carrot: Nyeah…. What’s Updike?)
“To Kill a Mockingbird”? Dear lord, I agree with John on this. It’s the greatest novel I was ever “forced” to read. It combine nostalgia for lost, lazy summers as a kid exploring the world with frightful and eventually understanding and compassionate results with the very serious problem of Jim Crow laws. The movie is also great. May I suggest that you add “A Raisin in the Sun” Scalzi? A great play about a African American family living in squalor dreaming to move to the suburbs and gain a small slice of the American Dream? Can i also suggest the play “Fences”? These two plays should be required reading for EVERY American.
<- Doc Stat: Formerly "Scorpius". Changing things about my profile.
Just finished the audiobook of TKaM yesterday, it’s read by Sissy Spacek who does an amazing job! Highly recommended if you like audiobooks. And although I agree that it is a great American novel, I also agree with a lot of the commenters here that picking just one is too difficult for this sprawling country. Although the intellectual exercise is a very good one!