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A Brief Survey of the Great American Novel(s)

9 January 2017

From Literary Hub:

On this date in 1868, novelist John William DeForest coined the now inescapable term “the great American novel” in the title of an essay in The Nation. Now, don’t forget that in 1868, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, “America” was still an uncertain concept for many—though actually, in 2017 we might assert the same thing, which should give you a hint as to why the term “great American novel” is so problematic.

At the time of his writing, DeForest claimed that the Great American Novel, which he defined as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,” had not yet been achieved, though he thought he could spot it on the horizon—he noted that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon.” (He also pooh-poohed both Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which is why, though others have dubbed them GANs, they don’t appear below.)

In the nearly 150 years since the essay was written, the argument over the Great American Novel—what it is, what it should be, do we have one, do we need one, why so many white men—has gone on and on. As A.O. Scott memorably put it, “the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster—or Sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people—not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation—claim to have seen.”

. . . .

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Gatsby’s magic emanates not only from its powerhouse poetic style—in which ordinary American language becomes unearthly—but from the authority with which it nails who we want to be as Americans. Not who we are; who we want to be. It’s that wanting that runs through every page of Gatsby, making it our Greatest American Novel. But it’s also our easiest Great American Novel to underrate: too short; too tempting to misread as just a love story gone wrong; too mired in the Roaring Twenties and all that jazz.

–Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, 2014

. . . .

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

There was no sense [upon its publication] that a great American novel had landed on the literary world of 1885. The critical climate could hardly anticipate T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway’s encomiums 50 years later. In the preface to an English edition, Eliot would speak of “a master piece. … Twain’s genius is completely realized,” and Ernest went further. In “Green Hills of Africa,” after disposing of Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau, and paying off Henry James and Stephen Crane with a friendly nod, he proceeded to declare, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. … It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” … What else is greatness but the indestructible wealth it leaves in the mind’s recollection after hope has soured and passions are spent? It is always the hope of democracy that our wealth will be there to spend again, and the ongoing treasure of Huckleberry Finn is that it frees us to think of democracy and its sublime, terrifying premise: let the passions and cupidities and dreams and kinks and ideals and greed and hopes and foul corruptions of all men and women have their day and the world will still be better off, for there is more good than bad in the sum of us and our workings. Mark Twain, whole embodiment of that democratic human, understood the premise in every turn of his pen, and how he tested it, how he twisted and tantalized and tested it until we are weak all over again with our love for the idea.

–Norman Mailer, The New York Times, 1984

. . . .

Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do: it ended. … Augie March, finally, is the Great American Novel because of its fantastic inclusiveness, its pluralism, its qualmless promiscuity. In these pages the highest and lowest mingle and hobnob in the vast democracy of Bellow’s prose. Everything is in here, the crushed and the exalted, and all the notches in between, from the kitchen stiff… to the American eagle.

–Martin Amis, The Atlantic Monthly, 1995

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

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7 Comments to “A Brief Survey of the Great American Novel(s)”

  1. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is on my nightstand. I’m glad it was on the list but I’m not sure it really deserves to be.

  2. As an Englishman I’ve always found the idea of the “Great American Novel” a puzzle; I’ve never felt the need to search out the “Great British Novel” (or even to assume that it could exist). The American version is clearly a popular concept but can anyone tell me what it’s really about, or for? Is it some unattainable Platonic ideal of American exceptionalism?

    • I think there’s a bit of promotion and marketing behind the Great American Novel, Mike.

    • Mike,

      I think the notion of a “great American novel” is pretty silly, actually, but if I had to choose one it would be The Great Gatsby. I don’t know exactly why. I think it might be the last few paragraphs of the novel. Here’s a link to the late film critic Roger Ebert’s thoughts on the novel, if you are interested. The book was one of his favorites and the image of the green light at the end of the book haunted him for most of his life.


  3. Sure are a lot of virtue-signalling choices on the contenders list.

    There’s a reason that books in one’s own generation are problematic choices for the ages.

  4. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has an interesting piece on Medium.com today. Time.

    “The idea of fragility helped put some rigor around the notion that the only effective judge of things is time –by things we mean ideas, people, intellectual productions, car models, scientific theories, books, etc. You can’t fool Lindy: books of the type written by the current hotshot Op-Ed writer at the New York Times may get some hype at publication time, manufactured or spontaneous, but their five year survival is generally inferior to that of pancreatic cancer.”


  5. I don’t know how to quantify “great”, but if you figure it as “what novels written by Americans that people were actually willing to pay for”, it looks like this:

    “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown, 80 million copies
    “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach, 44 million copies
    “Flowers in the Attic” by V.C. Andrews, 40 million copies
    “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, 40 million copies
    “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown, 39 million copies
    “The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown, 30 million copies
    “Valley of the Dolls” by Jacqueline Susann, 30 million copies
    “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell, 30 million copies

    Hmm. It looks like “Great American Novel” is whatever Dan Brown writes…

    (figures from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books)

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