The Great American Novel

From The Economist:

John William De Forest coined the term “Great American Novel” in 1868. In an essay he argued that the novel had yet to be written that captured “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”. Worthy authors, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, he said, had “staggered under the load” of trying. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in his reckoning, had come closest with her epic slave tale, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (despite its “very faulty plot”).

Ever since De Forest wrote those words, literati have speculated about what book might qualify as the gan. Whereas the great British works of literature have tended to fixate on class, that is just one of the strands that wind through America’s defining novels. In America class is often related to its ethnic diversity, the result of waves of immigration that began with the first English settlement in Virginia in 1607 and was soon followed by the forced transportation of slaves from Africa. Novelists have celebrated America’s variety and, perhaps more often, wrestled with the racism and exclusion suffered by people who were not fully accepted by their countrymen. A third great theme is America’s vastness, which encourages writers to fill their pages with wanderers, runaways and opportunity-seekers. Many great novelists, from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to Colson Whitehead, combine these strands in ways that might have persuaded De Forest.

Our candidates for the gan both hew to and depart from common ideas of what it should be. They are the choices of people who work on our American politics podcast Checks and Balance (plus a couple of staffers from other parts of The Economist)

. . . . .

Our selection does not aspire to be the Great American Shortlist. There are no books by Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Saul Bellow, nor any by Twain, Steinbeck or Jonathan Franzen. Some of our choices are established in the canon; others may someday enter it. In general they take a bleak view of America, perhaps one that is too dark. But all these works capture something of America’s character.

The Age of InnocenceBy Edith Wharton

If a propensity for action is a quintessential American trait, this book searingly portrays its absence. “The Age of Innocence”, published in 1920 but set in New York in the 1870s, is the most famous novel about the Gilded Age, a time of breakneck American growth. The city is in transition. In the book’s second paragraph Wharton writes of the new people whom New York is “beginning to dread and yet be drawn to”. Yet this is a book not about change, but about the forces that resist it. Wharton’s New York is a city of manners and convention, of immaculate surfaces and unruly thoughts, which rise insubordinately in the blush of a cheek or clasp of a hand.

It is this gap between exterior and interior life that torments Newland Archer, Wharton’s protagonist. Archer is due to marry May Welland but falls in love with her cousin, Ellen Olenska. She represents a new mode of being. Newland is entranced by “a world where action followed on emotion with such Olympian speed”. But he neither chooses to leave with Olenska nor chooses to stay. New York’s expert social artisans craft a result, which Archer accepts joylessly, as his imagined life with Olenska overshadows his real one with Welland. In this novel what is left unsaid, and the actions not taken, are as important as what is said and done. Wharton can convey with an ellipsis what other writers require a paragraph to describe. In Gilded Age New York the old gives way eventually to the new, as it always does, but not for Archer. Societies move forward, even as men remain stuck, haunted by the past.

. . . .

The Sound and the Fury. By William Faulkner. 

The American South is America distilled. When William Faulkner wrote his great novels in the early 20th century, the South was by turns prideful and ashamed: of its grand aristocratic families alongside its poverty, its bellicosity alongside its chivalry, its racial hierarchy alongside its fervent Christianity. No one grappled with these immense contradictions as Faulkner did.

“The Sound and the Fury” is “a real son-of-a-bitch”, Faulkner wrote to a friend to whom he sent a copy. “This one’s the greatest I’ll ever write.” Anyone who casually cracks it open may also feel like swearing at first. The novel uses the modernist technique of stream of consciousness. The minds in this case are those of the Compson family, a once proud Southern dynasty that is undone by alcoholism, cynicism, greed, obsession and promiscuity. Following the narrative requires the reader to engage in some jigsaw-style rearrangements, but patience is rewarded by journeys that lead to extraordinary vistas. The mind of Jason Compson is as sulfuric and searing as the atmosphere of Venus. The shattered intelligence of Quentin is difficult to traverse, yet you are compelled to. The interior narration of Benjy, who is mentally impaired and mute, flits unencumbered across time and space. Faulkner took his title from a soliloquy of Macbeth: Life’s “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”. In Faulkner’s hands, the tale signifies everything.

. . . .

Ask the DustBy John Fante

John Fante’s LA story, a flop when it was released in 1939, is now widely considered to be a classic. It is the tale of Arturo Bandini, a 20-year-old writer living in squalor on the west coast. Readers live in the mind of a self-absorbed man who, through spite and cowardice, ruins every good thing he touches.

Set in Depression-era Los Angeles, itself a central character, the book also reads like a dark internal monologue of America itself. Bandini’s uncomfortable relationship with Latinos, Jews and others who come from backgrounds that differ from his seems to stem from discomfort with himself. He taunts a Mexican waitress with whom he is in love, telling her that she could never be a true American (which is a bit rich, she points out, coming from a black-eyed “Eyetalian”). Despite claiming to be an atheist, he appeals to religion whenever life doesn’t live up to his expectations. Fante has been called a “pre-Beat” writer. His prose—staccato, incessant, funny—was the forerunner of a uniquely American style. Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski are among its heirs. Bukowski, who in 1979 wrote the introduction to a reprint of “Ask the Dust”, called Fante his “god”.

A Visit from the Goon SquadBy Jennifer Egan

If many American novels are driven by agency, “A Visit From The Goon Squad” is powered by angst. Made up of 13 short stories loosely linked by Bennie Salazar, a music executive, and Sasha Blake, his assistant for a while, the book continually shifts perspective and form and is pervaded by unease. The tales sprawl across countries and decades, from the late 20th century to the near future. Jennifer Egan, whose novel won the Pulitzer prize in 2011, uses this loose-limbed structure to explore the inner lives of people inhabiting multiple Americas. Despite their differences, all are united by a despairing feeling that circumstance shapes their lives far more than their actions can. “Time’s a goon right?” one middle-aged rocker says to another. “You gonna let that goon push you around?” Of course, although some characters put up a fight, in the end time wins. Ms Egan’s America is not a country where anything is possible. When her characters do find some sort of fulfilment, it is rarely the kind they had envisaged in their youth. 

Link to the rest at The Economist

Had PG been creating such a list, he would have included some of authors on The Economist’s “no books by” list, but any “Great American Novel” list would have omitted books that some readers would insist should be on such a list.

PG admits to not having read some of the books and authors included on the list and will be interested in seeing what visitors to TPV may have to say about them.

3 thoughts on “The Great American Novel”

  1. I keep hearing the same term over and over.
    I end up rolling my eyes.


    “…the novel had yet to be written that captured “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence…”


    Because time and societies are immutable and one single narrative can encompass the zeitgeist of a society, any society, for all of eternity. More so the american society, spread over a continent, divided across a dozen biomes, cultures, and lifestyles. And reinventing itself every generstion, if not faster.

    Nobody has identified a consensus because one is impossible.
    Perhaps in the world outside there is a society so ossified and sick that a narrative from times past can address the lives and concerns of the present but I doubt it.

    Living cultures change and evolve, the present is not the past with an updated calendar nor is the future going to be anything like today.

    It is sheer hubris, typical of the literati, to think they an be all things to all people.
    Everything is niche, plain and simple.

    The best narratives focus on one audience at one time and speak to them. If lucky, they might still have something to say to the future about that time and be interpreted (and not necesarily as intended) as somewhat relevant beyond those times. Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Austen are good examples of the lucky few, none of which pretended to speak for their era. Mostly they spoke for *themselves*.

    Because, let’s not forget, fiction writing is a personal journey.

    That’ll be $0.03.
    (Inflation is everywhere.)

Comments are closed.