I’ve reviewed a handful of American classics for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and I’ll be reviewing a few more yet. Whenever I start researching one of them, I’ll always come across a think-piece or a comment thread somewhere debating whether or not the book should be considered the Great American Novel. I’ve referenced the concept a few times myself, but never really addressed the elephant in the room: what is the Great American Novel, exactly? Where did it come from, and why is it so contentious? Now seems as good a time as any to take a look…
Origins of The Great American Novel as a Concept
It was, of course, a dead white guy who first coined the phrase “the great American novel”. John William DeForest published an essay in 1868, a few years after the end of the Civil War, in which he defined it as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”. America, at the time was a pretty nebulous concept in and of itself; the North and South were barely reconciled, and it was a time of self-conscious tumult in the American identity. American literature was also relatively new; the colonials had written books, of course, but the development of a unique and entirely separate literary tradition in the New World took over a century. So, DeForest’s search for a single book that unified and reflected an all-encompassing American experience was laughably ambitious.
He didn’t have much luck, by the way. Even by his own standard, DeForest said that the composition of the Great American Novel had not yet been achieved. Harriet Beecher Stowe came close, he said, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but didn’t quite get the gong. He was also pretty dismissive of the next-closest option, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. As far as DeForest was concerned, the definitive Great American Novel couldn’t be far off – he had no idea we’d still be arguing over his little thought exercise 150 years later…
How Do We Define the Great American Novel?
We’ve spent a great deal of the intervening century-and-a-half debating DeForest’s idea, and proposing our own definitions and criteria by which we could judge the Great American Novel. Journals and periodicals over the rest of the 19th century featured countless essays by other writers keen to expand on his proposition. The subject became a safe retreat on slow news days for newspapers of the 20th century. And now, we have the internet, which is littered with listicles and slide-shows of the contenders, and more than one “hot take” on why the Great American Novel could never really exist anyway (party poopers).
Of course, there’s no ultimate authority to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, so there’s plenty of fodder to keep us arguing for another hundred and fifty years or so (assuming America lasts that long… eeek!). Above and beyond the criteria we’ve proposed to define a classic book (literary merit and so forth), here are a few suggested definitions we could use to determine what is the Great American Novel.
“The novel is a true and honest reflection of the age.”
Put another way, the Great American Novel must perfectly capture the spirit and culture of a given period in the United States. This one is interesting, because it leaves scope for a different Great American Novel for each era. Examples might include The Great Gatsby, which captured the Jazz Age, or On The Road, reflecting the Beat Generation.
“The novel had a significant cultural impact.”
Now, this is a wily one, because who’s to say what’s “significant”? Heck, who’s to say what’s “cultural impact”? It’s one of those I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it definitions, which can be problematic. So far, the best we can do is rely upon a general agreement regarding “significance” among academics and general readers alike. To Kill A Mockingbird would probably pass the test, given how it revolutionised America’s understanding of social justice and race.
“It must encompass the entire nation, and not be too consumed with a single region.”
This is a lofty goal. It’s one worth considering, of course, but I can’t think of a single contender that actually manages it. The States, united as they may be, are incredibly varied and diverse. Is it really possible for a single book to encompass them all? (If you can think of one, please suggest it in the comments!)
“Its author must have been born in the U.S., or have adopted the country as his or her own.”
Initially, I bristled at this one. It seemed too emblematic of the cultural imperialism perpetuated by America over the last century or so. It would necessarily exclude writers like Vladimir Nabokov, who was Russian-born but authored Lolita, undoubtedly a contender for the Great American Novel by other measures. Surely, the content of the work should bear more weight than the passport of the writer. Perhaps it would be better to say that the author must be deeply knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the “average” U.S. citizen (if there is such a thing).
“The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language of American people, and capture their experience.”
That’s better! By this measure, books like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn fit the bill perfectly. It highlights the use of vernacular, and furthers the cause of using fiction as a source of historical record. Plus, it recognises the uniqueness of the American experience and aspirations, which are undoubtedly different to those found and felt elsewhere.
“It has to be read by or familiar to a large number of Americans.”
This one seems fair enough. I think the addition of the familiarity element is important: these days, relatively few Americans have read Moby Dick in full, for instance, but I guarantee almost all of them would recognise the title. They’d probably even be able to give you a brief, largely accurate, summary of the plot and its themes. That’s a level of saturation that’s hard to ignore.
But, if we’re determined to be cynical, we could conclude that it’s impossible to define or determine what is the Great American Novel. A.O. Scott once proposed that the Great American Novel was effectively a myth, likening its existence to urban legends and conspiracies:
“… 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.”A.O. Scott (2006)
All respect to Scott, but even though we all know Big Foot probably doesn’t exist, we still spend hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars searching for him every year. If the debate over what constitutes the Great American Novel keeps people buying and reading books, I’ll go down stoking the flames of this debate.
The Great American Novels
It’s practically impossible to give an exhaustive list of contenders for the Great American Novel. You’d have to scan all four corners of the internet, and fall down so many rabbit holes, to find every single title that’s ever been floated as a possibility. So here are a few that seem to crop up more often than most:
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Even though DeForest, the daddy of this whole debate, wrote off The Scarlet Letter, it’s still widely considered to be one of the earliest examples of the Great American Novel. It’s certainly highly recognisable, it’s had significant cultural impact (as judged by its many adaptations and call-backs in subsequent art), it recorded a unique period in American history (puritanical New England), and as far as we know it was a fairly accurate representation of the era. Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Moby Dick is another uniquely American novel – even though, ironically, very little of the action took place on American soil. The story of Ahab and his white whale can be read as a metaphor for just about anything: democracy, man’s relationship with God, man’s relationship with nature (and, more recently, climate change), a critique of capitalism, a critique of slavery, and so on. Plus, it has become culturally ubiquitous, imitated and appropriated by everyone from artists to politicians to academics. Read my full review of Moby Dick here.
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
Hemingway once said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”. As I was reading it, I could see that Papa was right: in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, plain to see are the origins of subsequent literary icons like The Catcher In The Rye. Plus, it is one of the best renderings of American vernacular that I have ever read. Most admirably (depending who you ask), Twain managed to simultaneously exhibit the racist history of the American South, while critiquing it and proposing a new way forward. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
As I mentioned earlier, The Great Gatsby has become synonymous with our recollection of the Jazz Age in America. It’s likely the most aspirational of these contenders for the Great American Novel, highlighting the American desire for wealth and success and all its trappings, as well as the sordid underbelly of the “American dream”. That said, could we really consider it a reflection of a universally American experience? Probably not. But its fans and adherents are so damn vocal, we’ll probably never be able to cross it off the list entirely. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Grapes Of Wrath depicts a particularly dark time in America’s history, the Great Depression in the dust bowl of the South. Steinbeck also focused on the experiences of the working class, the “Average Joes” (or Average Joads, as it were), an experience not often explored in the other contenders listed here. It is, to some minds, not quite as iconic as books like Moby Dick or Gatsby, but it does an incredible job of recording and reflecting a uniquely American language and experience in ways that other contenders lack. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Here’s another American experience not often captured in other contenders for the Great American Novel: that of the disaffected youth. Holden Caulfield has become perhaps one of the most iconic teenage characters of all time, even beyond the American literary tradition, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a definition of coming-of-age literature that doesn’t cite The Catcher In The Rye somewhere along the line. Sounds like a significant cultural impact to me! Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.
On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Another period – this time, the Beat Generation – another definitive novel. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road stands out among its contemporaries. It’s more than just a road-trip novel, more than just a sordid exhibition of the beatniks and their free-loving drink-and-drug-fuelled adventures. It’s an exploration, once again, of American longing, aspiration, and search for meaning. It also has much to say regarding waste and futility in a changing world. Plus, best of all, we can be pretty damn sure of its accuracy in depicting an American experience, being taken – as it was – pretty much directly from Kerouac’s diaries, a very faithful roman-a-clef. Read my full review of On The Road here.
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Just last year, Americans voted To Kill A Mockingbird to be their best-loved novel in the Great American Read survey, so its popularity, recognisability, and endurance are pretty much unquestionable. It remains a fixture on school reading lists, likely for its heady combination of coming-of-age, social justice, and earnest idealism tempered by harsh reality. To be honest, I can’t think of a single definition of the Great American Novel that it doesn’t pass in some measure; it’s one of the strongest contenders to date. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
To Kill A Mockingbird might be the general readership’s favoured choice, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved came out on top in a New York Times survey of 125 writers. Its rise to canonical status has been remarkably quick; just 20 years after its initial publication, it was already considered to be a staple of university reading lists, and Morrison is now listed alongside Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain as one of the greatest American writers of all time. Its perspective and its story are unique in this list, and that in itself highlights the problems with our current understanding of the Great American Novel (more on those in a minute). Read my full review of Beloved here.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
Granted, this might be a selfish inclusion, because I personally think that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a far better book and a far better reflection of the Jazz Age than stupid Gatsby (and I suspect it’s been overlooked because of the entrenched sexist attitudes that lead us to value the stories of men above those of women, but that’s a rant for another day). But I stand by it, because I’ve got a highly-respected vote in my favour: Edith Wharton, an incredible American writer in her own right, called it the Great American Novel. It’s an honest and true reflection of a perspective on the Jazz Age that has often been marginalised (that of women who empowered themselves through sexuality), and surely that counts for more than its comparative lack of popularity. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
Problems With Defining The Great American Novel
Surely you can already see the problem here? On this list of ten contenders, only three were authored by women, and only one by a woman of colour. That’s not a result of my own biases, I promise you. Every list of Great American Novel contenders is very white, and very male.
Ironically, the whole concept began with the work of a woman (DeForest said that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the closest he had seen to the Great American Novel, remember?), and yet we’ve historically excluded female authors and female perspectives from these discussions. This goes double – triple! – for people of colour (encompassing Native Americans, African Americans, and later migrants). And there’s a whole stack of other marginalised experiences that rarely get a look in, too…
When we exclude marginalised authors, we exclude marginalised experiences from the narrative, and if that continues we will never have a Great American Novel that is truly representative of an American experience. Part of defining the Great American Novel for the future is redefining what constitutes an American experience, and who belongs in the picture.
It’s not as if there’s a lack of options! Consider books like The Color Purple, The Joy Luck Club, The Book Of Unknown Americans, Americanah, An American Marriage – all of them depict a uniquely American experience, outside the narrow defines of white male privilege.
Still, even with these problems and a marked lack of diversity, the ideal of the Great American Novel will probably never die. In fact, one could argue it’s more important now than ever, in a time of major shifts in an American identity (shifts in culture are always reflected in literature, sooner or later). What do you think constitutes the Great American Novel? Can you come up with any contenders I haven’t listed here? Tell me your ideas in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).