TSS: The Great American Novel

sunsalon1Please forgive me for posting my Sunday Salon post on a Monday. I was busy and sick, sick and busy all weekend. If I wasn’t doing laundry, taking down the tree, or cleaning house, then I was sitting in a stupor most of the weekend. I finished The Art of Fielding Friday evening, and a post about that will be forthcoming this week, but first I wanted to talk about The Great American Novel.

I’d planned to write a Sunday Salon post about something else entirely, but when I saw this article in The Guardian (thanks, Largehearted Boy), I decided to switch topics. Essentially, the article is about all the hype The Art of Fielding is receiving. Neither The Guardian nor I believe that The Art of Fielding–as wonderful as it is–is The Great American Novel, mind you. But the article considers just exactly what The Great American Novel is, and how that concept has changed over the last four or five decades:

The Art of Fielding certainly cements the idea that a powerful new group of writers has emerged in America in the wake of Franzen’s success with his novels The Corrections and Freedom. The big beasts of US literature – Mailer, Updike, Bellow, Roth – who fought their battles, sometimes physically (“Lost for words again, Norman?” Gore Vidal said after being punched by Mailer) but more usually in intense, convoluted, poetic sentences, are mostly gone now.

Now, in the first place, for my part it’s a bit early to start including anything written in the last decade (or two–or three?) in the category of The Great American Novel. In this case, I side firmly with Matt Damon, who suggested that movies be shelved for about ten years before they are nominated for awards, because time tells us more than anything about what is possibly great enough to endure or deserve an award. That Jonathan Franzen is a pretty good writer and a media darling, I’ll grant you (and full disclosure: although I liked The Corrections, I don’t really get the hype). But it seems a bit early to say that he or Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace or any of our most of-the-moment literary darlings have ushered in a new era.

Of course, all of this begs the question: What is The Great American Novel? I don’t mean, what specific novel is The Great American Novel (although if you have one in mind, feel free to share your opinion); I mean, what qualities exactly does this mythical tome possess? What makes it so great? American themes? (And what are those, anyway? Striving? Pioneer spirit? God? War? Money? Baseball? Football?) Just to keep it simple, here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

The “Great American Novel” is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representative of the zeitgeist in the United States at the time of its writing. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.

The national epic, in case you weren’t sure or didn’t click that link, is an epic poem, such as The Odyssey or The Aeneid. Interesting that the Wikipedia article also has a picture of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as the first visual representation of such a book in its article.

Given that definition…First, it raises the temporal issue I brought up earlier: while we may think a novel is great and an accurate portrayal of our world at the time it’s published, how will we really know, without the passage of time? Second, I don’t believe a “common American citizen” exists. (God help us if someone is writing a novel with Joe Sixpack as the main character, although then again…) We certainly have common American archetypes, and I suppose a great novel can treat those archetypes in interesting ways.  Or does a great novel actually define those archetypes, make us aware of them, bring them to bear on our literary culture?

Or does The Great American Novel these days mean the biggest book deal? The most references to things like iPod and Facebook and PowerPoint? Does it mean the movie rights sell early to someone like Aaron Sorkin or Sofia Coppola? Does it mean they have to teach the novel in school? Who decides?

Most of the novels whose names I hear thrown around as contenders–Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Rabbit, Run, Portnoy’s Complaint (or any other Roth novel), White Noise, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I guess, now, The Corrections–are all written by men. White men. Some of them Jewish. And while I’m not about to argue that any of those authors get it wrong or that those are not all what I think of as works of classic American literature, where is Ralph Ellison? Where is Toni Morrison? Where is Leslie Marmon Silko? Yeah, okay, I am getting into a canon discussion here, but I think you see my point.

Finally (for this post, anyway–I could chew on this topic forever), and perhaps most importantly, I wonder this: once something has become a thing (The Great American Novel) and someone can consciously set out to achieve that thing (write The Great American Novel), does it actually cancel out the whole idea of greatness? Does it mean a writer gives up something else, something perhaps more interesting, to follow a standard? I don’t have an answer for this one, but I’m inclined to think it does. I’m inclined to believe that a writer can only write The Great American Novel in response to all the other Great American Novels that have gone before it, so in fact it is a novel of type, but not necessarily great beyond being of that type. (I think I just broke a sweat.)

So what do you think about The Great American Novel? Does it exist? Should it exist? What book(s) would you choose?

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13 comments

  1. Agreed, and it bears repeating… agreed. I think, yes, now is too soon to label a “classic” or a great American novel. One television station touts “the new classics,” but the classic films to me will always be in black and white, featuring either Edward G. Robinson, K. Hepburn, Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, etc.

    And as for classics in books, I thank you for pointing out what I consider to be the most overlooked American novel: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. To me, this is the great American novel – one that memorializes our prejudice and ugliness but that also strives and hopes for a time more in line with our original ideals. I would also include East of Eden on this list, for many of the same reasons.

    Though I risk alienation for this, The Great Gatsby has always struck me as narcissistic and narrow in its reachings as does a book like The Corrections. But that’s a whole other conversation.

    Fantastic post! I really enjoyed your thoughts here.

  2. Picky Girl, thanks for visiting! I agree with you about Invisible Man–it’s frequently overlooked/marginalized. I haven’t read East of Eden, I must admit (shame). Very interesting view on The Great Gatsby, and I can’t say I disagree, so you risk no alienation here: certainly the world it inhabits is a narrow one, and certainly it doesn’t speak to “the common American experience.” I do believe it has influenced many writers, though–better writers than Fitzgerald. You could call it “a writer’s novel,” the way some films are “filmmaker’s films.”

  3. Excellent post!
    Much to think about.
    I, too, have always held the suspicion that The Great American Novel is a boy’s game. To figure out the rules, just read the subjects of a Don DeLilo novel: baseball, rock n’ roll, cults, nuclear fallout, and so on.
    Personally, I’m not attracted to titles that steal thunder from the headlines. (Women writers try that, too.) What is America, then, if not the headlines? How about, the landscape? In that case, I’d choose Homecoming by Marilynne Robinson. No baseball there. Or is America about the manipulation of the landscape? In that case, I’d choose Brookland by Emily Barton.
    Do you have any American woman writers you’d like to choose as Great American Novelists?

  4. Lisa…I was also thinking about women writers and books I’d choose, and I think Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or Age of Innocence would make my list. And I also think landscape is important. I haven’t read Homecoming (yet…just Housekeeping and Gilead), nor have I read Brookland (putting it on list), but considering what you’ve offered here, then how about Willa Cather or Edna Ferber? Thanks for visiting!

  5. I think either East of Eden or All the King’s Men would be the Great American Novel, at least in my opinion! both really exemplify and illustrate important aspects of american history and culture. And both are amazing! I think a Great American Novel has to stand the test of time- so nothing published in the last, say, 20 years would qualify!

  6. I tend to agree that it’s hard to say that a new book is the “great American novel” because there’s just no way to know what elements of the current zeitgeist will have any effect 10, 20, 50 years down the road. And it does drive me crazy that all the novels typically identified as contenders are by white men.

    If we’re going to allow newish books, I’d offer up Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It draws in history, religion, race, family and discusses them in meaningful ways. I also loved Housekeeping, which Lisa mentioned, but Gilead feels more zeitgeist-y to me. I’ve not read much Willa Cather, but it seems like her books could be considered. Edith Wharton too, but somehow her novels feel more English to me, so maybe not.

  7. Marie, that’s two votes for East of Eden, and I agree about All the King’s Men as well. And we do need to let things age a bit–I would even say 30 years.

  8. Teresa, I think Lisa mentioned Homecoming, which I have not read. I also loved Housekeeping, but I agree that Gilead would be a better fit for all the reasons you mention. And you are right about Edith Wharton–I wondered if I would include her because she does deal more with aristocracy, so it’s definitely not “the common American experience”–but I think House of Mirth is a universal woman’s story in some ways, so that’s why I thought maybe…

  9. Listing, quantifying, superlatives…all a man’s game, and I’m not really sure those even have a place in true art. Thanks for a lovely post.

  10. All: I’m sorry to report that Marilynne has yet to publish a novel called, Homecoming. I mean, Housekeeping. And yes, I do think Marilynne’s novel Gilead has more weighty themes. Not that anyone need drag out a sclae. Listing, quantifying, superlatives..have nothing to do with art, and everything to do with commerce.

  11. Lisa, I didn’t even bother to check! I thought you were referring to her book Home, but obviously also thought it was called Homecoming, so there you go. :) Housekeeping is an amazing book.

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