“But the Great American Novel–the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence–the American “Newcomes” or “Miserables” will, we suppose, be possible earlier.”Is it time?” the benighted people in the earthen jars or commonplace life are asking. And with no intention of being disagreeable, but rather with sympathetic sorrow, we answer, “Wait.” At least we fear that such ought to be our answer. This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially–in the production of a few outlines.” ”“John William DeForest The Nation 1868.
It seems like we’ve been “waiting” for the Great American Novel since DeForest wrote that article in anticipation of the Holy Grail of American literature, one hundred and thirty-eight years ago. We still haven’t found it.
The notion of a text which captures “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence” is an ideal; we’ll never actually read a text that perfectly accomplishes that task because the very nature of time renders it impossible. As we move forward temporally we move away from an artist’s static portrayal of our American soul. We grow, whereas the portrayal does not. Where “The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn” accurately captured the zeitgeist of the late 1800’s the social commentary no longer holds up, and consequently the internal struggles of Huck seem removed and foreign to us. Likewise with the other popular candidate for the GAN, “Moby Dick: or the Whale.” (first off, that damn thing isn’t a novel, so in my mind that disqualifies it automatically). Melville may have captured the soul of the sea-faring man during the 1850’s, and yes, a critic may rightly interpret those men aboard the Pequot as allegories for the human condition, but it is a 19th century human condition nonetheless.
So instead of futilely attempting to find THE great American Novel we should change that definite article to an indefinite one, and search for A great American novel; one which accurately captures the American soul in a given period of time. I’m sure I could spend a considerable amount of time writing about all the texts that I consider to be great American novels, but instead I’ll just list a few that I consider great. Oh yeah, and I’m gonna try to steer clear of canonized ones like Steinbeck and Hemingway and others of their ilk, because really, if you wanted to hear about them you’d have signed up for a college course.
“The Man in the High Castle” Phillip K. Dick. Yes, I’m leading with science fiction, a genre not invented by Americans, but to my mind perfected by them. Dick wrote this in 1962 during the Cold War. In the novel he imagines what would have happened had the US not intervened in World War II (yes, he did this waaaaaaay before Philip Roth). Dick won the Hugo award for this piece of revisionist history and it was well-deserved.
“White Noise” Don Delillo. No, this isn’t the basis for that shitty Michael Keaton movie. It’s a very post-modern novel which skewers the academic community and the corrosion of the American family. Delillo won the American Book Award for this novel. The juxtaposition of humor and hopelessness in the novel will shock you.
“Fight Club” Chuck Palahniuk. You may disagree with me on this one, but I don’t care. This book reveals more about the role of the male at the end of the twentieth century than any other work I’ve ever read. Middle children of history indeed.
“A Million Little Pieces” James Frey. Ok, take a deep breath and hear me out on this one. I haven’t read it, but even if I had and it turned out to be really crappy I’d still list it as a great American novel. Why? Well because, Frey captured the desire of the twenty-first century American quite well. We’ll do anything to become famous, and we’ll do even more to hold on to that fame once acquired. His writing may be hackey, his plot clichÃ©d, and his themes over-examined, but Frey managed take his little dog and pony show and bamboozle the highest echelon of entertainment: Oprah. If that’s not American then I don’t know what is.
Those few works only represent a small portion of those which I consider to be great American novels, but they’re enough to get a conversation going.
While proofing this I noticed I failed to include any female authors. Maybe that’ll be another post.