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The Ultimate Great American Novel

“The Great American Novel” is an idea difficult to define yet clear in every American mind, or at least in the minds of some of America’s readers. It is that ideal book that captures some universal quality of American life and popular aspiration, and especially of quintessential patterns of American thought and speech at a particular time and place during the nation’s history. For a truly timeless work, it would give an insight into enduring universalities of Americanness as perceived through a compelling story cast in idiomatic and ephemeral particulars.

It is impossible for any one novel to achieve this ideal for any length of time, or even at all. But, a few do ascend artistically far above the accumulated mass of published and unpublished American novels. Here are eight that I think qualify as being contenders for the unattainable title of “The Great American Novel.”

First, they are listed by publication date:

Moby-Dick

(Herman Melville, 1851)

(1820s-1840s New England whalers at sea)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

(Mark Twain, 1884)

(1830s-1840s, rafting down the Mississippi River)

The Great Gatsby

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)

(1922, love longing, triangles and betrayal in wealthy suburban New York)

The Grapes of Wrath

(John Steinbeck, 1939)

(1930s homeless Oklahoma farmers on the road in California)

The Catcher In The Rye

(J. D. Salinger, 1951)

(1950, a prep school boy’s New York City)

To Kill A Mockingbird

(Harper Lee, 1960)

(1933-1935, in a rural Southern town)

Catch-22

(Joseph Heller, 1961)

(1942-1944, US Army Air Force men in Italy)

Slaughterhouse-Five

(Kurt Vonnegut, 1969)

(1944-1945, 1968, 1976, US Army survivor of the Dresden fire-bombing).

Secondly, they are listed by the time periods of their stories:

Moby-Dick

(1820s-1840s)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

(1830s-1840s)

The Great Gatsby

(1922)

The Grapes of Wrath

(1930s)

To Kill A Mockingbird

(1933-1935)

Catch-22

(1942-1944)

Slaughterhouse-Five

(1944-1945, 1968, 1976)

The Catcher In The Rye

(1950).

Thirdly, they are listed in my rank order:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Moby-Dick

The Great Gatsby

The Grapes of Wrath

The Catcher In The Rye

Catch-22

Slaughterhouse-Five

To Kill A Mockingbird.

I would group the eight novels thematically as follows:

Moral defiance versus obedience to the avaricious and vengefully obsessed, before the Civil War:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Moby-Dick

The soulful poets among the materialistic urban elite, as social failures by definition:

The Great Gatsby

The Catcher In The Rye

Prejudice against the wretched dispossessed in a time of economic depression:

The Grapes of Wrath

To Kill A Mockingbird

The sanity of being creatively insane to try surviving the random heartless cruelties of war, and of life:

Catch-22

Slaughterhouse-Five

So, perhaps an Ultimate Great American Novel would offer us the compelling attraction of seeing strong individual moral character successfully defy the social strictures that direct people into lives of soulless materialistic gain and obsessive and even vengeful ambition; and, by artful indirection rather than polemics, it would lead us to condemn those aspects of our society by which the most wretched and dispossessed are inflicted with the cruelest forms of exclusion, exploitation and persecution; and it would show us how to recognize those morally insightful and artistically apt observers of our unappealing and often denied social realities, despite the casting off of such poets by materialism’s powerful. Finally, such a novel would delight us with a realization of good triumphing over monolithic indifference, by showing how its good-hearted empathetic poet-observers and realists, who captivate our attention, escape monstrous injustices and random fatal cruelties by their own artful nonconformities. Seeing such escapes would give us a lightening hope: perhaps we could do it too. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) wrote that “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and Huckleberry Finn is “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” Because of his innate good character and his beneficial friendship with Jim, an escaped slave, the adolescent Huckleberry Finn comes to see black slavery and its enabling racism as morally wrong despite their being treated as upright and legally essential to American society, by the white adults of his time. It is important to note that Jim, the runaway black slave, is the noblest adult in this story. This is the quintessential American novel, scintillating and funny, still fresh, still relevant, still controversial.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written” (D. H. Lawrence). It tells of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest, aboard the whaling ship Pequod, for revenge against the white whale, Moby-Dick, for having bitten off his leg at the knee on a previous voyage. Melville gives detailed and realistic descriptions of whale hunting, the extraction of whale oil, and life aboard ship among a culturally diverse crew. Mixed into this narrative are explorations of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God.

The Great Gatsby

In 1923, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940) wanted to write “something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” That effort produced his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. The story centers on the young and mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby, and his quixotic and obsessive passion for the beautiful former debutante Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby’s main problem is Daisy’s oafish, wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan. Because of their inherited wealth, Tom and Daisy are spoiled and thus careless people, and that causes damage to others of humble origins who have their own great aspirations: the American Dream. The story is told by lyrical observer and incidental participant Nick Carraway. Fitzgerald’s artful, fluid prose conveys not only the interesting plot of the social drama, but a sense of the times, the nature of the characters, and – very subtly – his own judgments about each of these.  

The Grapes of Wrath

While preparing this novel, John Steinbeck (1902-1968) wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects],” he also said “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, changes in the agricultural industry, and bank foreclosure. Down and out and on the road during the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California along with thousands of other “Okies” in the hopes of finding jobs, land, dignity, and a future. Steinbeck’s sympathies for people like the Joads, and his accessible realist prose style, brought him a large following among the working class worldwide, and recognition with the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1962.

The Catcher In The Rye

Jerome David Salinger (1919-2010) matched Mark Twain’s achievement in Huckleberry Finn, of presenting the story of a rebellious and kind-hearted teenager, Holden Caulfield, in the very specific idiomatic speech of the protagonist, his peers, time and place. This novel presents an unparalleled view into the angst and alienation filling a perceptive teenage boy’s mind, trying to unravel the complexities of innocence, identity, belonging, loss, and connection. James Joyce had said that he wanted his own book, Ulysses, to be so richly detailed in describing Dublin on 16 June 1904 that one could thereafter recreate the entire city of that time out of his novel. Salinger did just that, with The Catcher In The Rye, for the New York City of a prep school lad during Christmas week, 1950. 

Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-1999) mined his experiences as a U.S. Army Air Corps B-25 bombardier, who flew 60 combat missions on the Italian Front during World War II, to write his best novel, Catch-22. This satiric novel unfolds in a non-chronological manner, and it centers on Captain John Yossarian, a B-25 (a twin engine, medium bomber) bombardier, who along with his companions attempts to maintain his sanity during his time at war, despite its continuous undercurrent of deep dread, which is punctuated by random instances of explosive terror. The great hope is to return home alive. There are many comical elements in this book, and Yossarian is a serious nonconformist, a wise ass, but all these laughs are forms of gallows humor to help these men trapped in war to momentarily release their tightly knotted tensions. This is an anti-war book. In the novel, the Catch-22 itself is a circularly constructed Air Corps rule that makes it impossible for an airman to arrive at a valid excuse – except being killed – for being relieved of combat duty. Milo Minderbinder, one of the characters in Catch-22, is the quintessential icon of a capitalist, a parody that is so exquisite because it is so realistically accurate. 

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

To write Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) drew on his experiences as an American prisoner of war, captured by the Germans in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, who witnessed the destruction of the city of Dresden by an incredibly intense firestorm created by four British and American aerial bombing raids, dropping high explosive and incendiary devices, between 13-15 February 1945. At least 25,000 Germans, mainly civilians, died as a result of the indiscriminate area bombing of an ancient city with scant military installations. Slaughterhouse-Five is an overt anti-war novel published during the height of the Vietnam War. It presents the science fiction-infused story of Billy Pilgrim, an innocent Everyman-type who is a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army and survives the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. This experience forms Billy into the not-so-usual individual he becomes by his maturity in present-day 1968 upstate New York, and the guru-seer he becomes thereafter, “unstuck in time” and in out-of-his-control contact with the Tralfamadorians, aliens from deep outer space. Vonnegut’s prose is almost child-like, and his science fiction episodes are whimsical, but the essence of this book and the drive behind it are very serious.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) reflected on her observations of her own father, a lawyer, to write this warm, Southern Gothic novel about the rape trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, by a white court and jury, in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression, in 1936. The rape victim-accuser is an unmarried white woman whose father is a rabid racist; Tom Robinson is a married man with children: a black family. This story unfolds as the observations of two young white children, primarily Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout), and her older brother Jeremy (nicknamed Jem), who live with their widowed father Atticus Finch, a highly principled, anti-racist and quietly brave man. Atticus Finch is Tom Robinson’s defense attorney. About this novel, the critic J. Crespino wrote in 2000 that “In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.” To Kill A Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only published book from 1960 until 2015 (seven months before her death), when her publisher, J. B. Lippincott & Co., issued Go Set A Watchman, an inferior novel based on an earlier draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. I suspect this was an act of pure exploitation by Lee’s publisher.

Are The Movies Any Good?

Nothing equals the experience of reading these books, and having their artistry unfold intimately in your own mind and at your own pace. Do yourself a favor and read each completely before you see any movie or even movie clip of it (actually, a movie of somebody’s interpretation or even misrepresentation of it).

Also, make sure to avoid all introductions, prefaces, essays about and critiques on any of these stories before actually reading the full texts that the authors labored to gift us with. Don’t allow the blather of others to pollute the purity of your own first impressions and – just as good as any critic’s and English teacher’s – your own analysis and artistic appreciation of what the authors have given us.

The nature of American society and the American cinematic industry makes it impossible to create accurate and meritorious movies of three of these novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher In The Rye. The barriers to making good movies of these three stories are, respectively: the inability to face Mark Twain’s searing frankness about 19th century American racism; the inability to produce a movie as elegant, layered, lyrical and subtle as Fitzgerald’s novel; and similarly with Salinger’s novel, which he anticipated by stipulating that movie rights to his stories never be sold.

There are good movies of Moby-Dick (in 1956, by John Huston and Ray Bradbury), The Grapes of Wrath (in 1940, by John Ford, Nunnally Johnson and Darryl F. Zanuck), Catch-22 (in 1970, by Mike Nichols and Buck Henry), Slaughterhouse-Five (in 1972, by George Roy Hill and Stephen Geller), and To Kill A Mockingbird (in 1962, by Robert Mulligan, Horton Foote and Alan J. Pakula). But read the books first! 

Other Great American Novels

Obviously, there can be as many different nominees for inclusion in lists of “great American novels” as there are enthusiastic and opinionated readers of American literature. A listing of often cited works for inclusion among the “American greats” is given by Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_Novel).

Remember, readers come in two sexes (and varieties of sexual orientation), of all ages, and from the wide multi-cultural spectrum of the American people, and beyond. So, the type and period of American novel that would captivate any given reader, as a “great book,” can be quite different from the novels I have listed.

I’m not arguing, just gratefully enjoying and appreciatively learning from the sincere and varied literary artistry of the dedicated authors cited here. Enjoy!

More articles by:

Manuel Garcia, Jr, once a physicist, is now a lazy househusband who writes out his analyses of physical or societal problems or interactions. He can be reached at mangogarcia@att.net

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