Great American Novels
June 20, 2009 1:06 PM   Subscribe

People talk about "writing the Great American Novel." What do you think are valid examples of the G.A.N.? What novels, American or otherwise, did you enjoy reading and wish you had written?
posted by Busoni to Writing & Language (69 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
A Confederacy of Dunces.
posted by ShadePlant at 1:08 PM on June 20, 2009

Seconding "A Confederacy of Dunces"

Also, "Little, Big" by John Crowley
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 1:12 PM on June 20, 2009

Great Gatsby, definitely.
posted by Lobster Garden at 1:16 PM on June 20, 2009

Grapes of Wrath and Invisible Man are my top two.
posted by The Straightener at 1:17 PM on June 20, 2009

Of Mice and Men, Catch 22 and The Great Gatsby.
posted by rodgerd at 1:18 PM on June 20, 2009

Something Happened by Joseph Heller.
posted by Bobby Bittman at 1:20 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

White Noise, Gravity's Rainbow, maybe Infinite Jest
posted by box at 1:22 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think The Great Gatsby is the epitome of the Great American Novel.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has to be on the short list, too.
posted by HumuloneRanger at 1:23 PM on June 20, 2009

For me, there tends to be two types of novels that I consider "Great American Novels"--books that are, in one way or another, road trip novels (On the Road, The Grapes of Wrath, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ) and books that present stories of "normal" American families but nevertheless have some sort of feeling of epicness (The Corrections, Flesh and Blood, We Were the Mulvaneys). Generally, for me, "great" seems to refer to the scope of the novel, not necessarily the quality, though I like all of the books I listed.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:25 PM on June 20, 2009

Infinite Jest
posted by emilyd22222 at 1:32 PM on June 20, 2009

Some books not mentioned yet. (Note: I don't think that "valid examples of the G.A.N." are the same as books I wish I'd written. Also, some of these are multi-volume works.)

Saul Bellow--The Adventures of Augie March
James Farrell--Studs Lonigan
Theodore Dreiser--An American Tragedy
John Dos Passos--U. S. A.
Don DeLillo--Underworld
Leon Forrest--Divine Days
Thomas Pynchon--Mason and Dixon
John Updike--Rabbit Angstrom
posted by Prospero at 1:36 PM on June 20, 2009

Personally, Infinite Jest seems more like an American zeitgeist novel then carrying on in the tradition of Great American novels. Call it nit-picky, but I don't sense key characteristics like grandeur, hubris, wide open spaces etc. and the social commentary doesn't focus on the American condition.
posted by Dmenet at 1:43 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

On the Road - Kerouac
American Gods - Gaiman
posted by spasm at 1:46 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


posted by mr_roboto at 1:53 PM on June 20, 2009

Nobody's mentioned Moby Dick? The American novel?
posted by jayder at 1:54 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

All the King's Men
posted by mullacc at 1:57 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would nominate Sometimes A Great Notion as a "Great American Novel"
posted by mesh gear fox at 1:59 PM on June 20, 2009

I think of Faulkner, although I'd be hard pressed to pin it down to one title.
posted by juv3nal at 2:13 PM on June 20, 2009

confederacy of dunces, rabbit run
posted by timory at 2:14 PM on June 20, 2009

David Mamet told Salon that he has always considered Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy to be the great American novel.
posted by cribcage at 2:20 PM on June 20, 2009

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
posted by murrey at 2:20 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I strongly second Sometimes A Great Notion.

I seem to be always recommending it, but I think it's a really great book. In this case, it illustrated the hardiness and individualism that is, supposedly, inherent to American nature.
posted by elder18 at 2:31 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

More recently, Independence Day by Richard Ford.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 2:31 PM on June 20, 2009

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
posted by peggynature at 2:32 PM on June 20, 2009

Absalom, Absalom! Certainly the great Southern novel.
posted by SpiffyRob at 2:46 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Great working class novel: How Late It Was, How Late
posted by Abiezer at 2:46 PM on June 20, 2009

Thirding Sometimes A Great Notion (I came in here to mention it before seeing that others had, FWIW), and seconding Faulkner - I'm partial to Absalom, Absalom! and The Hamlet.
On preview, thirding Faulkner as well, and seconding Absalom, Absalom! in particular.
posted by zoinks at 2:49 PM on June 20, 2009

Blood Meridian
Memoirs of Hecate County
Tortilla Flat
The House of Mirth
A Fan's Notes
The Big Money
On the Road
Death Comes for the Archbishop
posted by ornate insect at 3:07 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk.
posted by Commander Rachek at 3:08 PM on June 20, 2009

Great working class novel: How Late It Was, How Late

Good book, but it's Scottish and the question is about American fiction.
posted by ornate insect at 3:08 PM on June 20, 2009

I have no problem with the novels listed (the ones I've read), but you *do* have to mention "Huckleberry Finn". Not only is it the usual candidate for "great American novel", but it has all the characteristics of a Great American Novel: a great theme, a journey, and a terrible ending.
posted by acrasis at 3:11 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn... All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
— Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:18 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't know whether these books are Great American Novels, but they're novels, seem very American to me, and they're great:
The Bonfire of The Vanities by Tom Wolfe.
Or, more depressingly:
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
And Lolita, of course.

(Moby Dick is not a Great American Novel, I think. It's much more universal. It's a Great All-World Novel.)
posted by The Toad at 3:24 PM on June 20, 2009

Their Eyes Were Watching God
Moby Dick
Call It Sleep
Plains Song
Ask the Dust
posted by ornate insect at 3:27 PM on June 20, 2009

The Great Gatsby is it. There are certainly other great American novels, but The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel.

I don't think anything else can remotely compare in that regard.
posted by zizzle at 3:47 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Thanks for playing everyone, but the correct answer is Wallace Stegner's The Big Rock Candy Mountain
posted by LarryC at 3:49 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Though many have already mentioned Gatsby, I would nominate Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise as a novel which tracks perfectly with a timeless notion of the maturing and disillusionment of an American boy...
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 3:59 PM on June 20, 2009

I love book lists.

Gone With the Wind
Lonesome Dove

something by Michener maybe

I think my requirements are that they capture something distinctly American whether it be the landscape or way of thinking. I like PhoBWanKenobi's comment about Road books or the classic american family.

The best American narrative I've ever read is Shelby Foote's History of the Civil War which isn't a novel at all, but I think I'll reread it which is about as high praise as I can give a book.
posted by mearls at 4:16 PM on June 20, 2009

East of Eden, Absalom, Absalom! Look Homeward, Angel as an outside pick.

'Great' isn't necessarily a qualitative description: I think of it in terms of scope, scale and ambition. So to me Gatsby doesn't fit: it's great and American, but it's not "Great American", and it's not really a novel. (Fitzgerald tried to write the G.A.N., but never quite managed it.) I'm also partial to the line that the G.A.N. is constantly written and rewritten with individual works as its chapters.
posted by holgate at 4:17 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Epic and American along many axes (superheroes, immigrant experience, WWII, etc) and I sure wish I could write something like it.
posted by Tesseractive at 4:24 PM on June 20, 2009

I thought the "Great American Novel" tag was just an as yet unfulfilled ideal of the greatest American novel ever written, not just an American novel that's great. And when it's written, everyone will know it in time. So there's a big difference between the two questions stated here.

Ulysses is widely regarded as the "Great English Novel," at least in modern history, so there was this notion that there would one day be an American counterpart to match it.

And it's not a matter of personal opinion, but rather universal acceptance. "Citizen Kane" and "The Godfather" would have to be on the short list of contenders for the "Great American Movie," but you yourself may think they're overrated.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 4:24 PM on June 20, 2009

I'd say it's either The Day of the Locust or Miss Lonelyhearts. (Both by Nathanael West.) But I'm cynical like that.

Ulysses is widely regarded as the "Great English Novel," at least in modern history, so there was this notion that there would one day be an American counterpart to match it.

...Surely you meant "British"?
posted by nasreddin at 4:33 PM on June 20, 2009

posted by the duck by the oboe at 4:38 PM on June 20, 2009

I wouldn't call any of his books the Great American Novel, but Tom Wolfe, especially with things like Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full has certainly been trying to write it.
posted by box at 4:47 PM on June 20, 2009

My professor in college once told us, in response to that, "Don't bother trying to write the Great American Novel, Fitzgerald did it with 'The Great Gatsby'".
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 4:49 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Fourthing Sometimes a Great Notion. Can't say what the reception is on the east coast, but it encompasses the west (and especially the northwest) quite well.
posted by devilsbrigade at 5:12 PM on June 20, 2009

When I read the question I thought I'd be the first to recommend it, but instead I'll put in a fifth vote for Sometimes a Great Notion. It's a great book, and Kesey uses it to describe what I think he sees as quintessential American traits.
posted by Killick at 5:47 PM on June 20, 2009

Steinbeck said of East Of Eden: "I've been practicing for a book for 35 years, and this is it. I don't see how it can be popular because I am inventing method and form and tone and context. It is the first book."
posted by ws at 5:52 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm going to be a smartass and suggest Philip Roth's The Great American Novel
posted by Ranucci at 5:56 PM on June 20, 2009

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

If you insist on "the".

The Great Gatsby is the great American novella. (Only half kidding.)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:16 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

the rules of attraction.
posted by austere at 6:59 PM on June 20, 2009

Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn. No, wait -- that's probably the great California novel, or even the Great Surfing Novel.

Second (or whatever) A Confederacy of Dunces (but maybe that's the great New Orleans novel). And The Day of the Locust? One of the great Hollywood novels, to be sure. Nobody's mentioned The Catcher in the Rye yet, and I know you kids hate it now, but it's certainly been influential -- maybe it's the great New York novel.

Also good at a certain age, Look Homeward, Angel (the great NC novel). Catch-22? Like The Winds .. of Remebrance, the great WWII novel (might also be Norman Mailer's The Quick and the Dead).

But a single GAN, for everybody? Too late for that; but I think Moby Dick would get a lot of votes. "Call Me Ishmael."
posted by Rash at 7:36 PM on June 20, 2009

Er, of course, that should be The Naked and the Dead.
posted by Rash at 7:40 PM on June 20, 2009

...Surely you meant "British"?

Er, yeah, I did. It tops a lot of "greatest English-language novel" lists, but that's obviously a different animal.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 8:09 PM on June 20, 2009

Surely you meant "British"?

RE Ulysses - Why British? I think English-language or Greatest Irish Novel is more appropriate?

For "Great American Novel" (and not mentioned):
Revolutionary Road
American Pastoral
The Recognitions
posted by drobot at 8:24 PM on June 20, 2009

Giants in the Earth
posted by flug at 8:38 PM on June 20, 2009

The Great Gatsby. I think what qualifies it's greatness is it's profound, subtle treatment of class politics and a person's obligation to society.

Because I was him too, looking up and wondering.
posted by trotter at 8:40 PM on June 20, 2009

Secretdecoderring has a point. It's as if the person with said desire figures that America has not yet had its defining novel, as other countries (feel free to tell me the Great British Novel/French Novel) have had theirs (Don Quixote springs to mind).

Given that, On the Road is (to me) the GAN. Like Margaret Atwood says, the character of a nation defines its literature. Canada's most prominent them, according to Atwood, is survival. On the other hand, history has shown that the concept of America is to keep moving, keep looking for that promised land that is just around the corner. The foundation of the country was based on escape from something to thepromise of something better. Westward Ho, Manifest Destiny, all came with the idea that there is better than here.

That's why it's gotta be On the Road. The whole book is about the desperate attempt to be where "there" is. The best, most telling point is the climax in Mexico, where he turns the record player to the loudest setting, something that seems so small today, but then would be considered astonishing, and it's liberating for him, he's found (however temporary) his "there" and the most telling thing, and one of the reasons for being the GAN, is that he had to leave America to find what he was looking for.

We are a nation that believes the grass is always greener somewhere else, and that's what On the Road is all about.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:57 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Late to the thread, I'll "nth" "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain as the G.A.N. That said, notable runner ups I like include the 1923 Pulitzer Prize winner "One of Ours" by Willa Cather, the 1926 Pulitzer Prize winner "Arrowsmith" by Sinclair Lewis (although he refused the prize), the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" by Oscar Hijuelos, and 1946's "All The King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren, which won the 1947 Pulitzer and whose movie treatment won the 1949 Oscar for Best Picture.

But I think in talking about the Great American Novel, you've got to give at least some notice to raw sales dollars, too, since the Best Seller lists are at least as shaping in terms of what next novels get written in America as are the Pulitzer or other juried prizes. Accordingly, I think everyone should read trash like the "Valley of the Dolls" by Jacqueline Susann, which at 30+ million copies and still going, is legendary. With 40+ million copies sold, such a slim tome as "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" by Richard Bach might profitably fill an hour's time of the unacquainted, start to finish, and its sales numbers would make Twain howl in protest from his grave, if he knew them. "The Godfather" by Mario Puzo was arguably a much better film franchise than a novel, but at 21+ million copies sold, its popularity even as a novel is significant.
posted by paulsc at 10:05 PM on June 20, 2009

Good book, but it's Scottish and the question is about American fiction.
Took my cue from this part of the question: "What novels, American or otherwise, did you enjoy reading and wish you had written?"
I shall compound my errors by suggesting another non-American novel: Ulverton.
posted by Abiezer at 10:56 PM on June 20, 2009

Tropic of Cancer, of course.
posted by waxbanks at 11:04 PM on June 20, 2009

Rabbit, Run by John Updike definitely
posted by Groovytimes at 11:40 PM on June 20, 2009

As for the various comments on Ulysses as the Great English or Great British novel, I can do no better than quote Joyce himself:

And in spite of everything, Ireland remains the brain of the Kingdom. The English, judiciously practical and ponderous, furnish the over-stuffed stomach of humanity with a perfect gadget - the water closet. The Irish, condemned to express themselves in a language not their own, have stamped on it the mark of their own genius and compete for glory with the civilized nations. This is then called English literature.

posted by TheRaven at 2:10 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Great American Novel is no longer writable. We can't do what John Dos Passos did. His trilogy on America came as close to the Great American Novel as anyone. You can't cover all of America now. It's too detailed. You couldn't just stick someone in Tampa without knowing about Tampa. You couldn't get away with it. People didn't get upset if you were a little scanty on the details in the past. Now all the details get in the way of an expanse of a novel.
You can take a much broader canvas with nonfiction ... and Americans want large canvases because America is getting so confusing. People want more information than you can get from most novels. You can read a novel about a small subject like the breakup of a marriage, but that's not a wide enough approach for some. It takes something like "The Sopranos," which can loop into a good many aspects of American culture. As I said, I don't think the Great American Novel can be written anymore. There will be great novels ... forever, I hope ... But the notion of a wide canvas may be moving to television with its possibilities of endless hours.

-Norman Mailer
posted by Muffpub at 8:39 AM on June 21, 2009

Surprised nobody mentioned _Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas_.
posted by thaths at 8:42 AM on June 21, 2009

1984, by George Orwell.
posted by karizma at 11:57 AM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'll combine paulsc and LarryC's criterion into one: Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer in 1971. It is pretty epic, western and keyed into the American sentiment of americanism.
Personally I prefer Crossing to Safety, but then again I don't have much interest in the GAN as a genre.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 12:02 PM on June 21, 2009

I'm with jayder, can't believe that Moby Dick received so little attention.

Blood Meridian has a pretty good claim, but no, it's Moby Dick.
posted by BigSky at 2:57 PM on June 22, 2009

Seconding Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
posted by wackybrit at 5:42 PM on July 13, 2009

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