Great American Novel
The "Great American Novel" is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.
While fiction was written in colonial America as early as the 17th century, it was not until a distinct "American" identity developed during the 18th century that what is understood to be "American literature" began. America's identity as a nation was reflected alongside the development of its literature.
The term "Great American Novel" derives from the title of an essay by American Civil War novelist John William De Forest. More broadly, however, the concept originated in American nationalism and the call for American counterparts to great British authors.
In modern usage, the term is often figurative and represents a canonical writing, a literary benchmark emblematic of what defines American literature in a given era. Aspiring writers of all ages, but especially students, are often said to be driven to write "the Great American Novel". Theoretically, such is, presumably, the greatest American book ever written, or which could ever be written. Thus, "Great American Novel" is a metaphor for identity, a Platonic ideal that is not achieved in any specific texts, but whose aim writers strive to mirror in their work.
Books referred to as "Great American Novel"
At one time or another, the following works have been considered to be a Great American Novel:
- 19th century
- 20th century
- 1925: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
- 1936: William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
- 1936: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind
- 1938: John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy
- 1939: John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
- 1951: J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
- 1952: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
- 1953: Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March
- 1955: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
- 1960: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
- 1973: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
- 1975: William Gaddis's J R
- 1985: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West
- 1987: Toni Morrison's Beloved
- 1996: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest
- 1997: Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon
- 1997: Philip Roth's American Pastoral 
- 1997: Don Delillo's Underworld 
- 21st Century
- DeForest, John (9 January 1868), "The Great American Novel", The Nation (New York), retrieved 11 October 2010
- Buell, Lawrence. "The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel: Moby-Dick as Test Case". American Literary History Volume 20, Issue 1-2 Pp. 132-155. Retrieved 2010-10-26.
- Brown, Robert B. (June/July 1984). "One Hundred Years of Huck Finn". American Heritage Publishing. Retrieved 2011-12-10. It was called the “great American novel” as early as 1891 by the English writer Andrew Lang... ”
- The Columbia History of the American Novel By Emory Elliott, Cathy N. Davidson p. 323 "The Great Gatsby (1925), a work still frequently nominated as 'the great American novel.'"
- Hirsch, Arthur (1997-11-16). "The real great American Novel: 'Absalom, Absalom!' Faulkner: His ninth novel, for its span, its revelation, its American essence, stands above all others in reaching for this literary absolute.". The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, MD). Retrieved 2010-09-21.
- Gone with the Wind, Powell's Books; accessed 2013.12.10 ("Heralded by readers everywhere since its publication in 1936 as The Great American Novel...").
- Gone With the Wind, Georgia Public Broadcasting; accessed 2013.12.10 ("Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel of love and war has long been heralded as The Great American Novel.").
- Hammond, Margo (February 6, 2004). "Norman Mailer on the Media and the Message". Book Babes. The Poynter Institute. Retrieved 2010-09-21. Norman Mailer is a Pulitzer Prize winning literary critic, and it is his opinion that: "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."
- Dana, Gioia. "The Grapes of Wrath Radio Show - Transcript". The Big Read. The National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved 2010-09-22. Richard Rodriguez is a famous American writer. In this interview he referred to the Grapes of Wrath as The Great American Novel: "There hasn't been anything like this novel since it was written. And this is the great American novel that everyone keeps waiting for but it has been written now."
- Nixon, Rob. "The Grapes of Wrath". This Month Spotlight. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2010-09-22. Nixon quotes John Springer, author of The Fondas (Citadel, 1973), a book about Henry Fonda and his role in film version of The Grapes of Wrath: "The Great American Novel made one of the few enduring Great American Motion Pictures."
- Wolverton, II, Joe (January 29, 2010). "J.D. Salinger, Dead at 91". The New American Magazine. Retrieved 2013-02-05. "While a student at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, Salinger amused and annoyed his fellow students by traipsing about campus proclaiming that he would be the author of the next Great American Novel. That his Catcher in the Rye was such a book is indisputable.
- Giles, Patrick (2002-09-15), The Great American Novel, Los Angeles Times
- Amis, Martin, Review, The Atlantic Monthly (quoted by Powell's Books) Martin Amis is a well-known British novelist and professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester. It is his opinion that "The Adventures of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further. All the trails went cold 42 years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do; it ended."
- Williams, Mary Elizabeth. "Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov". Personal Best. Salon. Retrieved 2013-01-26. Mary Elizabeth Williams is Salon's Table Talk host. She opens her review with these lines: "Some say the Great American Novel is Huckleberry Finn, some say it's The Jungle, some say it's The Great Gatsby. -- Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita".
- Jameson, Frederick (1996). The Seeds of Time. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. pp. 214 pages. "These are familiar features of daily life in the super state from which, it should be noted, high modernism in the United States - in theory and in practice alike, fifties aestheticism organized around Pound and Henry James and Wallace Stevens and the New Criticism - was in desperate flight; of our great modern writers, only Nabokov handled this kind of material, in Lolita, which thereby at once became The Great American Novel,- but of course he was a foreigner to begin with." (Page 146-147).
- Puente, Maria (2010-07-08). "'To Kill a Mockingbird': Endearing, enduring at 50 years". USA Today. "It is Lee's only book and one of the handful that could earn the title of Great American Novel."
- Ruch, Alan (April 1, 1997). "Introduction to GR". The Modern World. Retrieved 2010-09-22. "It is the Great American Novel come at last, a postmodern masterpiece."
- Weisenburger, Steven (2006). A Gravity's Rainbow Companion. University of Georgia Press. p. 412. "Thomas Pynchon's big book quickly confirmed him as one of the few novelists of unprecedented genius to emerge in the postwar era. Here was the Great American Novel at last. The reviewers' favorite comparisons were to Moby Dick and Ulysses."
- "San Francisco Review of Books". "Gaddis has written the long-awaited great American novel... A beautiful book and a brilliant author."
- Morton, Brian. "Scotland on Sunday". "Pynchon's finest work yet...if anyone is still looking for the Great American Novel then this may well be it."
- Brown, Herbert R. "The Great American Novel." American Literature 7.1 (1935): 1–14.
- Knox, George. "The Great American Novel: Final Chapter." American Quarterly 21.4 (1969): 667–682.