Great American Novel

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The idea of the Great American Novel (GAN) is the concept of a novel of high literary merit that shows the culture of the United States at a specific time in the country's history. The novel is presumably written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common United States citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the people of the U.S. during that time and to capture the unique experience of living in the U.S. or one part of the U.S., especially at that time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the U.S. response to the national epic.


While fiction was written in colonial North America as early as the 17th century, it was not until a distinct U.S. identity developed in the 18th century that works classified as U.S. literature began. The U.S. identity as a nation was reflected alongside the development of its literature.[citation needed]

The term Great American Novel comes directly from the title of an 1868 essay[1] by American Civil War novelist John William De Forest. He defined the Great American novel as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” [2] Although early Great American Novel candidates were typically chosen by academics and scholars, the concept has opened up in recent years. Lawrence Buell, Professor of American Literature Emeritus at Harvard University, said that in the 21st century "the dream of the GAN is less in the hands of credentialed critics and scholars to determine than the result of a complex, messy interaction among them, readers at large, the literary entrepreneurialism of the writers themselves, the publishing and education industries, and self-accredited freelance journalists and bloggers."[3]

In modern usage, the meaning of the term is often figurative and represents a canonical piece of literature, making it a literary benchmark emblematic of what defines U.S. literature in a given era.

Great American Novels[edit]

At one time, the following works have been considered to be a Great American Novel:

Publication year Novel Author
1826 The Last of the Mohicans[4] Cooper, James Fenimore
1850 The Scarlet Letter[5] Hawthorne, Nathaniel
1851 Moby-Dick[6] Melville, Herman
1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin[7] Stowe, Harriet Beecher
1876 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer[8] Twain, Mark
1884 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[9] Twain, Mark
1925 The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald, F. Scott [10]
1925 An American Tragedy Dreiser, Theodore [11]
1932 Light in August Faulkner, William [12]
1934 Tropic of Cancer Miller, Henry [13][14]
1936 Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner, William [15]
1938 U.S.A. trilogy Passos, John Dos [16]
1939 The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck, John [17][18]
1940 Native Son Wright, Richard [19]
1951 The Catcher in the Rye Salinger, J. D. [20]
1952 Invisible Man Ellison, Ralph Waldo [21]
1953 The Adventures of Augie March Bellow, Saul [22]
1955 Lolita Nabokov, Vladimir [23][24][25]
1957 On the Road Kerouac, Jack [26]
1960 To Kill a Mockingbird Lee, Harper [27]
1974 Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon, Thomas [28][29]
1975 J R Gaddis, William [30]
1985 Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West McCarthy, Cormac [31]
1985 Lonesome Dove McMurtry, Larry [32]
1987 Beloved Morrison, Toni [33]
1996 Infinite Jest Wallace, David Foster [34][35]
1997 American Pastoral Roth, Philip [11][36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ DeForest, John (January 9, 1868), "The Great American Novel", The Nation, New York, retrieved October 11, 2010
  2. ^ DeForest, John (January 9, 1868), "The Great American Novel", The Nation, New York, retrieved October 11, 2010
  3. ^ Buell, Lawrence (2014). The Dream of the Great American Novel. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 9. ISBN 9780674726321. OCLC 871257583.
  4. ^ Italie, Hillel. ""Last of the Mohicans" was first great American novel". Retrieved October 14, 2015.
  5. ^ Buell, Lawrence. "The Dream of the Great American Novel". Retrieved October 14, 2015. "There are, Buell says, four main types of potential Great American Novels. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter epitomises the first – a cultural “master narrative”, identified as such by the number of reinterpretations and imitations that follow in its wake."
  6. ^ 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 October 26, 2010.
  7. ^ Fuller, Randall. "The First Great American Novel". Retrieved October 14, 2015.
  8. ^ Department of State, United States. "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer". Retrieved October 14, 2015. "Considered one of the great American novels..."
  9. ^ Brown, Robert B. (June – July 1984). "One Hundred Years of Huck Finn". American Heritage Publishing. Retrieved December 10, 2011. It was called the “great American novel” as early as 1891 by the English writer Andrew Lang... ”
  10. ^ 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.'"
  11. ^ a b Buell, Lawrence (2014). The Dream of the Great American Novel. Belknap.
  12. ^ C.E. Morgan, ["'Light in August' is Faulkner's Great American Novel" The Daily Beast Aug. 16, 2012]. Retrieved October 5, 2016.
  13. ^ Tropic of Cancer | Grove Atlantic.
  14. ^ "Book Of A Lifetime: Tropic of Cancer, By Henry Miller". The Independent. Retrieved December 2, 2018.
  15. ^ Hirsch, Arthur (November 16, 1997). "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 September 21, 2010.
  16. ^ Hammond, Margo (February 6, 2004). "Norman Mailer on the Media and the Message". Book Babes. The Poynter Institute. Archived from the original on October 16, 2010. Retrieved September 21, 2010. 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."
  17. ^ Dana, Gioia. "The Grapes of Wrath Radio Show - Transcript". The Big Read. The National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved September 22, 2010. 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."
  18. ^ Nixon, Rob. "The Grapes of Wrath". This Month Spotlight. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved September 22, 2010. 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."
  19. ^ Warnes, Andrew. "A Bigger Vision: Richard Wright's Native Son and the Great American Novel". Retrieved October 14, 2015.[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ McGrath, Charles (January 28, 2010), J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91, New York Times
  21. ^ Giles, Patrick (September 15, 2002), The Great American Novel, Los Angeles Times
  22. ^ 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."
  23. ^ Williams, Mary Elizabeth. "Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov". Personal Best. Salon. Retrieved January 26, 2013. 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".
  24. ^ 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).
  25. ^ Nabakov is generally regarded as a Russian writer, even when he used the English language: Rampton, David (1984). Vladimir Nabokov : a critical study of the novels (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521257107.
  26. ^ Bausells, Marta (July 31, 2015). "On the road: mapping the great road trips of American literature". the Guardian. Retrieved December 2, 2018.
  27. ^ Puente, Maria (July 8, 2010). "'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."
  28. ^ Ruch, Alan (April 1, 1997). "Introduction to GR". The Modern World. Archived from the original on September 15, 2010. Retrieved September 22, 2010. "It is the Great American Novel come at last, a postmodern masterpiece."
  29. ^ 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."
  30. ^ "San Francisco Review of Books". Archived from the original on November 29, 2011. "Gaddis has written the long-awaited great American novel... A beautiful book and a brilliant author."
  31. ^ "Transcript".[dead link]
  32. ^,285599
  33. ^ "What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?". The New York Times. May 21, 2006.
  34. ^ Gates, David (2014). "Levity's Rainbow". Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  35. ^ Wallace, David Foster (2009). "Cambridge Book Review". Retrieved August 11, 2014.
  36. ^ Spencer, Matthew (July 23, 2012). "The Great American Novelist tournament: the final 32". The Guardian. London.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]