Great American Novel
The "Great American Novel" is the concept of a novel that shows the culture of the United States at a specific time. 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.
Authors and 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
- 1826: James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans
- 1850: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
- 1851: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick
- 1852: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
- 1876: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- 1884: Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- 20th century
- 1919: Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio
- 1925: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
- 1925: Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy
- 1932: William Faulkner's Light in August
- 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
- 1940: Richard Wright's Native Son
- 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
- 1960: John Updike's Rabbit, Run and sequels
- 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
- 1985: Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove
- 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
- 2000: Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
- 2004: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
- 2009: Philipp Meyer's American Rust
- 2010: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom
- DeForest, John (9 January 1868), "The Great American Novel", The Nation, New York, retrieved October 11, 2010
- Italie, Hillel. ""Last of the Mohicans" was first great American novel". Retrieved October 14, 2015.
- 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."
- 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.
- Fuller, Randall. "The First Great American Novel". Retrieved October 14, 2015.
- Department of State, United States. "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer". Retrieved October 14, 2015. "Considered one of the great American novels..."
- 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... ”
- 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.'"
- Buell, Lawrence (2014). The Dream of the Great American Novel. Belknap.
- C.E. Morgan, ["'Light in August' is Faulkner's Great American Novel" The Daily Beast Aug. 16, 2012 http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/08/16/c-e-morgan-light-in-august-is-faulkner-s-great-american-novel.html]. Retrieved October 5, 2016.
- 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.
- "Gone with the Wind". Powell's Books. Archived from the original on December 10, 2013. Retrieved October 5, 2016.
Heralded by readers everywhere since its publication in 1936 as The Great American Novel...
- Gone With the Wind, Georgia Public Broadcasting. Retrieved October 5, 2016. ("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 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."
- 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."
- 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."
- Warnes, Andrew. "A Bigger Vision: Richard Wright's Native Son and the Great American Novel". Retrieved October 14, 2015.
- McGrath, Charles (January 28, 2010), J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91, New York Times
- Giles, Patrick (September 15, 2002), 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 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".
- 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).
- 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.
- 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."
- Patterson, Troy (January 27, 2009). "Rabbit at Rest". Slate. Retrieved June 28, 2014. "To consider the 1,700-odd pages of his Harry Angstrom saga—the bounding tetralogy of Rabbit books and their limping postscript—is to find yourself considering a work with an excellent claim as the Great American Novel"
- Ruch, Alan (April 1, 1997). "Introduction to GR". The Modern World. Retrieved September 22, 2010. "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."
- "Transcript". yale.edu.[dead link]
- Habash, Gabe (March 28, 2013). "What Did We Learn from Our Great American Novel Poll? | PWxyz". Blogs.publishersweekly.com. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
- "What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?". The New York Times. May 21, 2006.
- Gates, David (2014). "Levity's Rainbow". newsweek.com. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
- Wallace, David Foster (2009). "Cambridge Book Review". smallbytes.net. Retrieved August 11, 2014.
- 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."
- Spencer, Matthew (July 23, 2012). "The Great American Novelist tournament: the final 32". The Guardian. London.
- "We Are What We Waste / Don DeLillo's masterpiece fits a half-century of experience inside a baseball". The San Francisco Chronicle. September 21, 1997.
- Mendelsohn, Daniel (September 25, 2000). "Comics Opera". New York Magazine. Retrieved March 1, 2014. "I'm not sure what the exact definition of a 'great American novel' is, but I'm pretty sure that Michael Chabon's sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one."
- Temple, Emily (March 7, 2013). "10 Great American Novel Contenders From the Past Decade". Flavorwire. Retrieved October 22, 2014. "PW nominated an earlier novel, 1980′s Housekeeping, but we’re equally fond of this one, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, the autobiography a dying congregationalist pastor in a flyover state. It’s a beautifully written personal history that doubles as a national one. Bonus: Obama lists the novel as one of his favorites on his official Facebook profile, for whatever that’s worth to you."
- Cruickshank, Noah (October 6, 2014). "With Lila, Marilynne Robinson crafts one of the unlikeliest trilogies in modern American lit". A.V. Club. Retrieved October 22, 2014. "Gilead is one of the great American novels of the early 21st century, and deserved its 2005 Pulitzer Prize."
- Jones, Jonathan (August 23, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: the novel of the century". The Guardian. Retrieved October 22, 2014. "Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom is a modern classic."
- Secher, Benjamin (August 20, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen: one of America's greatest living novelists?". The Telegraph (UK). Retrieved October 22, 2014. "If Freedom doesn't qualify as a Great American Novel for our time, then I don't know what would."
- Grossman, Lev (August 12, 2010). "Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist". TIME. Retrieved October 22, 2014. "Freedom feels big in a different way, a way that not much other American fiction does right now."
- Buell, Lawrence. "American literature's holy grail: The hunt for the Great American Novel". Salon. Retrieved February 16, 2014.
- Buell, Lawrence. (2014). The Dream of the Great American Novel. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674051157
- 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.