When I was a kid, boys (not girls, in those prehistoric times) dreamed of being the first man on the moon. Once Neil Armstrong took that one small step in 1969, the dream became superfluous. Boys, again, used to talk about growing up to be President of the United States. That’s a dream that’s still available but has surely lost a great deal of its luster. With the paradigm shift in the book industry and the proliferation of electronic words, I doubt that young writers are dreaming about writing the Great American Novel. Besides, it’s already been written—more than once.
According to Wikipedia, “the phrase [Great American Novel] derives from the title of an essay by American Civil War novelist John William DeForest, published in The Nation on January 9, 1868.” As an old English major, I know that much of American literature, even in the early 20th century, looked to English literature for its role models and heroes. Henry James is probably the best example of an American novelist inspired by Europe. His settings, his vision of society, and his leisurely, tortuous sentences evoked the Old World, not the vigorous frontier.
The Great American Novel had to be set in America as seen by Americans, not through the filter of British or European attitudes. Its American characters had to demonstrate American values: individualism, social and economic mobility, a robust egalitarianism. They had to tell stories that could only happen in America in some version of the American language.
Here’s my list of the novels I think deserve the title:
1. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The least debatable and still delightfully readable Great American Novel. Set in the heartland, with the Mississippi River as its central metaphor, it’s a great example of the always popular coming of age novel. It tackles the core American issues of freedom vs slavery and independence vs conformity. Furthermore, Mark Twain made brilliant use of the American language—more than most modern readers realize—by rendering the subtleties of local dialect at each point along the river as Huck’s raft floated down it. I read the book aloud to my son when he was 8, and it held up marvelously as a masterpiece of storytelling with suspense, compassion, and humor.
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The unreadable Great American Novel. It’s the mighty story of man against whale, in a ponderous poetry that some people might still tackle for pleasure, but tough going for most modern readers. I had to laugh when someone on DorothyL complained about mysteries that bore us by telling more than we want to know about fishing. Melville devoted hundreds of pages to how to catch, cut up, and cook the whale. He also gave us the ultimate vision of the New England whaler.
3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The 20th century Great American Novel. It’s about secrets and justice and childhood (a girl’s, this time, though a sturdy tomboy of a girl) and race relations and small town life—American as apple pie.
4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The unsung Great American Novel, my personal pick and the only one on my list that Wikipedia doesn’t mention in its article on the topic. I believe it’s disregarded because it’s for and about and read by girls and women. Yet the language is as fresh and everyday today as it was in 1868. It’s probably never been out of print, it’s been adapted many times for stage and screen, and I’m one of many thousands, perhaps millions, of women who know this beloved book practically by heart, who return to it time and again for another visit with the March girls, who still cry when Beth dies, and whom Jo inspired to become writers.
It’s probably a shame that there will be no more Great American Novels. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help would be a grand contender, but who can tell if people will still be reading it even half a century from now? And what about graphic novels? Are they meant to be cherished and reread or scrolled through and deleted? Would the first Superman comic book or the first Spiderman be a candidate for Great American Graphic Novel?
True confession: I was crying over one of Louisa May Alcott’s books on my Kindle in the subway the other day. (Okay, I’ll tell you which one: Rose in Bloom, the sequel to Eight Cousins. When I was a kid, we used to call it “the Jewish Alcott book.” Rosenblum—get it?) When I reached my stop, I sat down on one of the benches in the station to finish the chapter (which I’d read umpteen times before) before I went out into the sunshine and had to put away the Kindle. I bet some women readers can guess which chapter, too. Now, that’s what I call durable literature!