Thursday, April 19, 2012

Durable Literature: The Great American Novel

Elizabeth Zelvin

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!


Susan said...

I enjoyed your comments about each of these novels. When I was teaching high school English, my students knew that my most hated novel was Moby Dick. Besides its ponderous prose, its value was ruined for me by college professors asking truly inane questions about it on essay tests. I'm surprised The Great Gatsby didn't make your list: nine beautifully condensed chapters about what has happened to The American Dream by the Twenties.

Julia Buckley said...

Yes, a lovely list. I suppose if we judge a novel's greatness by how often we think about it and its themes, then I would also add Gatsby (which I've taught so often that I can quote large chunks of it by heart) and also The Scarlet Letter. No one really loves that Puritan setting, but the beautiful things that Hawthorne says about love and forgiveness are never far from my mind.

I am also a big Edith Wharton fan, and many of her works--MY ANTONIA, ETHAN FROME, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH--are worthy of the list.

And of all Steinbeck's great works, I think my favorite and one that truly earns the title "great" is EAST OF EDEN.

Diane said...

Of course there will be more Great American novels. Not one of the books you or the other posters mentioned were written at the same time period. I'm sure when they were first published that - while readers enjoyed them - they weren't labeled 'great American novels'. That comes with time.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, er, isn't My Antonia by Willa Cather? I wonder how many people outside English classes read either wharton or Cather or even Steinbeck nowadays. I'd put Edna Ferber's Giant in that category too--but I'm not sure I ever read the book. The movie, with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, was memorable, but that's another story.

JJM said...

Nice commentary on these novels, and I agree with your nominations. I also agree with Diane: great novels are identified only later, not within their own generation. Certainly it took a long time for Moby Dick, my one favourite novel of all the ones I "had" to read in high school. Back then, I read it simply as an adventure tale and fascinating a reflection of a way of life and a mind-set of a hundred years before. (I was hopelessly in love with history even as a child.) It wasn't until I first re-read the book as an adult, however, that I fully came to appreciate it. That thing just blew me away ... its language, in the cadence of the King James Bible. Its soliloquys like arias. The growing sense of madness and the world going wrong. The horror of young Pip, treading water in the middle of the ocean without a ship in sight. The slow and inexhorable progress of the whale, first presented (in effect) as just one object within a clutter of other objects pertaining to the business of whaling, to his final apotheosis when he takes his revenge and Ishmael alone survives to tell thee the tale ... I revere that book, and re-read it periodically, finding new glory in it every time. Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn in my mind stand head and shoulders above any other American novel.--Mario

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm so happy what I wrote has sparked discussion. My point about future "great" novels is that I'm not sure novels in the age of e-readers and six-week shelf life for books in bookstores will be able to survive long enough to build a reputation over time.

Lev Raphael said...

Moby Dick isn't solely set in America. I think that's an unnecessary stricture. Novels by Americans abotu Americanness should count. I nominate The Portrait of a Lady by James, the all-time classic about the conflict between the New World and Europe. Ditto James Baldwin's Another Country.

Alan Cook said...

I agree with all of the above choices. Edna Ferber wrote some important books, also, including Show Boat, which was made into a musical.

Julia Buckley said...

Yes, sorry--Cather wrote Antonia. Weird brain thing happening there.

But that's a great American book too. :)

I only ever taught MOBY DICK in a condensed form in a textbook, so I can't claim to have taught the whole giant novel--but what I read, I loved. Such a beautiful study of obsession, of man versus nature, of basic conflict. And a powerful use of symbolism. But I can attest that it is NOT popular with students in general.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lev, I loved Portrait of a Lady when I read it in college--I had a quotation on my bulletin board about Isabel Archer having an unquenchable desire to think well of herself (near the beginning)--but I confess it wasn't until I saw the movie many years later that I realized that it's a story about spouse abuse.

JJM said...

"Moby Dick isn't solely set in America. I think that's an unnecessary stricture." I agree with you, Lev, that the stricture is unnecessary, but one could still argue that the Pequod is a small, sea-faring part of America. Once she sets sail, there is no further contact with land, and only a fleeting contact with another ship.

I also wonder if the stricture about seeing America only through the eyes of Americans is entirely true. Yes, the GMN should be written by an American, but couldn't the viewpoint character be, say, British? One often sees more clearly through the eyes of "the other", the outsider, and a clever writer could use use a "filter of British or European attitudes" to good advantage.--Mario

JJM said...

My apologies. GMN should have been GAN, Great American Novel. Should have proof-read more carefully.

JJM said...

Elizabeth Zelvin wrote: "My point about future "great" novels is that I'm not sure novels in the age of e-readers and six-week shelf life for books in bookstores will be able to survive long enough to build a reputation over time."

The six-week shelf life is a problem, but Amazon has more patience overall with its print books, and since e-books do not take up physical space the publishers, Amazon, et al. might well keep them available for the long-tail profits. I'm not saying that's how it will play out, but it might.

♥ Debra Lynn ♥ said...

I read Little Women for the 300th time last night and for the 300th time, I cried when Beth died. Also, I still want to be a writer like Jo. Thank you for that spot-on review.

On a side note: I didn't care for "The Help."

Anonymous said...

These are all awesome novels. I never read some, but I heard so much about these novels. Huckleberry Finn is my favorite since I already read it and I also do recommend it to anyone especially those who loves adventure.

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