Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Great American Novel

Elizabeth Zelvin

Do young writers still talk about writing the Great American Novel? I suspect it’s one of those concepts that persists even after it’s already happened. I think we’ve already got more than enough contenders. 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.

I knew I could find the origin of the term Great American Novel, and the Internet did not let me down. According to Wikipedia, “the phrase 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 looked to English literature for its 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. I confess I enjoyed and even studied Henry James without having a clue what his stories were about until, decades later, I saw them as movies.

The Great American Novel has to be set in America as seen by Americans, not through the filter of British or European attitudes. Its American characters have to demonstrate American values: individualism, social and economic mobility, a robust egalitarianism. They have to tell stories that could only happen in America in some version of the American language.

Gosh, I do sound like an old English major, don’t I! Let me just give you my candidates:

1. 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.

2. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The 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.

3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Another great book that made a great movie (with Gregory Peck, who also starred as Ahab in Moby Dick), this seems to be practically everybody’s 20th century favorite, from literate DorothyLers (who of course point out it’s a mystery) to MySpacers who admit they hardly read anything. 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 as a candidate. 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.

So how about the Great American Mystery? I admit the traditional mystery has English origins. My blog sisters and I are Poe’s Deadly Daughters because Edgar Allan Poe, an American, invented the detective story, but it could be argued that as literature, Poe's work was as European as that of Henry James. We’re also daughters of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, both quintessentially English writers. But how about their New World heirs? What could be more American than Laura Lippman’s Baltimore, Margaret Maron’s North Carolina, Dana Stabenow’s Alaska, or Nevada Barr’s National Parks? And few dispute that the private eye novel is an American form of the genre, from its roots in the work of Hammett and Chandler to its many modern practitioners, both male and female.

So what’s your pick for Great American Mystery? The Maltese Falcon? The Bootlegger’s Daughter? The polls are open! Click on Comments to name your candidate.


Mitzi said...

The Great American Mystery? My votes would be for"
The Murders in the Rue Morgue
The Gold Bug
The Purloined Letter

Of course they're not really novel-length -

Sandra Parshall said...

Like other literate DLers, I consider To Kill a Mockingbird a great American novel, period, and also a great mystery. I can't think of any other novel that so well represents the struggles of this country contrasted with its enduring values and virtues.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I'd have to vote for:
not strictly a mystery but lovely reading and "different."

And THE MALTESE FALCON, one of my favorites.

Great thoughts, Liz

Julia Buckley said...

I'd have to vote for something by Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald, although Mignon Eberhart's Susan Dare is a sort of neat hard-boiled alternative.

Anonymous said...

I'll vote for Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird for great American novel. Neither of those books will ever leave my mind.

Great American Mystery? I'm stumped on that. It may be a recent one like Bootlegger's Daughter, but I think time will have to tell.

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