What Is “The Great American Novel” All About?

~post by Brian C.

On the last Sunday of every month, a ramshackle group of close readers get together to talk about a novel. This group has been meeting for five years, and we call ourselves The Voyage Out Book Group. We read in three month cycles centered on a particular region. We consider it a cheap way to travel. Some of the regions we’ve visited include Japan, India, the Balkans, and Texas.

We’ve been having a blast, and we aren’t about to stop anytime soon. We’d love to see you, so come on by.

Our current region is less of a region and more of a concept—The Great American Novel. We will take three months to explore the idea of the GAN. We started with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. We’ll move on to read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Our last book will be Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. I’ll post the whole schedule below.

You can tell by our choice of Lolita, that we may have some members of the group who don’t take the GAN concept very seriously. I may be one of those members. That being said, we thought enough of the concept to think about it for three months. Why such attraction and repulsion? I thought I’d enlist the help of a few experts.

I asked Jenn Shapland to answer a few questions. Jenn is working towards her PHD in the UT Department of Rhetoric & Writing, and is a top notch bookseller, essayist, editor, and archivist. I asked the same questions of scholar Jim Ferguson, who was one of the first scholars to recognize and study the short fiction of William Faulkner, and has since retired from a lifetime of teaching and researching and writing American Literature. To marry the ideas of these two scholars is the perfect way to further our debate about what the GAN concept really is.

I don’t want to get in the way of their thoughts, so I’ll simply show you the questions I asked, and the answer given. I hope you find this as interesting as I do, and I hope you’ll join us this month on October 27th to discuss Housekeeping.

*     *     *     *     *

Q: Both in terms of specific novels and in terms of an idea, what is the “Great American Novel”?

Jenn: I’ll be honest: I have problems with the words “Great,” “American,” and “Novel.” Or, at least, I think they all require quite a bit of definition. Taken according to their traditional usage, these three words bring to my mind images of Moby Dick and Jonathan Franzen’s smug visage. So, in that case, “Great” refers to the physical heft of the work and the size of the author’s ego; “American” means privileged, white, and male; and “Novel” is a longish text with a clear beginning, middle, and end, often divided into chapters, that first appears in hardback and later appears on Oprah.

Jim: I discovered the concept of “The Great American Novel” when I was a teenager desperately trying to read all the “classics” and to keep up with current intellectual and esthetic concerns.  Impatient editors and critics spoke yearningly–and sometimes angrily–of our failure to produce such a work, and they sometimes nominated promising writers who might conceivably create this masterpiece.  At one time they had hoped that Thomas Wolfe would do it, but, alas, he died in 1938.  Could Steinbeck write it?  Unlikely.  Hemingway?  No.  Surely someone–some “Sensitive Young Man”–would mature into the genius who was capable of creating “The Great American Novel.”

But what did they mean by this concept?  What kind of book would the novel be?  I think they were beset by strong feelings of inferiority brought on by their awareness of the great novels of the Russians, the French, the English.  Surely War and Peace, for example, was the supreme achievement of Russian literature.  Why couldn’t some American writer duplicate Tolstoy’s triumph?  To do so, he or she would have to write a genuinely American novel, in its style and idiom thoroughly of the New World, with a vast sweep and scope, extraordinary lyricism, and a profound understanding of the American psyche and of our dreams and aspirations.

One writer, now largely forgotten, almost did so. I believe Ross Lockridge set out quite deliberately to write “The Great American Novel,” Raintree County, a work concerned with nineteenth-century Indiana and the Civil War, which was published in 1948.  It had, to a degree, all the characteristics I’ve noted above and was widely praised by distinguished critics.  But somehow it didn’t quite fulfill Lockridge’s ambitions,  and no one was quite willing to call it “The Great American Novel.”  Deeply depressed, the young writer killed himself some months after the publication.  The novel was subsequently made into a dull movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. (I failed to find even Lockridge’s name in the several literary reference books I consulted.  However, it can be found on the Web, where it is associated with– guess what!–“The Great American Novel.”)

raintree county

Q: Do you find the concept of the “Great American Novel” helpful? Does the idea have a positive or negative influence in the real world?

Jenn: The GAN is not a concept I use very often. As a reader, I’m drawn to the tradition of short story writing and to linked story collections, and that form speaks more to a plural American experience than the novel does, in my opinion. I also read a lot of work from authors outside the white male stereotype with which the GAN is associated, and the term doesn’t really make room for these.

In the real world? The GAN contributes to the continuing discrepancy between male and female authors published in the literary fiction realm. Someone like (let’s stick to our guns) Jonathan Franzen can write a family drama that gets called a GAN; a female writer who produced the same work would generally be filed under family drama, love story, unrequited love story, romance, YA, or possibly genre fiction. I think the term GAN is deployed in a way that severely limits the type of writer and the type of work that can participate.

Jim: As an adolescent I was quite aware of the concept.  Indeed, at one time I had the foolish ambition of writing “The Great American Novel”!  (I didn’t quite achieve it.) My impression is that the concept is no longer widely considered.  When critics use the term, they do so facetiously.  It’s a kind of joke.  Nevertheless, such discussions as the one we’re now having can be most useful because they compel us to examine our most fundamental beliefs about literature and the American psyche.

Q: What, if any exist, do you find are the characteristics of books considered in the
“Great American Novel” discussion? Would these characteristics fit with your idea, if you have one, of what the “Great American Novel” can/should be?

Jenn: It bites off more than it can chew.

Jim: I believe I have largely answered this question above.  But I should add that many of the most highly regarded American novels should not be considered under this rubric.  Such works as The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter are exquisitely composed, but they lack the largeness of scope that is one of the requisite qualities that we associate with the concept.  This is also true of the novels of Henry James, superb as they are.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the greatest American novel, and does it fit inside the overall concept of the “Great American Novel”?

Jenn: The greatest American novel I’ve read lately is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I like it because she messes with all the usual suspects for the GAN and turns the form upside down, suggesting something totally new for what it means to be a novel, to be great, and to be American. Toni Morrison’s Beloved does something similar for me. Those two books kind of burn down the GAN house.

But seriously, what about some other Great American genres? The Great American Essay Collection: Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem. The Great American Short Story Collection: Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger. The Great American Memoir: Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water.

Jim: As the above suggests,  we should always distinguish between the concept of “The Great American Novel” and our favorite works of American fiction.  Discussions of American masterpieces will often center on such works as Moby Dick or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These are marvelous works, but they are also badly flawed.  If I had to choose one of them as the greatest American novel, it would be Moby Dick, but is Melville’s work specifically American in character? It has, I think, more affinities with Shakespeare than with Whitman.  One other candidate might be Faulkner’s glorious Absalom, Absalom!, but it too is a most uneven work that tells us more about what it is to be a Southerner than an American. In any case, none of our “great” books qualify as “The Great American Novel.”


Thank you to Jenn and Jim for their thoughts. If you have any thoughts on this subject, feel free to post them below. If you’d like to talk face to face about this concept, do so on the following dates:

October 27th @5pm – Robinson’s Housekeeping
November 24th @ 5pm – Yates’ Revolutionary Road

You can always keep up with and join the Voyage Out at the following places:

Twitter – @VoyageBookGroup
Email – thevoyageoutbookgroup@bookpeople.com
Blog – http://thevoyageoutbookgroup.wordpress.com/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/groups/35939351535/

4 thoughts on “What Is “The Great American Novel” All About?

  1. First of all, why would you think that the person suggesting “Lolita” as an entry for The Great American Novel “wasn’t being serious”? Have you even read it? Or is that a knee-jerk feminist reaction? It is a great book, and, yes, maybe it is TGAN. It certainly is one of the funniest books ever written about America. Second, Why does this blog not even mention Phillip Roth’s “The Great America Novel”? Roth, like Nabokov, is a writer of supremely subtle, ironic hilarity, as that title suggests, but you seem totally unaware of it or of the hackneyed debate over “TGAN.”

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