What is the Great American Novel?

Considering how much time and effort is spent defining the Great American Novel, the concept’s meaning is rather elusive. And given the breadth and diversity of the American experience, one has to wonder if it is even possible for a single book to capture the essence of this country. Nevertheless, it’s a notion that many people spend a lot of time thinking about.

It’s also something that I’m going to spend a lot of time grappling with as I work through my Pulitzer Prize Project (in which I try to read every book that has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). Since the Pulitzer’s mandate is to reward an American author for a work that preferably deals with American life, one could argue that its legacy is tied very closely to the quest for the Great American Novel. As such, I thought it would be helpful for me to try to define just what the Great American Novel is and what it should do.

When the term “Great American Novel” was coined by John William De Forest in 1868, he floated some possible contenders but ultimately concluded that it hadn’t been written yet. More than 150 years and countless American novels later, is that still the case?

The American Dream and the Great American Novel

The first problem is figuring out what exactly the Great American Novel is supposed to be. I did a poll on my YouTube channel to see what people think of when they hear the term, and the majority of people referenced another elusive ideal: the American Dream. That is, most people believe that the Great American Novel would have to deal with the promise of a better life and the reality that this is actually very difficult to achieve. It would have to grapple with the notion that anyone in the United States can improve their situation if they work hard.

This isn’t inherently an immigrant story, but it’s also not not an immigrant story. Because what was America (as we know it) built on but the promise that if you come here and put in the work, you can achieve success beyond your wildest dreams?

The story gets complicated, though, because if the United States was built on an immigrant story, it paved over the indigenous nations that already existed here. And if immigrants came here willingly to try their hand at the American Dream, then what of the enslaved population that didn’t decide to come here? Not only are both of these populations traditionally absent from the narrative of the Great American Novel, but both also represent populations that traditionally haven’t had access to the American Dream.

But we’ll talk more about that later.

It makes sense that so many people equate the American Dream with the Great American Novel because America has spent a lot of time and energy marketing itself as a place where anyone can make it if they just work hard. Just ignore the systemic roadblocks, gatekeeping, and the way the richest Americans control who has access to what. Believing in that dream and pursuing it against all odds is something quintessentially American, and it leads to great narrative tension.

Is The Great Gatsby the Great American Novel?

Since the majority of people think the Great American Novel should be about the American Dream, perhaps it’s not so surprising that the novel most people name as their choice for Great American Novel is none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It’s a Jazz Age story about a man who rents a bungalow next to the home of Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic multi-millionaire who throws lavish parties while pining away for Daisy Buchanan, his lost love.

What’s significant about Jay Gatsby is that he’s supposed to embody American success (and excess), but his life and image are a lie. Born James Gatz, he is a first-generation American who made his fortune bootlegging. The fact that he had to erase his original identity to achieve the American Dream reveals a lot about what life in the United States is really like. We market ourselves as a nation of immigrants (with no regard for our Indigenous population), but we have a history of anti-immigrant policies and sentiments. We say anyone can make it here, but we frown on anyone with the wrong background, career, education, religion, and ethnicity. We act like there are no limits to what is possible in this country even as we help impose fierce social restrictions. We just don’t talk about the bad parts out loud.

The Great Gatsby wasn’t a critical or financial success when it was published. Its status grew after it was among books that were provided for free to soldiers during WWII. From there, its reputation has flourished. And while there are a lot of people who aren’t fans of The Great Gatsby, I would defend it. It’s not what I personally would name as the Great American Novel, but it would probably be in my top five.

What I find most interesting about how frequently Gatsby tops the conversation about what book best represents the Great American Novel is the grim shadow it leaves on the title.

Is The Great American Novel Actually a Critique?

You might guess that the Great American Novel is something of a propaganda piece: a way to make this country look good and more palatable. To some extent, it is. But the opposite is actually true: when people talk about the Great American Novel, they’re actually talking about books that reveal the complicated underbelly of this nation. After all, what is The Great Gatsby if not an indictment of the American Dream as a lie?

If you leave Gatsby out of the equation, the novels that came up most frequently in my poll were The Grapes of Wrath, Lonesome Dove, and In Cold Blood. Authors who were mentioned at least twice but either not for the same book or more for their body of work were William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and James Michener. These are books and authors that interrogate the notion of what it is to be American and reveal uncomfortable truths. Even Lonesome Dove, which looks like a western epic, is subverting American mythmaking by using its quintessential mythological format: the western (don’t believe me? I have a whole video about it already). James Michener is the only outlier who wasn’t directly calling Americana into question.

(To my earlier point about how the Pulitzer Prize seems inextricably linked to the notion of the Great American Novel, it bears mention that most of the books and authors I just mentioned were winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: Lonesome Dove, The Grapes of Wrath, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and even James Michener)

So interestingly, audiences primarily define the Great American novel as something subversive. But only to a point.

Native Americans and Racial Complications

If there’s anything most Americans don’t like, it’s being forced to reckon with this country’s brutal history with slavery and Native Americans. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that both Native Americans and black citizens have been largely left out of the conversation about the Great American Novel. Toni Morrison is pretty much the only exception.

So when you ask people about what they think of as the Great American Novel, you aren’t likely to hear about The Color Purple. You probably won’t hear anyone extoll the virtues of Louise Erdrich or recommend A House Made of Dawn (which was the first novel by a Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction). No one will bring up James Baldwin (who was gay in addition to being black). You won’t find Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. And while you will find books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Nella Larsen’s Passing on lists of classic books, even people who like them most likely won’t connect them with the elusive title of Great American Novel (although Invisible Man does get a passing mention on the Wikipedia page devoted to the Great American Novel).

Instead, you’ll hear about novels by white authors that deal with the topic of race or the Civil War. Gone With the Wind is, perhaps, inevitable (although I would strenuously make a case against it). Light in August. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And although I personally love it, there’s no denying that To Kill a Mockingbird fits, too.

If you’ve noticed that the only Native items I’ve mentioned are A House Made of Dawn and the works of Louise Erdrich, that’s because there is still a dearth of Native stories and authors getting published. You may also notice that I haven’t referenced any Asian American or Latinx authors. It’s the same story there, although at least Asian American authors have Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club to throw in the ring.

In real life, the American Dream is only really accessible to people who have been deemed acceptable. That means mostly white, heterosexual, middle-class men. If you’re too off-white, queer, or poor, your access begins to shrink. And the world of fiction is only interested in representing this population as well. At least, that’s been the case historically. The publishing industry has been expanding in recent years, but progress has been slow. And parallel to the push for diversity in publishing, we need to push for diversity in what we think of as great literature.

Who Else is Left Out?

Surprisingly, one name I haven’t heard pop up much at all is the one belonging to the man who was perhaps the first notable American writer: Mark Twain. To be fair, academics do float around Mark Twain’s name, but I find it interesting that an author who is so quintessentially American in reputation, and whose works have remained popular to this day, is forgotten by the public. Maybe that has something to do with the impression that his most famous books (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) are now thought of as books for young audiences. Given how ubiquitous they are in school curriculums, I don’t think the problem is visibility or awareness.

The stigma of being aimed at young audiences is probably why Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women is also infrequently considered for the title.

You will hear references to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but there don’t seem to be many people willing to muster the enthusiasm to make a case for the weighty tome outside of academia.

You’ll hear Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, but otherwise women authors don’t turn up as much as you might expect. I didn’t see a single mention of Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Pearl S. Buck, Betty Smith, or Carson McCullers.

And since the title itself stipulates that we should be looking for a novel, you don’t see notable short story writers like Flannery O’Connor or Raymond Carver.

LGBTQ+ authors and stories also tend not to factor in–largely because our stories have traditionally been kept to the shadows. Despite the progress we’ve made, in a nation that is currently seeking to strip away the rights we have earned while simultaneously denying trans citizens their rights, that continues to be the case. So you won’t hear about Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance, or other queer stories.

Also notably absent are genre authors of all stripes and colors. Science fiction authors like Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury won’t get a mention (perhaps because the reaches of outer space feel a bit broader than the confines of The United States). Even authors who flirt with science fiction like Kurt Vonnegut won’t be found in most conversations about the Great American Novel. Romance is a nonstarter and so are any books geared toward Young Adult audiences or younger. The closest genre fiction comes to the Great American Novel conversation is unsurprisingly the most American genre of them all: the western.

Is the Great American Novel About the American Story?

Another line of thinking is that if there is a Great American Novel, it should tell the American story. That’s probably why you see so many Civil War novels mentioned as contenders for the title: the Civil War is one of the most significant events in American history and it’s a conflict that is uniquely American (unlike, say, WWI or WWII). It’s also why you see some books that deal with race and racism break through (but only if they meet the aforementioned criteria). That’s why Toni Morrison’s Beloved is such a good contender for the title: it’s a novel that directly deals with the legacy of slavery and points out how the United States will never really be able to move forward unless it reckons with the ghosts of slavery.

This is also why western novels are able to get over their genre status to be considered. And no western has a better claim to the title of Great American Novel than Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, an epic Pulitzer Prize-winner from 1985. This is appropriate because, like The Great Gatsby, Lonesome Dove seems like a great American story on the surface, but when you look closer it’s actually subversive.

On the surface, Lonesome Dove is the story of two retired Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Gus McRae, who decide to leave their titular hometown on the Texas-Mexico border to embark on a dangerous cattle drive to Montana. Ostensibly, it’s an adventure story about two cowboys leading their men through dangerous obstacles to achieve their goal.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this since I’ve already done a whole deep dive on Lonesome Dove as part of my Pulitzer Project, but what’s truly glorious about the novel is that McMurtry is actually calling the very nature of the American story into question. Significantly, Call and Gus don’t have any real reason to go on this adventure in the first place. They already have a home that works just fine for them. They go to conquer Montana just because it’s there, they want to be the first white men to take advantage of what this territory (newly opened up from the Native population) has to offer, and they want an adventure to prove that they are still vital. If that’s not a veiled critique of Manifest Destiny, I don’t know what is.

Furthermore, as Gus and Call make their way north there are some staggering moments of solemnity about what is being done to the land by white men and how it is being changed now that Native populations are being forced out. And significantly, women are given real voices in this novel and allowed to be deep, complex characters. At first, I was put off that one of them is a prostitute, but McMurtry is careful to use her character to show the limited options women were given at the time and allows her to be a person of remarkable strength and fortitude. And the best cowboy in Gus and Call’s outfit is a black man–a fact that is almost incidental to members of the group who know his worth, but immediately becomes an issue when outsiders bring their prejudices into the narrative.

My deep dive on Lonesome Dove centered around the question of whether or not it is the Great American novel, so you can see that this is a question I’ve been grappling with for a while. My conclusion was that Lonesome Dove probably comes the closest to capturing the broad range of good and bad that the United States represents. I guess that means that personally, I am partial to the interpretation of the Great American Novel as representative of the American story. But is that enough?

Is There Any One Great American Novel?

This may sound like a cop-out, but my opinion on this matter is that there is no single book that can represent the American story, just like I don’t believe that any one person can represent the whole of this nation. America is too vast, too diverse to sum up in a single experience. Selecting one book would inevitably leave a glaring blind spot.

For my money, Lonesome Dove comes the closest to touching on all the different American experiences, but I can’t help but wonder if John William De Forest was onto something. Maybe the Great American Novel isn’t something that exists so much as it’s an ideal we continue to strive for.

The best you can do is resort to a list. The Pulitzer Prizes are a good place to start since they are uniquely focused on finding great American stories every year–and while the quality varies, the books they have selected tell a fascinating story about this country and what it values over time (and how those values change). You could also make your own shortlist of Great American Novels. Mine would include The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Beloved by Ton Morrison, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, My √Āntonia by Willa Cather, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. It’s an imperfect list, but it’s a start. I hope to add to it over time.

And I hope that we as readers begin to broaden our definition of what constitutes great literature to give more authors and stories the chances they deserve to be considered great.

What is the Great American Novel?

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