The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions

July 10, 2013 | 12 books mentioned 111 14 min read

570_Great America
The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life.  We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.

So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.

We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below.  Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.

We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.

coverAdventures of Huckleberry Finn

Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University

How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.

Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.

Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?

If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.

coverThe Ambassadors

Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography

The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.

“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.

But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”

Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”

At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?


Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas

John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.

He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.

A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.

DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.

coverThe Godfather

Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America

Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.

The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?

Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.

The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.

Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.

After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.

coverInvisible Man

Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry

It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.

The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.

“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”

And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.

Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.

Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?

coverThe House of Mirth

Kirk Curnutt, Troy University

On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.

Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.

The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.

My only compensation?

I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market


Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum

Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.

But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.

In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.

Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.

Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.

Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.

coverThe Making of Americans

Priscilla Wald, Duke University

When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.

Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”

The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.


Hester Blum, Penn State University

Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.

There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.

What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?

Image via Wikimedia Commons

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. There will never be such a thing as the Great American Novel. No one work can stand for a diverse, evolving, society that is less one people than a threading of all peoples.

  2. Three things:

    1. JR.
    2. The Godfather? A country that’s produced, among many others, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Twain, Hawthorne, on and on and on…and someone picked the Godfather?
    3. Man, some of these academics manage to suck all the fun out of these novels. I’m glad I can read Huck Finn as a good ol-fashioned adventure story and not as one grand allegory for the thesis “white people are the problem”, and I’m glad that never in a million years would I have strained my brain to correlate the Corleone family with Vietnam. I get it, these people are paid to tunnel deeply into books, but golly, ease up on the symbolism.

  3. It’s just Invisible Man,, no “The.” The the goes with the H.G. Wells novel. Solid choice, although Moby Dick is still the correct answer.

  4. Three great American novels from the late 20th century that should be mentioned:
    Mason & Dixon
    Blood Meridian
    Infinite Jest

  5. “The Godfather” over “To Kill a Mockingbird?” “The Ambassadors” over “The Sound and the Fury?” The list must be expanded to include to many more fine novels, I should think. Nevertheless, thanks for the suggestions.

  6. The Godfather is garbage. And it didn’t resurrect Hollywood. That is a ridiculous statement. The Godfather came smack dab in the middle of the New Hollywood era. You could make an argument that it was Bonnie & Clyde or Easy Rider that resurrected Hollywood, but not The Godfather. That makes no sense.

  7. A pretty dusty, run-of-the-mill list, sadly. The most recent of these was published almost forty years ago. Five of the nine were published before 1930 (and only two were published after the mid-60s). Sure, they might be good or great books, but once we start reaching 100 years into the past, you gotta wonder how much you’re following the spirit of the “Great American Novel” instead of just regurgitating all the tried & true classics. Remember that John William DeForest was arguing that the novel that came closest to the “Great American Novel” was one that had been published less than twenty years prior.

    There have been many, many potential Great American Novels published since 1975, a handful of them mentioned above (Infinite Jest, Blood Meridian, Mason & Dixon, J R (which was published in 1975, but you can also count Gaddis’s entire output as the Great American Oeuvre)). In fact, I think that would be a much more interesting topic : the Great American Author. Jamming America into a single novel doesn’t work, although I think tomes like Infinite Jest or The Recognitions come closest to achieving it.

  8. christ
    the recognitions, infinite jest and underworld… none of these are on there???
    yikes, i might have to reconsider my americana….

    just kidding, this list is way off. too bad.

  9. …to add insult to injury…
    this list is almost as suicide-inducingly deprogenic as The Guardian’s
    …one would have to compare the exact thickness and texture of the dust-layer covering each….
    a case of screaming neophobia

  10. Sometimes I think that the Stephen Wright’s GOING NATIVE is one of the Great American Novels. Kind of perfectly captures the American psyche in it’s current manifestation.

  11. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne would be my vote – read by every high school student in my days – still a great story.

  12. If I would have chosen something more contemporary it would have been Larry McMurtry’s *Lonesome Dove*. But for those who would find pre-C20 (or pre-C21!) novels “dusty,” you might revisit books like *Moby-Dick*–it (and others on this list) are dirty, funny, queer, surprising, and more postmodern than the postmodernists. Thanks for weighing in everyone.

  13. Hester– it’s not that these are bad novels (as I said before, I have no problem with Moby-Dick holding this title), it’s just unfortunate how the list ignores half a century of excellent (recent) American fiction while touting books everyone has heard all about hundreds of times before (hey, we’ve had quite a while to read ’em).

    Maybe the problem is asking career academics. They’ve no doubt taught these books so many times that they’re cemented in their brains as THE GREATEST. Maybe asking authors or even going so far as to ask literary critics would offer a more interesting list.

  14. “Lolita” is a surprising, inspired choice. (The brief essay supporting the choice is absolutely first-rate.)

  15. O.K., but if you were going to choose one Faulkner novel, which would it be? At least four of them are solid contenders; we could have a 100-comment argument on that topic alone.

  16. About Faulkner: I almost chose ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ as my novel, but I went with Ellison because it seemed (at least to me) a little more unexpected. ‘Absalom’ is such a fine, well-written novel.

    Part of this point of this piece was to generate spirited discussion about what was and wasn’t included. We’re all happy with the attention and debate so far.

  17. Gatsby needs to be on this list somewhere. Although probably a novella, Fitzgerald’s brilliance in depicting how all strata of Americans think , act and speak rings true still. This novel exposes America on so many levels perfectly… from its immigration issues, to economic issues, to wealth issues, trust, greed, lust, carelessness, corruption, gentility, and on and on and on – in only about 110 pages.

  18. The Grapes of Wrath is clearly a better choice than The Godfather. If you’re going to stipulate “American novel” as a means to distinguish the work from all other nationalities, the plight of the Joads is crucial. And the beautiful prose, the interchapters, and the heavy religious symbolism make this a top ten for me

  19. Most, if not all of these choices, are definitely great American novels. The Godfather being one I would clearly remove from the list. Its scope is too small.

    I feel it better to define a great American novel for each century. Huck Finn and Moby Dick definitely stick out for the 19th century but once the 20th century rolls around, the books of Faulkner, Hemingway, Barth, Steinbeck, Ellison, and a massive multitude of others begin to re-define what a great American novel is and what it says about the culture it is portraying.

    I find that Moby Dick is far more relevant today and what it states regarding the entire human experience and not just what was occurring in the 19th century. It seems to be larger than most novels of its time and is not just “American.” Huck Finn undoubtedly portrays a great many aspects of the American experience but is confined very much so to slavery and is too direct (though slavery is very much a part of America’s heritage and shame); I find Moby Dick to be far more metaphorical and allegorical. It is far better, in my opinion, at representing the entirety of experience through the lens of something entirely unrelated. For that matter, I find Bartleby, though a short story, FAR more relevant and still today, speaks volumes about the American experience more so than any novel I have ever read barring The Floating Opera and the End of the Road. When I first read, Bartleby, I was absolutely amazed that this short story was over a hundred years old…

  20. “Chronicles of Amber” by Roger Joseph Zelazny.

    A book series, that once you start reading them, you cant stop until the end. Magic, traveling by tarot cards. different worlds and time periods all connected by shadows. Immortal men and women battling for power and control is some of the most magical lands you can visit by the written page.

    It’s a must read for everyone and hardly ever mentioned in articles such as this. Get the “Great book of Amber”, read it, and if you do not agree its one of America’s greatest books,I’ll let you hit me with it, and its big and that is gonna hurt!

  21. Bernie: Hmm–I thought we WERE literary critics!

    I actually think it’s quite an unusual list–very few people have the patience to make it through “The Making of Americans,” surely no-one expected “The Godfather,” and “Corregidora” isn’t that well known. Having chosen one of the dustiest novels on the list–“The Ambassadors”–I take the point about the lack of contemporary fiction, especially as the striking thing about Henry James’s models is how contemporary they were: Flaubert, Balzac, Sand, Eliot, Meredith, Stevenson, Turgenev, Hawthorne. Of the other novels I would have chosen–Gatsby, Absalom, Lolita, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Gravity’s Rainbow, American Pastoral–only two are by living authors. That probably is in part a product of being an academic rather than a writer. But the remit was the greatest, and I’m pretty sure most people haven’t read “The Ambassadors,” or indeed most of James’s late fiction, so I stand by my choice!

  22. Nice to see The Godfather on the list. Someone gave the book to me years ago, I don’t even think I knew the movie was based on a book. I was hooked in minutes and finished it over the weekend. As a heavy reader friends will ask me for a good book to read and many times I will say “The Godfather”, they will look at me with skepticism and I’ll just say give it a try. Every one of them has returned the book a week later and said that was a great read.

    I have given my copies of Lolita, Moby Dick, The Invisible Man to several people and always hit or miss but everyone I gave my copy of The Godfather to read always returned it with a smile on their face.

  23. While not solving the problem of currentness, I would throw my lot with Jon Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy if I had to add a book. (Invisible Man would be my choice of those already listed.).

    I think Dos Passos does a better job of capturing the entirety of the American experience at that time. Of course, a trilogy is cheating a bit. Even so, The 42nd Parallel is a solid choice, I think, for “greatest American novel”. The style is impeccable, the scope grand, and, still, it maintains an intimacy and immediacy that is emotionally compelling. Any discussion that involves Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner ought, I think, to grapple with Dos Passos as well.

  24. Have none of ye learned tossers heard of Cormac mcCarthy’s Blood Meridian: or, The Evening Redness in the West? No book has ever illustrated the blood-mad anger and hatred that lies in the heart of the American Dream.

  25. The Catcher in the Rye. With The Great Gatsby a close second. In questions like this you gotta go canonical and you gotta go for breadth and influence. Catch-22 might be a better novel than both, but it’s overseas setting and the limiting genre of ‘War novel’ hamper it just slightly. Blood Meridian was a good entry. Of course Huck finn, Moby dick and The Scarlet Letter deserve to be in the conversation. Grapes of Wrath too I guess. Corregidora gets points for New Canon. Revolutionary Road would also align well in that sense.

  26. I’m jumping on the bandwagon of those that are disappointed that are disappointed by the lack of recent additions to the American canon on this book list.  Sure, there are some great novels on there (although, my eyebrow cocked at The Godfather, too) but if we change the question to the Great American Novel of Today’s America, what would you say? Here are some of my thoughts…
    -Phillip Roth, American Pastoral: sweeping, epic, tale that has been hugely influential on the development of the late-20th century novel.  Plus, its themes around post-modern dissolution of the idealized “American dream”  and the vacuum-like sense of loss this can create, the dangers of extremist perspectives, and the sanctified idealization of familial ties and paternal love…pretty post-modern American, I think.
    -Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: he reaches into our past to try to make sense of today’s cultural challenges. That strikes me as a pretty darn American move.  He explores outsider-ism, and struggles for familial and cultural identity, and acceptance of the mystic,  in the shifting American capitalist structure.    Plus, there’s a case to be made that comic books and their stories are the closest thing we have to a modern American mythology.
    -Cormac McCarthy, Anything He’s Written: His novels each seem to act as different manifestations of our deepest shared fears in this nation…apocalyptic loss, outsiderism, etc.

  27. “Invisible Man” is great, but better than “Native Son” by Richard Wright?

    I would put “In Cold Blood” on this list (does the non-fiction aspect of it rule it out)?

    And “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Death Comes for the Archbishop” are 2 books that I never tire of. They have such great primary characters.

  28. Every time I come to discussions like this, I look in vain for any discussion of Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country. Either his masterpiece is sorely underread, or I have a misplaced sense of America.

  29. I would have picked, “Last of the Mohicans”. James Fenimore Cooper must be the best writer of historical novels in English after Walter Scott.

  30. I once found a list that placed Moby-Dick at number six of the 100 greatest novels ever written, but that writer also called Melville a “transcendentalist” so we could give or take five places from that one.

  31. I would agree with “Lonesome Dove” and would add “Gone With the Wind,” unless we are too politically correct. For sheer narrative momentum, it can have few rivals.

  32. I don’t claim it’s THE Great American novel, but Stoner by John Williams (thanks NYRB) is a Great American Novel.

  33. “Invisible Man” is great, but better than “Native Son” by Richard Wright?

    Good god, a million times better.

  34. Folks, they asked academics their opinions on the Great American Novel. Suggest your own choices, but let Tom Ferraro have his.

  35. Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest (No Rabbit Run) …The Fixer – Malamud; Bellow: Henderson the Rain King; Bellow: Herzog; Roth: The Anatomy Lesson; What I Lived For: Oates; Suttree: McCarthy; a nine-way tie.

  36. I read Invisible Man a while back and agree with Joseph Fruscione that it is the great American novel. Ralph Ellison is able to capture the essence of “invisibility,” being present but not seen. As an author, I aspire to write as he had and I believe it is a book everyone should read.

  37. Hands down, the greatest American novel is Catch-22. I am still re-reading it 50 years after buying it as a 13 year old. I still have my original first edition copy.

    However, the greatest American novel for a “book club” discussion is the little known Replay by Ken Grimwood. There are nearly endless, fascinating discussion points including the purely speculative geometric progression of the two main characters’ “replay.”

    I have read many novels cover-to-cover at one sitting, but Replay is the first one which, upon finishing, I immediately turned back to page one and began reading again.

  38. *Grapes of Wrath*, *East of Eden*… I could get a bit of a theme rolling here. But that, for me, is America; not forgetting *To Kill a Mockingbird*.

  39. Therefore, after spending a long time on the internet eventually We’ve discovered an individual that definitely really does know what these are discussing cheers a great deal great post

  40. I have a couple of issues with this list:

    (1) Who picked the “experts?” Why are none of them from west of the Appalachians? Surely there are some legitimate experts in California, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, or Florida (some of the most populous states, all excluded from the list of experts). All I’m saying is that a more geographically and culturally diverse set of scholars (which more accurately represents America) would be a better bellwether.

    (2) America has evolved considerably over the years. Someone describing the Great American Novel in 1850 would have a decidedly different perspective than one in 1900, 1950, or 2013. Should we therefore dismiss all older books out-of-hand because “that’s not America anymore?” I don’t think so, so comments critical of older books by virtue of their age I think are off base.

    (3) To me, The Great American Novel will accurately reflect the idea that is America at a particular time or place. Does “The Godfather” or “Lolita” do that? Not to my way of thinking (by the way, I enjoyed both books). And “Moby Dick” has always been too ponderous and self-important. “House of Mirth” maybe, but I actually prefer “Age of Innocence.” I find it hard to believe that Steinback (“Grapes of Wrath” anyone?), Hemingway (“Old Man and the Sea,” A Farewell to Arms,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls?”), Fitzgerald (“The Great Gatsby?”) are omitted from the list. Most surprisingly, is the omission of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’d also be interested in the influence these (and other) scholars attribute to Ayn Rand.

  41. “Sometimes A Great Notion” by Ken Kesey is “The Great American Novel” or at least has a strong contender for the title.

    It captures the American themes of resistance to the irresistable, individualism vs collectivism, and the internal emotional insanity caused by our strange resistance to humanitly and spiritual wholeness.

    Kesey uses a unique and powerful form of narrative, with point-of-view and charactors’ internal and external dialogues changing almost seamlessly, so that as one reads, one is drawn into and understands the inevitability of distruction by our own internal contradictions.

  42. Contemporary post-1970s? I have to go with “Bonfire of the Vanities.” At least twice a year, this work of fiction comes to life as we become engulfed, and inundated, with one scandal after another. Different dates, names, faces, scandals, but you’ll see all the familiar players–vanities–line up to get their cut. True-blue American.

  43. I haven’t read three of the novels listed here. Of the ones named, I’m torn between Invisible Man and Moby-Dick as the best of the bunch. However, I’m appalled by the glaring, inexcusable absence of greats (and my perennial favourites) like Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Hawthorne, Vonnegut, Updike, (Cormac) McCarthy, Mailer, Baldwin, (Philip) Roth and sundry others. As a prolific reader of predominantly American literature for 20+ years, these debates and discussions are quite stimulating and fun–despite the undeniable futility of declaring with any degree of finality “The Greatest American Novel”. Darn, I’d say it’s Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’.

  44. I agree with Tim and Jack: let’s get some working class characters in here: Grapes of Wrath.

    And Mockingbird, for becoming, in some strange way, more luminous with age. Yes Kirby and Jeff!

    Poor Melville, so stomped-on during his miserable lifetime, deserves all the attention he can get. I vote for him too.

    Yes Gatsby, too. The American Melancholy.

    Lolita, forget it: who needs it?

  45. @Shelley
    I honestly found Grapes of Wrath rather bland and boring, overall. Sure, it’s a good story, and has its quality moments. I even fully endorse its pro-labour/working class stance and social critique and commentary. But I feel the book is somewhat over-rated. I still prefer Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’ more.

    Melville’s star sank south precipitously post-Moby Dick. I sense that all of his subsequent works, ‘Pierre’ et al, were universally, if somewhat unjustly, rated poorly and overlooked by readers and critics. Re: The Great Gatsby; it’s a very fine book indeed, though I always found the second half of the book far superior and way more riveting read than the first half. I even think a lengthier, more fleshed-out narrative would perhaps have made for a stronger story. But I guess, like most books by the late great Ray Bradbury (R.I.P), Fitzgerald’s ‘Gatsby’ is of the type packing more quality in its relative brevity, than books that are twice or more in length.

    By the way, anybody here think that the likes of Raymond Chandler, Paul Auster, William Styron, Thomas Pynchon would have been worthy citations in any debate concerning the ‘The Greatest American Novel’ or ‘Novelists’?

  46. James Agee wrote one of the most beautiful and moving books ever written: A DEATH IN THE FAMILY. It was produced as a play and a movie under the title ALL THE WAY HOME. Agee also wrote the screen plays for NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and THE AFRICAN QUEEN, which lodge in the memory, but you will never forget the poetic beauty and emotional impact of A DEATH IN THE FAMILY.

  47. True Grit, Revolutionary Road, Stoner, The Great Gatsby, Sneaky People, Appointment in Samarra — all great and American and novels.

  48. No mention of Atlas Shrugged (at least one commentor mentioned Ayn Rand…), or To Kill a Mockingbird (other than by commentors..). Lame list. And the racist deconstruction of Huck Finn is the work of a narrow minded, bigoted hack.

  49. What a racist, sexist pile of crap this whole event and writings are. How small these people must be to live in such a useless immature world within their tiny brains. Seems we have found the most racists and unknowledgeable people, they are here. Education doesn’t make one smart, in many cases such as here, it makes them ignorant, hateful small people brainwashed beyond being of any use to mankind.

  50. I’m with Sean–Gatsby and Catcher get to the heart of America–adolescence, money, and a lack of appreciation for how good life can be for those at the very top. If I had to pick from one of the nine, Invisible Man would be it. Can’t talk abut the USA without talking about race, class, disillusionments, and betrayal. Also I like the idea of having a Great American Author, not just one book.

    Ernest Gaines? August Wilson? Tennessee Williams?

    One last tough question: What is the greatest American novel of the 21st century?

  51. Interesting, aside from the “experts” bizarre analyses and apparent inability to grasp reality. At least no one incorrectly paints Uncle Tom as a villain, as is done so much in popular culture nowadays.

    Odd that no one mentioned important (if anti progressive) works like Fahrenheit 451 and Atlas Shrugged.

    On a rather obscure note, how about The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton? Prescient a generation after the author wrote it off as being off the mark.

    The point being that the “experts” and most of the previous posters lack diversity.

  52. I read Huck Finn in the early ’50s, and then was exposed to most of the other candidates over the ensuing decades—as an early teenager I think the way I comprehended Twain the first time through was the valid one—just a semiautobiographical reflection of a young Missourian and his fond feel for his early world—I think this review, and Hemingway’s characterization would have amused him as way beyond his thrust in writing those earlier novels.—If we must project such a sense of self-awareness among the great novelists, and a sense of oblique commentary on the immediate society/culture, then my vote goes with a couple of nominations above: Catch-22—Heller knew exactly what he was critiquing about Americans—and he was not writing exclusively a War Novel—being trapped in a life threatening scenario such as war served his theme of the subsuming of the individual to the flow of circumstances over which he has lost control—only the wily McNabb is able to return the circumstances to his control–the caprice of war is just the caprice of life, but more immediate and intense—again I don’t think Heller would have been surprised by such applications, but rather that they were conscious and intended—I think the movie disserved this concept by making it appear that Yossarian’s dilemma was unique to war—

  53. White people are the problem? White peoples IQ on average, 100, invented cars, airplanes, jets, rockets, trains, transplant surgery (really modern medicine), mechanized farming, arches, concrete, computers, software etc etc etc I’ll just leave it at that.

  54. I am from the generation that was finally able to overcome the institutional and sociological racism that was a part of American culture. I was born in 1957, in CA, so I never saw any segregation growing up. I was taught about it in school. To me, it was always some distant and foreign. I grew up in a predominantly white/ Hispanic neighborhood in san diego, ca. And, although I understood the difference between my best friend billy lopez, there was never any stated or defined difference between him and I. We were just kids in the neighborhood. It was not until I went to a catholic boarding school for high school that i was introduced to what would become a separation between myself and hispanics. the mexicans that i lived w/ during those years, wanted me to know and understand that they were not like me, that they had their own culture and way of life. they insisted on this difference, they were from east l.a. and i was not. I was friends w/ them, i spoke Spanish w/ them, went and stayed with them during the summers. it was also, from them, that i learned about “white people”, gringos,etc. They spoke about the unity of la raza, while at the same time, killed each other because they lived in a different neighborhood, or barrio. Not much has changed, they are killing each other more and more today. as for blacks, they too can’t stop killing each other. they glorify music that glorifies killing each other…for nothing. They vote democrat, and have for the last 50 years…based upon empty promises and hand outs. their leaders still scream racism, when all i can see is generational welfare and poverty. More now, today, than ever before. the word racism means nothing anymore. it is a money cry, a cash cow for race baiters like sharpton and jackson. The problem with white people, is that too many of them are still hostage to this idea of racism, that no longer exists. Is there racism? Of course there is, there always will be. However, the racism today comes from both sides, goes both ways. in the wake of the trayvon martin tragedy, we hear more and more about whites being attacked and killed by blacks in the name of trayvon. it is fake, manufactured, just like nbc doctoring a tape to make it sound like zimmerman is a racist, when we know he is not. too many whites still refuse to stand up and tell the world that we are not racist, never have been, never will be. This “professor” is like so many who claim to want to rid ourselves of racism, but scream the word every chance they get. it’s done, overplayed…gone.

  55. As he strode the line between the religious and scientific world views, I consider Hawthorne to have been one of the most important writers of any nation in his day. Maybe it’s because Americans are so inward looking that the “American” novel has to be about “American” ideas and realities. Then a guy like Hawthorne gets something universal going and he’s ignored.

  56. What is the greatest meal;
    Duc de la Orange?
    Hungarian Goulash?
    Or Fried Chicken?
    Where do you find the meaning of life; on top of the mountain or at the bottom of the cess pit?
    What best summarises the human experience; a piece of Dresden China, or a chamber pot?
    What is the Greatest American Novel?
    Where do you itch?
    Between your fingers?
    Outside of your elbow?
    The middle of your back?

    The Greatest American novel is;
    “Echo Burning” by Lee Child
    A nonsense answer to a nonsense question.
    If you think the true meaning of life is to be found under a horse turd in a gutter in a ghetto in a teeming dark metropolis on a dark and stormy night, read one of the authors selections.
    If you want to be amused for a few hours, a day or two, get a bag of chips and a Michael Connerly ‘Harry Bosch’ story.
    You want the meaning of life, get a Bible.

  57. “White people are the problem,” says the white Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland. Well, I must agree: she’s the problem.

  58. Yes, white people are the problem. If they told ‘other’ people to F off, figure your own sh1t out and quit riding our coat tails, that would help. Also, then ‘white’ politicians wouldnt feel the need to give away billions in goodies to win a vote, there would be no vote to win …. I am all for whites for white countries etc

  59. For all the talk of the need for diversity on campus (with regard to admissions) one cannot help but wonder when we will see more diversity of thought from those who would teach that diverse crowd of students. Race, gender, anti-capitalism. All save the last about Moby Dick, had reference to one of those things they see as the great sins of America. It makes me wonder how they are able to accept a pay check that surely derives from the ill-gotten gains of those sins.

  60. There is no single work that could be regarded as the best American novel (“Great American Novel” is a pompous rubbish). I tend to agree that three greatest American novelists have been Melville, James and Faulkner. So, perhaps, one could put “Moby”, “Portrait of a Lady”, “The Bostonians”, “The Wings of the Dove”, “Absalom, Absalom!”, “Light in August”, 3-5 other works in a category apart. Then, there are fine writers of one novel (or one novelette) like Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, Hawthorne, Fitzgerald,… In yet another category are prose writers who are indubitably significant, but are either of historical importance only, or are simply weaker (as novelists): Mark Twain, Dreiser, Hemingway, Edith Wharton,… As for Cormac McCarthy, Pynchon, Gaddis, Roth..they are too close to us, and it’s too early to say their works will endure (I think McCarthy will stay, but Pynchon will be forgotten- just my opinion). And- there is that ogre of PC gobbledygook and infantile nonsense a grown up man just won’t give a sh++: Salinger, Harper Lee, ..or journalist period pieces like Steinbeck’s, Wolfe’s, Capote’s etc. Last but not least: let’s not be parochial: the novel is to measured by the summits of works written by Cervantes, Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Conrad, Joyce, Kafka, Musil, Mann, …Only Faulkner and James can sustain the company of these authors (Melville’s work is a romance, not a true novel). A reminder from the Norwegians is illuminating: go to the 100 Norwegian Books club top 100,

  61. “My Life and Hard Times” by James Thurber. OK, it’s a not a novel but a collection of loosely connected short stories or humorous reminisces sort of in the tradition of the American tall tale. It’s not grand or sweeping or ambitious in its intent, but it offers a whiff of life in a certain American place at a certain American time and can be finished in one sitting. It offers no moral messages or metaphoric themes to speak of but it’s as funny as Twain and has scarcely aged.

    I imagine a high percentage of those who start it finish it. I’ve done so several times, usually after setting aside a partially read copy of Moby-Dick or some such list-worthy epic.

  62. The lack of a Faulkner work here signals a deterioration of reading skills. “The Godfather?” Give us literate folks a break!

  63. “White people are the problem…”

    Racism doesn’t rise to the level of thought. I feel soiled even commenting upon this. Such a statement comes from the sniffing rat part of the brain, pre-thought, gutter, sewer, garbage level of the animal brain…so startling to find it here expressed amid Literature, the kingdom of beauty and expression.

    Racist generalizations like the above are the opposite of what literature tries to express: the particular, the personal, the nuanced, the individual; again, the other end of the universe from a comment like that.

  64. Kevin,
    You do your credibility a great deal of harm by using apostrophes to make plurals as in “Gatsby’s,” “Ahab’s,” etc. It should be Gatsbys, Ahabs, Hester Prynnes, etc. How are we do give any credence to what you say if you can’t use proper English and punctuation?

  65. Arvan is right that there is no one great American novel but can’t agree with him about Mark Twain. He was not only an important historical figure but a great writer. As far as Harper Lee being PC since there really wasn’t PCness in 1960. It is a great novel.

  66. Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick don’t really come as a surprise, but I feel like the other choices were intended to be unexpected. That would at least explain the lack of Hemignway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.

    Also, saying that The Godfather is “the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close” is absolutely ridiculous. More influential than Vonnegut, Kerouac, Salinger or Roth? Perhaps that statement would have some credibility if the writer was referring to the film, but he wasn’t.

  67. A few critiques of the critic Tom Ferraro:

    I’m afraid Mr. Ferraro mistakes tribalism for capitalism. One of the motifs of The Godfather is tribalism, not capitalism. Capitalism, accurately defined, does not appear in the novel. The difference between the two terms is, for better or worse, that capitalism doesn’t care what tribe you came from. It only cares whether you invested in one enterprise or another. In the Godfather tribe is everything. There are many instances in Godfather where the various characters behave in markedly anti-capitalist ways to further their tribe (family).

    A more important theme that Ferraro missed mentioning is hypocrisy. Puzo illustrates Mafia hypocrisy when he portrays the various Dons attempts to excuse their tribal behavior by covering themselves with the politically correct veneer of claiming to be business men. He further exposes this moral deficit when he has the Dons publicly perform as pro-forma practicing Christians while having them privately behave as savage pagans which the readers are ultimately led to believe is their true nature. (As an aside, to the extent we identify and cheer on the Corleones it unfortunately exposes OUR true nature.)

    As to Ferraro’s contrasting “American stumbling intervention in Vietnam” with “Corleones’ tactical genius” he is confusing tactical genius with ruthlessness. There is nothing clever about ambushing men in barber chairs, elevators or on the marble steps of a large building. These essentially mindless acts have been done many times by quite stupid people who have run out of ideas (recall Dallas, 1963, Dealey Plaza, the Book Depository – et al . . .). The difference is in having the ruthless will to carry out your plan – a will the Americans did not have in Vietnam but the Russians did have this year in the Crimea.

  68. How sad that so much energy should be put toward a subject that, well, simply no longer matters. The Balkanization of American literature is complete; it has been for some time. Can anyone name one novelist who has emerged since 1975 who could ever be spoken of with the term “Great”? Amusing, engaging, thought – provoking, even compelling…..yes. But “Great”? Somewhere, Wallace Stegner is doing that wry chuckle of, his.

  69. It’s always great to see new comments spring up over the months and years after an article first appears. The great army of Millions readers, furiously pondering in their office cubicles, and among the vegetable bins at the grocer:

    “The Secret Life of Bees!”

    The outburst from Aisle 3A startled several shoppers, and caused Stocker Bobby Gardile to drop the big glass sale bottle of olive oil before it made it to the bottom shelf. Dang. What a cleanup. Better get the mop.

    Moe Murph
    Furious Ponderer

  70. “But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.”

    Wha?? Has this person read Moby-Dick? The book is literally just about whaling (a word not used in the “review.” The word “whale” is only used once). 60% of the book is just Melville talking about whaling, and whales, and like, the expressions of whales. Which is frigging awesome. It’s about man’s relationship to the mythic, the deep: religion, atheism, life, death – of creatures and ideas of monumental proportions. The book takes on the size of its subject. It has nothing to do with how well Melville communicates the sound of a heart-broken moose.

  71. I love to read. And, I have read many books. Today, these are
    the 10 Best American novels. Tomorrow, I will be sure to come
    up with new list!

    The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
    Slaughterhouse Five
    The Accidental Tourist
    In Cold Blood
    Last Exit to Brooklyn
    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
    The Color Purple
    The Grapes Of Wrath

  72. 1) Man, I like Gatsby as much as anyone, but if you’re picked to write one of ten pieces about a Great American Novel, are you going to want to be the one who went with Gatsby? This is a problem of game theory.

    2) S/o to all the people in this thread getting mad that “white people are the problem” w/r/t a famous novel about slavery. You know slavery?

    3) An off-the-cuff top ten, with some classics and some poppier ones:

    -Huck Finn
    -Bluest Eye (or: pick your favorite Toni Morrison novel)
    -Absalom, Absalom!
    -The Color Purple
    -Blood Meridian
    -Gone Girl (I’m serious about this one!)
    -The Shining
    -Kavalier & Clay

    There are a bunch of books (I’ll cite Infinite Jest) that I like as much as these or better, but that don’t “feel right” for this list. Don’t ask me why!

  73. I always tended to grit my teeth against the nationalist pep of the term “Great American Novel,” but I always maintained a grudging, inner list of the books that I felt came close to embodying the term.

    It’s a fairly old term, compared to the country it references, if it references the country and not the continent(s): the country was 92 when a guy named John DeForest coined the term in a magazine piece on the topic; 92 and torn in half. DeForest’s essay awards a close-but-no-cigar to Hawthorn’s work (too musty-New-Englandy, I guess) and a close-enough-for-horse-shoes to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s one big book, which some say, ironically, is what tore the country in half.

    Did DeForest mean the term to mean 1) “Definitive Novel About America” or 2) “Definitive Novel By An American” or 3) “Definitive Novel With An American Feel To It”? The idea is probably to smush all three categories together into something a little bigger, blunter, blander and more populist than the separate categories might each allow. The Great American Novel and the Greatest American Novel are probably mutually-exclusive categories.

    An aesthetically fatal self-consciousness set in, among ambitious American writers, after DeForest’s term took off and they shouldered their ways into the G.A.N. sweepstakes. Too many of the resultant books (especially from Saul Bellow, Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and all the big writers who decided to “Go West” whenever they’d attempt a G.A.N.) come with a built-in score by Aaron Copeland, not that that hurts their chances. They all had/have a better shot at it than anything by better writers like Pynchon or McCarthy. To satisfy the widescreen sense of scope the term “Great American Novel” implies, a contender shouldn’t be too miniaturist, too clever, too regional, too complicated, too nihilistic, too strange or too short on action. In other words: the opposite of what I like.

    Twain’s Huck is too regional, Vlad’s Lolita too strange, Gatsby too nihilistic, Catch-22 too Lefty, Roth’s majestic Sabbath’s Theater too bracingly anti-American (despite the fact that the protag literally wraps himself in a flag near the novel’s end). Hemingway too anal. Morrison too clever. Tom Wolfe’s stuff too… needy?

    Moby Dick would have done it the year it came out, when the country was simpler and utterly different (and not primarily a network of Highways) and the average American reader (who bothered to read seriously at all) was reading at a higher level than he/she would have to now. The America Moby Dick would have been the ideal G.A.N. for barely existed in fuscous corner-remnants of the 1940s. For all intents and purposes, I think it’s cheating to refer to any book that came along before the commercial dominance of the internal combustion engine as the G.A.N.

    For the America of “now” (going back a century or so) I’d say it’s Kerouac On the Road. It’s not the best book but it comes closest, in my opinion, to being the most American in a way that’s lingeringly relevant. That’s probably why it got slammed by so many Big Names the year it came out. They knew, in their bones, that Kerouac had pipped them without even trying. Yep: On the Road.

    Although I wish it could be DeLillo’s Underworld (too unfilmable).

  74. Congratulations Priscilla Wald of Duke University for your insight (and courage) in making an end-run around the conventional expectations of narrative fiction by identifying the most audacious and revolutionary American novel of the 20th century, The Making of Americans. What James Joyce was to English literature, Stein was to its American counterpart, and her influence – often inadequately acknowledged, when acknowledged at all – shaped so much of what followed, and continues to do so today. It was a delightful surprise to find her in this list.

  75. While some of the novels mentioned are indeed worthy of our consideration and respect towards giving insight into American culture and society, it remains that Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may still be head and shoulders above the others. Why? Because both are critiques of the dominant American cultural identity captured in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, with its toxic hero-protagonist, American exceptionalism, and racial divide. All the other novels mentioned are [as one philosopher said of those who followed Plato’s work], footnotes to that critique.

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