Thoughts on The Myth of The Great American Novel

By Brian Kaufman

Ask a published writer about a lottery-ticket sort of dream, and some will mention a best-seller. Others, a movie contract. For some, writing the Great American Novel tops the list.
I know more than one writer with that secret goal. One of them might be me.

When the United States became a sovereign nation, a great deal of thought was given to what American literature ought to look like. (One of the early notables was Royall Tyler’s play, The Contrast.) The need to define this nascent country helped create a new identity to contrast its European settlers. Over time, the desire to identify American literature’s characteristics became a need to identify iconic American works.

There’s no denying the concept of a purely American identity is messy given our history of indigenous persecution and slavery.

The term Great American Novel (GAN) was first used in an essay in 1868 by John William De Forest. He defined such work as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” In listing contenders for the title, he mentioned Last of the Mohicans, The Scarlett Letter, and the works of Washington Irving. However, he found all of them wanting. The one book he cited as worthy was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The current list is notably filled with white, cisgender men. Problematic in and of itself in today’s shifting culture.

In 1880, the great Henry James used the acronym GAN to stand in for this complicated notion of literary nirvana. Since then, the concept has undergone constant revision. For example, Martin Amis noted that the GAN should include immigrant authors. He said that many great American authors were foreign-born and that the immigrant experience was peculiarly American.

Until recently, the list of GAN candidates was selected by academics and scholars, which meant that worthiness rested in the hands of critics. Today, writers and bloggers have their say as well.

Toni Morrison has become a staple of secondary reading lists.

What are some of the novels currently mentioned as GANs? Most lists include Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

I find it interesting that two of those five books were recently dropped in one Minnesota school district because the language might marginalize or humiliate students. A third was banned in North Carolina for “lack of literary value.” A fourth was banned in North Dakota for sexual references. Only The Great Gatsby escaped unscathed, though the Baptist College in Charleston, South Carolina, argued strenuously for banning the book from public schools due to “language and sexual references.”

Clearly, a GAN should be censorship-worthy. What other characteristics matter?
Some think the story should be epic in scope. How else to encapsulate the diverse American experience within a few hundred pages? But that would exclude a gem like McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, which paints an unforgettable moment in place and time.

Isn’t there a Zen koan about being specific to be universal?

When I look at my keeper bookshelf, I notice that I revisit my favorite books more than once. Perhaps being worthy of repeat visits is a criterion for greatness.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times Book Review said, “the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster—or Sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people—not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation—claim to have seen.”

My conclusion—a novel is fiction—a constructed lie. Perhaps the GAN dream is to write a story so layered, so worthy of revisiting, and dangerous (enough to merit censorship) that the myth stands in for a complicated truth.

There is something inherently silly about identifying one book as best. Literature is not a tournament bracket. And winners, beware—today’s political climate has taught us that anything (in this case, any book) can be trolled. Perhaps my secret GAN dream has outlived its usefulness.

And yet.

What Is The Great American Novel?

Obsessed: The Great American Novel

Literature in Context: Why We Can’t Read with A Modern Lens

A Brief Survey of The Great American Novel

Published by Writing Heights Writing Bug

A blog by writers for everyone interested in books, reading, writing, and just about everything in between.

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