By popular demand, Tyler Cowen has been blogging about the Great American Novel. I’ve long been convinced that the answer is Moby Dick, so I was pleased to see that Cowen chose an appropriate set of criteria:
So what qualities must The Great American Novel have?…
1. It must reward successive rereadings and get better each time.
2. It must be canonical and grip the imagination.
3. It must be linked to American history and letters in some essential way.
4. It must span the intellectual, the emotional, the religious, and the metaphysical.
5. It must be fun. You must be sad when the book is over, and wish it had been longer than it was.
6. It must be about a large white whale and have numerous Biblical allusions.
He then chooses an interesting excerpt that was almost certainly left out of the abridged version we were assigned in high school. I decided I liked the book enough to be a badass and read the unabridged version instead, a huge tactical error since the 30-page nightly assignments ballooned to 80 pages this way. It would be interesting to go back and read it again, now that I’m ten years older and can afford a more relaxed pace.
Cowen also suggests some runners-up and dark horse picks. I can see the argument for Huckleberry Finn, but even though I love Mark Twain I wasn’t wild about that particular novel. Of Faulkner I have only read short stories, a gap I should remedy at some point.
My favorite piece of American literature from high school was Catch-22, but I can’t argue for this as the Great American Novel. The much-loved Catcher in the Rye didn’t do much for me; I suppose my teen angst was of a different character than Holden Caulfield’s.
So what are your picks for the Great American Novel? What’s your favorite “canonical” American novel? What did you read in high school that was the biggest waste of time? (My pick for the last question: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver; not especially canonical, but nevertheless assigned by my hippie American Lit teacher.)