Attack of the Great American Novel

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.)

20 thoughts on “Attack of the Great American Novel

  1. Mason

    I also like Twain a lot because of works like The Gilded Age but did not like Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn at all. I’ll have to get back to you on the Great American Novel. It wouldn’t be Moby Dick for me, however. Can I pick the Dragonlance Chronicles? :) (Actually, I need to reread them at some point and ought to read the annotated edition.)
    Anyway, I’m curious what others write, and I’ll let you know if I come up with my real choice.

  2. Josh

    As I understood it, the generally considered Great American Novel of the 20th Century is The Great Gatsby. Currently, I don’t think that such a concept as “The Great American Novel” exists anymore… as our tastes become more open and more varied, it is impossible to find one particular work of literature that fits the bill in all manner of taste and description. Like being “the best”, it is simply a commercial idea meant to sell more copies of a particular book. But that’s just my odd opinion.
    As for what my Great American Novel is, in particular, I don’t have one. I skipped out on reading a lot of the required reading in high school, as well. I did appreciate Hawthorne’s ability to be disturbing, but he was also way too preachy. I also enjoyed some Faulkner, and I look back on As I Lay Dying rather fondly. Otherwise, to paraphrase a modern-day poet of our times, I seem to be paralyzed with not caring very much when it comes to literature of a particularly “American” nature.
    So I guess that nullifies everything I just said. Oh well.

  3. JSpur

    BLOOD MERIDIAN, OR THE EVENING REDNESS IN THE WEST by Cormac McCarthy meets the first five tests you listed. I have read it many times over and always get more from it each time.
    If you’re gonna read Faulkner, I’d suggest THE SOUND AND THE FURY because it is so brilliantly rendered. ABSALOM, ABSALOM! is wonderful too but it’s a real challenge to get through.
    Can’t answer your question about the biggest waste of time for me in high school because that was way too many martinis ago.

  4. shellock

    Catcher in the rye was the worst book i every had to read.
    Personally I like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Moby dick was not really my favorite

  5. Lemming

    Haven’t read Moby Dick. Perhaps I should resolve this? Mostly I’ve read whatever my high school threw at me, plus a lot of pulp.
    Catch-22 was great, and has become one of my all-time favorite reads, but even Neal Stevenson writes better endings.
    I loved Catcher in the Rye, but I feel guilty about that whenever someone else says they liked it. Um, correction–I loved it *after* I finished it, and hated it while I was reading it. I’m not sure why.
    I thought Fitzgerald’s The Guide to Partying in the 1920s, in Nine Parts (ha, you see, that’s me being *clever*) was just a bit too surreal. The whole book feels like a dream, and while I enjoyed it somewhat, it made it hard to care.
    I seem to remember that when we read Huck Finn, there was some sketchy compromise between the English teachers at our high school and some touchy-feely types that resulted in us only reading the first half (or so) of the book.

  6. Arcane Gazebo

    I too was unimpressed by Gatsby. Seems to me that the Great American Novel should have a bit more scope than the soap-operatics of rich Long Islanders.
    Blood Meridian was mentioned by several of the Marginal Revolution commenters. I ought to read it at some point.

  7. JSpur

    BLOOD MERIDIAN is set in the Southwest at some indefinite time in the mid-1800s and tells a story that revolves around the incredible violence that occurred among white Americans, Mexicans and Native Americans. It has an Ahab-like figure in it and like much of what McCarthy writes is darkly funny in spots. It is incredibly well-written.

  8. Mason

    I couldn’t stand Catcher in the Rye either—not that I remember much of anything about it now.
    Maybe asking about a Great American Writer would make more sense than isolating one work? Twain definitely comes to mind (despite my dislike of his two most famous books) if we recast the question that way.

  9. Katie

    Not sure I’ve read the greatest American novel yet. But for the high school worst, I’d have to say Deliverance.

  10. Anonymous

    I enjoyed The Great Gatsby, but I don’t know that I’d call it “The Great American Novel”–like Gazebo said, it’s a little too upper-class snooty, despite some of the insight it gives on the American mood of the time. Huck Finn didn’t really do it for me too much, though I like the shorter Twain works I’ve read. I haven’t read Catcher in the Rye or Moby Dick or any Faulkner novels (only short stories).
    One novel that I recently read (and somehow never got assigned to read in school) and enjoyed a great deal was To Kill a Mockingbird, and it might fill some of the criteria here, whale notwithstanding.
    As for high school reading, the novel that I remember enjoying the most is A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, but she’s a Canadian author, so that doesn’t really count (though it was assigned in an American lit class). I took Cathy Jurca’s Edith Wharton and Henry James class and enjoyed reading just about everything assigned there, but I don’t know if I’d say that any of the novels of theirs that we read were “great” enough.
    Uncle Tom’s Cabin was probably the worst American novel I read in high school as far as literary merit. Significance in American history, check. Literary enjoyment, bzzzt.
    I guess Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman doesn’t count as canonical American lit, eh? Darn.

  11. lidarose

    Wait — last I checked Canada was in North America…so can’t American novels be from there, too?

  12. Arcane Gazebo

    To Kill a Mockingbird is a good choice (and another one that came up a few times at Marginal Revolution).
    The Handmaid’s Tale is one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Certainly one that gets referenced frequently in the current political climate.
    Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman may not be canonical, but might be interesting to assign a high school class. (Maybe a high school physics class…)
    lidarose: As I understand it, “Great American Novel” has traditionally referred specifically to the United States. I think the idea is that the novel should capture some essence of the national character. Not that it wouldn’t be interesting to open up the competition to the Americas in general, throwing in some Spanish-language authors like Marquez… I suppose in that case you’d be aiming for a more general New World sensibility.

  13. Mason

    To Kill a Mockingbird is another book I was assigned in high school but couldn’t stand.
    Hmmm… I didn’t like most of the books we were assigned. It’s too bad we can’t adopt Voltaire and use Candide. :) I really loved that one…

  14. JSpur

    If we’re gonna throw it open to all the Americas, then I want to lob in a vote for Fuentes, THE OLD GRINGO. Another book inspired by the violence of the Southwest, but beautifully written withal and with the lost American Ambrose Bierce (whom Mason the Unlikely recently quoted in this purlieu) at its very core.
    And as Honorable Mention THE ENGLISH PATIENT by the Canadian Ondaatdje. Although it has nothing to do with America, other than the American (as in Canadian) experience in WWII.
    TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a lighter shade of pale when it comes to the South. I stick by Faulkner.

  15. Josh

    How is Ender’s Game at all American in spirit? There’s nothing particularly American about it… Sorry, looking at this dark horse link. Maybe you could call it the Great American Subculture Novel, if you were that desperate to justify its existence with a title.
    A Confederacy of Dunces is an exemplary modern American novel, but I don’t think it’s up for the all-encompassing Great American Novel.

  16. Arcane Gazebo

    Josh: I was wondering that myself about Cowen’s choice of Ender’s Game. He gave some reasons why the book is compelling but not really why it relates to the American character. Since he specified the trilogy, I was sort of figuring there was something American about the next two books in the series, which I never read.
    Or maybe Tyler Cowen just really likes the book and wanted to mention it.

  17. Mason

    If we include nonfiction, then The Power Game by Hedrick Smith would be a nice modern choice. For that matter, I think maybe I will choose The Gilded Age by Twain. It’s great for cynics and it’s an awesome source for quotes when I give talks about Congress… (It’s an awesome book in general—much better than the stuff of his that’s typically assigned in high school.) OK, so that’s my choice until I come up with a better idea.

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