Saturday, April 26, 2008

Survey: What is the "Great American Novel"?

It has been a long time since I have posted a survey question, but this is an important one.

Please respond--carefully, temerariously, thoughtfully, recklessly, lovingly, jokingly, completely, and compartmentally. There are many answers.

The world needs this information. I will certainly fill in my various opinions also.

50 comments:

Conversely said...

Dare I say W.C. Williams's The Great American Novel, or is that too obvious coming from me?

brd said...

Wow! What a great suggestion, and perfect from you. I haven't read this, but looked into it a bit before responding. April Boone (UT English doctoral grad), says, that he thought most American novels of his time were derivative and dependent on European forms. So he wrote this to break with "conventional novel forms [that] obscure the play of language and fail to engage readers in the defamiliarization that drives his poetics."

The fact that the work is about a car falling in love with a truck certainly should bring it into contention for the great American novel as it certainly represents that yet unflagging love affair that most Americans have with their vehicles.

brd said...

Moby Dick as the Great American Novel.

Though I see MD as a contender, I vote no.

Pros: Vast scope, great individualist hero (or anti-hero), human vs. the great quest.

Cons: Not consistently great writing, doesn't maintain a consistent style, feels like an odd mix of Daniel Defoe and George Eliot.

brd said...

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper.

This works because it is an epic and about the great frontier. Certainly this story has stood the test of time and might fit as the Great American Novel of the early 19th century.

brd said...

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and Christy by Catherine Marshall.

M S

brd said...

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

K R

brd said...

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

B P

brd said...

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

J B

brd said...

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

G P

brd said...

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

S L D

To be fair to SLD, this is not his final vote, but he respects this piece as a worthy suggestion. We agree that the scope of this novel is a bit limited, but is so wonderful in many ways that it must be mentioned here.

brd said...

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This book, for me, is a good contender for top ranking. It has universal themes, the level of complexity one would hope for, of symbol and plot. Though it is set in Puritan Boston, it is not hampered by setting from clearly entering the human heart and transcending both place and time.

brd said...

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

L D

brd said...

I will have a comment to make about Gatsby in a couple of days.

BRD

brd said...

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

P LeC

brd said...

"Don't you dare include Slaughterhouse Five!"

S L D

brd said...

The Great American Novel by Philip Roth should, I think, be included if Conversely include the one by Williams. This one should get consideration because it is about baseball.

Conversely said...

Schwitters would second the Roth, and then, after his academic-ness kicked in, change is vote to Moby Dick.

brd said...

If T. Azimuth thinks that Moby Dick is a good choice, then it might be so, but he would have to argue the point.

brd said...

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

H D

brd said...

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

S L D and J H

brd said...

Just a comment on Huck Finn. In my many discussions on this subject over the past couple of week, there has been widespread disagreement over many of the titles suggested. However, at the mention of Huck Finn, there has been a common positive reaction. That is significant, I think. It is a big, well written, and meaningful book, that deals with even the ugly issue of slavery, with unique sensitivity.

brd said...

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

D H

cadh 8 said...

OK, should the great American novel be more like American Idol in its scope, that is based on quality, yes, but then seconded by popularity and enjoyability? Or is it some old book that is hard to read and supposedly has "deep" meaning? Just a thought.

My first thougt was Old Man and the Sea...although written in Cuba, Hemingway was an American, so I think that this exempilfies the Great American Novel, because what is more American than hard work, personal struggle, acomplishment, and then the irony that all that you attain can be lost.

I will keep thinking on this one.

brd said...

I was hoping that someone would suggest a Hemingway, and this one is probably the best of all.

I have thought a lot about what characteristics go into making a novel qualify. Must the author have been born in the US? Must it be set in this country? Or is it a book that exemplifies spirit such as you describe? I guess it depends on how you look at it.

Deep thoughts!

Struggle For Justice said...

I am torn between
"The Grapes of Wrath"
and "To Kill A Mockingbird"

brd said...

Two more good suggestions from Struggle for Justice. I was hoping that someone would mention the Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. This one would serve a couple of "great" characteristics. The literary style is one that doesn't harken strongly back to European roots. It takes it setting from the defining event of American history, the Civil War. And it has a lofty concern, courage with an anti-war twist.

brd said...

Now, back to The Great Gatsby. I just finished reading it for the first time. (Shock!) I enjoyed it far more than I expected. Great writing. Interesting perspective. Thematically appropriate to the "Great American Novel" category. The only lack, I think, is in character development. Here's what I mean. I had almost begun to care for Fitzgerald's characters, and then they were gone, it was over. The book took me to the brink of caring and then they were gone. Maybe that was the point. People, throughout the world of Gatsby, were at the brink of caring for him. Then he was gone and they were gone.

brd said...

My Antonia by Willa Cather

DH and JH

brd said...

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

D H

brd said...

U.S.A. by John Dos Passos

brd said...

M E says that we must include something by William Faulkner on this list. I agree, but I was hoping that she would choose. She didn't yet. So, I guess I'll add the one I think would be likely.

Absalom, Absalom

One reason that this is a good choice is that it contains, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest sentence in published English literature.

cadh 8 said...

Almost hate to add this one, revealing myself as far less than erudite, and putting this under the heading of the "American Idol" type category, BUT what about Ender's Game? Great story, and although not based in American, it captures the frontier spirit, going into space and how we would respond to those we find there. There are definitely some bigger themes and, more than that, it is a GREAT read. Can't help loving it. But then I, unlike my Granmother, love space.

Also, really liked the Red Badge of Courage as a suggestion. Uniquely American history with great themes.

brd said...

S N agrees with "Struggle for Justice" in being torn between Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird.

brd said...

W N suggested Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass.

This suggestion led to a discussion of whether it truly fit the category. The discussion took us to a book that does fit the category and also serves to tell fictionally the story that Douglass told. I have been wanting to enter this book into contention, so I'll do it now,

Beloved by Toni Morrison. And while we are going in this direction. . .

L B added the book by Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

brd said...

cadh8,

I like your Enders Game suggestion. It must, at least be the greatest of the American Science Fiction novels, unless we think about Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness. However, that would be a different survey.

brd said...

Someone--I forget who--suggested Jack London's To Build a Fire. I had forgotten this story, which is a good one, but is truly a short story rather than a novel. Perhaps Call of the Wild would be a reasonable entry.

brd said...

Gone with the Wind

C I

brd said...

A Swiftly Tilting Planet or A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

M C

brd said...

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

J C

Prof Fury said...

At the mention of Huck in this context, I feel compelled to make the obligatory reference to Hemingway's famous statement that all American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn. I don't know if he meant the American literature published before Huck; probably not, because Hemingway isn't that type of thinker, which is why he's not that interesting to me.

brd said...

Back to Huck Finn. Hm.m.m. I just came back from the library with Twain under my arm. I need to revisit Huck and see what I think. JAC insists that I must read Lonesome Dove before I'm allowed to decide which book I believe to be the G.A.N.

This could take a while. Thanks for the reference to the Hemingway quote, which I found----"The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That's not the order they're good in. There is no order for good writers.... All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' If you read it you must stop where. . . Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." -- from Ernest Hemingway, "The Green Hills of Africa" (1934)

(Note: No one has, so far, suggested anything from James in spite of prodding on my part. What does that mean?)

brd said...

From the F of L* ladies:

Grapes of Wrath (again) by John Steinbeck

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

*Friends of the Library

brd said...

In the May issue of Southern Living Rick Brogg of All Over but the Shoutin' fame says, "I just reread Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. That is the gold standard for a great American novel.

brd said...

AW--Columnist Extraordinaire--has verified what I feared. The great American novel has not yet been written. She did note that the great British novel has been written: Middlemarch by George Eliot.

I agreed with her on that point.

After some debate, we came to a tentative agreement that perhaps Beloved by Toni Morrison could be a contender as the great American novel.

AW (hailing from Connecticut) had strong feelings that neither The Scarlet Letter, nor My Antonia, nor The Awakening make the grade.

brd said...

Another vote goes to Grapes of Wrath

K S

brd said...

A W also pointed out that we could consider Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

brd said...

Do you know Faulkner's The Unvanquished? With Percy's The Last Gentleman, it would make a nice before-and-after pair of Great American Novels. The former with its regionalism, Civil War tensions and paradoxes, and enduring, post-war conflict, the latter with Will B's romantic nostalgia, wandering, paralysis in facing the future, lust, and companionship re Jamie.

W N

brd said...

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
or Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

A.R.

brd said...

Larzer Ziff, some English professor who might be fromJohns Hopkins or UC Berkeley, remarked that Dreiser "succeeded beyond any of his predecessors or successors in producing a great American business novel."

brd said...

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

or, how about

The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton

L.M.