The Great American Novel?

A recent Publishers Weekly poll raises more questions than it answers about "The Great American Novel."

The Great American Novel?

Publishers Weekly asked readers to choose “The Great American Novel” from a field of no less than 60 books. They did not specify criteria for the choice, a move that may or may not have been clever, but either way assumes that readers have a definition in mind. The results are not too surprising: the winner was To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, with about 20% of the vote, followed by The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Grapes of Wrath. Someone in the comments snarkily suggested that the results show Americans stop reading after high school. Yet, were that entirely true, The Catcher In The Rye would have done better than it did (it only received about 2% of the vote).

There were a few small surprises further down in the voting. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon did unexpectedly well, as did Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Yet these may simply be artifacts of the relatively small number of votes (about 5,000) or the demographics of the people voting: it’s unlikely that a true cross-section of America visits the PW website. 

I’ve always wondered about the concept of “The Great American Novel.” Wikipedia’s entry on the subject is quite concise and informative. It mentions that there’s both craft and theme elements to the designation, but this introduces an odd conundrum. I would think that craft - that is, saying the style of a novel represents the style of a particular time period - is something that can only be determined retrospectively. Yet the theme element becomes more difficult to assign, especially for those of us who aren’t historians, as more time passes. Sure, I can tell you I think The Great Gatsby perfectly represents the 1920s, but that assessment is based on ... what? Certainly not direct experience of the time.

The Wikipedia entry comes down on the side of “The Great American Novel” as a Platonic ideal rather than something to be assigned to a particular work. That’s sensible, but if particular works are not compared with the ideal, then what’s the use of the ideal? Indeed, I wonder, in a country defined both by rugged individualism and diversity (even if this latter has often not been embraced), whether there is a single “American identity” that can be mirrored in a novel.

In this context, it’s Moby Dick - another novel from the Publishers Weekly list - that comes to mind. But if Moby Dick makes the grade, is it because Melville was prescient or because some things transcend time? Maybe the point of “The Great American Novel” is to shed light on our experience (or experiences) rather than reflect them.

What do you think of the construct of “The Great American Novel?” Is it useful, interesting, worthy? Does it apply today, and if not, did it ever? Let me know what you think.

comments powered by Disqus