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What Is a Great American Novel, Anyway?

When you hear the phrase "Great American Novel," there’s a good chance that an idea comes to mind before an actual book. You probably imagine something with an imposing word count written by an old white man long before you were born that you either had to read in high school or have never gotten around to reading because it might be boring. That’s not necessarily too far from the truth, though it misses the inherently romantic nature of the idea: that a single book can embody the spirit of a country.

Viewed through that lens, it’s no wonder the concept has persisted more than a century and a half after first being introduced. A number of writers have even used The Great American Novel as the title for their own books, though none of those works have been canonized as such.

The Idea of the “Great American Novel”

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The term itself is fairly new: John William De Forest, author of the Civil War novel Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, coined it in an 1868 essay. He believed the book had yet to be written: “This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially,” De Forest wrote, though he did believe one book came closest: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw author Henry James shortened the term to GAN in 1880, an abbreviation that is still used by scholars today.

As it turns out, there’s a good reason why you might first think of a concept rather than an individual novel upon hearing the term: Some commentators believe the GAN is either unattainable or still hasn’t been written. They think of it as a kind of literary white whale, which is fitting, given that Moby-Dick is perhaps the most agreed-upon GAN in existence.

The Books: 19th Century

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A handful of books that have been retroactively declared Great American Novels predate the term itself. The first of them is probably James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which was first published in 1826 and takes place seven decades earlier, during the French and Indian War. According to professor Leslie Fiedler, it was “the first book that ever made an impression on the outside world as a uniquely American book.” It's also one of the most enduring, and is still being read and discussed nearly two centuries later. The Last of the Mohicans has been adapted for film, radio, theater, television, opera, and even comic books dozens of times, with Michael Mann's 1992 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis being among the most highly regarded.

Despite coining the term, De Forest often didn’t agree with many others about what counted as a Great American Novel. He didn't believe Cooper's book fit the bill, nor did he think The Scarlet Letter deserved the title. The majority of scholars disagree, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 masterwork is almost always included in this particular canon. The same is true of Moby-Dick, which was published the following year, and was notably unsuccessful during author Herman Melville’s life. Critical reception was muted at best, and it sold just a few thousand copies. Suffice to say that time has been kind to its legacy: Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Why Read Moby-Dick?, has called it the greatest American novel and is hardly alone in that assessment.

The latter half of the 19th century saw other examples ranging from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, with no less an authority than Ernest Hemingway positing that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Crane may have been the first writer to have De Forest's concept of the GAN in mind when writing his own book, and it clearly worked. Despite dying of tuberculosis at just 28 years old, his writing was hugely influential in the century following his death, and one critic has claimed that Red Badge “marks the culmination of the Great American Novel.”

The Books: 20th Century

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Moving into the 1900s, no book looms larger in this discussion than The Great Gatsby. James L. W. West III, a prominent F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar, has referred to it as “a national scripture” that “embodies the American spirit, the American will to reinvent oneself. ... It is our novel, how we present ourselves.” Fitzgerald, says West, “captured and distilled the essence of the American spirit.” He believes that Gatsby is taught in the rest of the world more than any other American novel.

After establishing three criteria for naming the true Great American Novel — ubiquity, notability, and morality — novelist John Scalzi recently made the case for Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as the GAN to end all GANs. (He listed The Great Gatsby and The Scarlet Letter as runners-up.) The public would appear to agree, as PBS’ 2018 Great American Read poll named the story of Scout and Atticus Finch America’s most-loved novel.

Published in 1939 — 14 years after Gatsby and 21 years before MockingbirdThe Grapes of Wrath has been called “the great American novel that everyone keeps waiting for” and appears on nearly every list of GANs. John Steinbeck's Depression-era tale of the Dust Bowl was instantly acclaimed, winning both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize shortly after publication; when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962  the book was cited as one of the main reasons why he'd been so honored.

No less familiar to high schoolers is 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye, whose status as a Great American Novel is especially impressive considering it’s the only novel J.D. Salinger ever wrote (or published, at least — the famously reclusive author stopped sharing his writing with the world in 1965, a full 45 years before his death). Not unlike Crane and The Red Badge of Courage, Salinger “made no secret of his ambitions when he was writing it, announcing to anyone who would listen that he was engaged in writing the fabled great American novel,” as the writer Declan Burke puts it.

Published one year after Catcher, the rare GAN not to have been written by a white author is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which follows its nameless Black protagonist as he struggles to find a place for himself in American society.  (Suffice to say that a lack of talent among underrepresented groups isn’t the reason that most of these books were written by white men, who have long held the reins of the literary establishment.) Joseph Fruscione of George Washington University has written that it “might even be said to be the greatest American novel” in part because it has the rare ability to be “many things to many readers.”

The Future

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There are contemporary examples as well, with everything from Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy to Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) and even American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis having been described as GANs as the 20th century came to a close. Because one crucial aspect of a novel receiving such praise is time, however, it’s difficult to say which of these will continue to linger in the collective imagination of American readers. As ever with this most elusive of concepts, however, the uncertainty is part of the intrigue: The Great American Novel is many things to many readers, after all.