Other nationalities and ethnicities have their epics. The United States has a curious genre called the Great American Novel instead. Unlike other genres, the books in this category are contested. The Oxford Dictionaries give the following definition:
“[Any] novel that is regarded as having successfully represented an important time in US history or one that tells a story that is typical of America.”
My own definition is stricter. I think a Great American Novel is also:
- Written by an American or someone who has lived in this country for a very long time. American novels written from an insider perspective make my second criteria possible.
- About a significant aspect of the American character, not just an “important time…or…tells a story that is typical of America,” that explores the tensions between our national ideals and our flaws.
- Written in such a way that it remains relevant even after its publication date. It cannot be just a book of its time; it should be a novel of all times.
I’ve had this discussion (and I daresay I will have it again). I suspect the reason these discussions keep happening because American society was originally man-made. We have documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to aspire to. They include lofty goals and enshrine lofty values that anyone would struggle to meet and embody. That’s the story of America, to me.
The reason I narrow my definition of the genre so much is because I think the more open definitions miss the mark. Wikipedia’s list of novels* that have been acclaimed as Great American Novels could have been written about characters of other nationalities. Moby-Dick, for example, is a tale of hubris akin to tales from Greek literature. Infinite Jest is a postmodern exercise that could have been set in any developed nation. The Great Gatsby is a tragedy that could have featured another nouveau riche man in any country. My own list of Great American Novels is shorter**:
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This novel is about, among other things, the tension between our national espousal of equality for all citizens and racial prejudice. Try as we might to be a people that does not discriminate based on race, our historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow linger through the generations. To Kill a Mockingbird is also about fighting for our ideals in the face of social pressure.
- The Barbarian Nurseries, by Héctor Tobar. This book is so new that I haven’t seen it added to any lists of Great American Novels, perhaps just because not enough has time as passed to see if it remains as relevant as I think it will. The Barbarian Nurseries illustrates the struggle between our origins as a nation of immigrants and our long national debate about how to regulate and treat new immigrants. Even though we have Emma Lazarus’ poem engraved on the tablet at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, American governments have passed laws limiting how many and place of origin based on prejudices.
- The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. According to New York Times writer, Jennifer Schuessler, Holden Caulfield is starting to lose his timeless appeal. But I think this novel (even though I personally didn’t like it) is a great illustration of how each generation of Americans resents the prior generation and seeks to reinvent itself as a reaction to the values and practices of that previous generation. Every decade or so, our society changes itself to the point where we started labeling them Gen X, Gen Y, the Boomers, etc.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Like The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn is a struggle between the individual versus civilization. Individualism has been an important part of American character (and it’s so valued that I think things have gotten out of control when it comes to expressing one’s individualism, but that’s a post for another blog entirely). There has always been room in America to escape civilization and live unpressured in the wilderness. (One such family is currently featured on the Discovery channel.) When things grow too stifling, one can always “light out for the territories.”
* The novels on the list are so described by literary critics and other scholars.
** It’s shorter, in part, because I haven’t read all the books others have put in this category. I read a lot, but I can’t read everything. I have to go to work and sleep at some point.