Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Great American Novel

I have just finished

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski, and began to think about the incessant talk in the book media about the next, or first, if you will, GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. In my mind, we have seen a number of GAN, if you will allow it, over the course of American literature, each defining the time in which it was written. Certainly I do not intend this to be a comprehensive list, by any means; it is only a list of what I believe to be GAN's. Argue at your leisure, or not. Make your own list. I don't really care one way or another.

While I am sure there was great writing being done prior to 1850, I believe Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter probably qualifies as the first GAN. Although the subject matter concerns events that took place years before, in 17th-century Boston, Hawthorne is recognizably the first of the great fiction writers in America. Consider that Hawthorne was 46 when he wrote this.

Second, we need to consider Melville's Moby Dick, written just one year later, in 1851. Melville was only 32 years old when he published his great story of the White Whale and Captain Ahab. It's length was problematic for the reading public of the day, and probably for some of the reading public of today, as well, with our 10-minute attention spans, but it has come to be recognized as one of the great novels of all time. If you want to read the true account for the Melville novel, I recommend In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick. It will give you more nightmares than a Stephen King novel.

In 1876, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, to be followed by Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884. Huckleberry Finn was not a prescient look at the run for President by Mike Huckabee! A very strong argument could be made, and I guess I am making it, that these two novels are the GAN of the last quarter of the 19th-century. Throw Poe in there somewhere, although horror fiction always seems to be short-changed when it comes to talking about great writing.

As we turn to early part of the 20th-century, things begin to get very difficult to define. Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald all have had a lasting impact on the literary definition of America. I would argue that ALL have written a GAN. Ot two, as the case may be.

Dreiser, An American Tragedy. It even says American in the title. Sinclair wrote The Jungle, responsible for making the meat packing industry somewhat safer in the early part of the century. Where is today's Upton Sinclair? Lewis creates a toss-up for me between Babbit and Elmer Gantry. Both books are great in their own special way. Gantry, by the way, was recently adapted into an opera. Hopefully I will see it someday.

Finally, Fitzgerald. How do these novels- This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby, or Tender is the Night- not qualify as the GAN? I remember being in college, probably '87, '88, and being on a Fitzgerald kick, and reading everything. It was beauty and tragedy at its finest. I think I stayed up late for many nights in a row, just reading everything I could.

We must consider Hemingway and Steinbeck. Personally, my favorite Hemingway is A Moveable Feast, but we are talking fiction. I think the argument for H. either drops into A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls. Neither really float my boat, so if you have a different opinion,....

Steinbeck, I think is easier, although there may be plenty of argument about this choice, as well. Hands down, The Grapes of Wrath. What story is more quintessentially American than this one. It is all about the American Experience, at a pivotal time in American history. You can't argue with a novel that was made into a film starring Henry Fonda, directed by John Ford. And, later, in 1995 was the subject of a song by Bruce Springsteen.

In 1940, Richard Wright wrote a book that I found to be incredibly amazing- Native Son. The story of a young black man who killed a white woman and his girlfriend, Wright's novel, and I'm quoting here because it has been a long time since I read this one, is about the "racial inequality and social injustices so deep that it becomes nearly impossible to determine where societal expectations/conditioning end and free will begins." I remember being stunned by Wright's writing when I read this. I don't know why I picked it up. I'm glad I did. I different kind if GAN, but one nonetheless. Ralph Ellison later wrote Invisible Man, distinctly different about being a black man in American society, won awards in 1953, and addressed racism in a completely different manner. It must have made people incredibly uncomfortable.

In 1951, we must not forget the book that made us all into rebels, J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. So many authors have been influenced by this work, and so many of us, as well, it would be a mistake to not consider it as one of the GAN's. Who knows what happened to Salinger. I like to believe that the character in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, Terrance Mann, was maybe close to the truth.

I'm ignoring the Beat poets and writers, because I don't like the literature and/or the writing. Maybe Kerouac and Burroughs wrote some great things, that truly expressed and exposed some part of the American experience, but I have a hard time believing that there are universal truths in that writing. Again, this is my opinion. If you don't like it, BITE ME! Or Howl, of the mood suits you. Maybe we can make a stupid Facebook application!

In 1960, Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Hard to believe a short novella, and really it is not much more than that, has had such an impact on literary society. I have not met a single person who has not been moved by this book. The movie starred Gregory Peck, who won the Best Actor Oscar. A British literary society has listed it as the number one book all adults should read, ahead of the Bible! I don't know about that, but pretty amazing.

In 1973, Thomas Pynchon wrote Gravity's Rainbow. I have read most of this book. Don't ask me what it is about. Don't ask me if I remember any of it, or part of it. It was one of the strangest things I have ever read. Or will ever read. I know what the basic "plot" was supposed to be, but I spent a summer at Chautauqua trying to plow my way through this thing. It belongs on the list.

I know Updike belongs on this list. Many people would pick one of the Rabbit books. Maybe because of my age, these are not my favorites. I prefer his later work. My two favorites, well, three, I guess, are, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Toward the End of Time, and Terrorist. The first two were published in 1996-97, respectively, the last in 2006. Great writing toward the end of the career of one of the greatest people of American letters. I also really like Gertrude and Claudius, but it is more of a novella.

Jane Smiley belongs on this list. She has captured what it means to live in the Heartland, like no other writer. And I don't want this to be too male-centric. Her novels Moo and 1,000 Acres are two of my favorite books. 1,000 Acres probably ranks up there on the All-Time List, because of the eternal subject matter. If you love Shakespeare, you will love this one.

The authors of the modern age are too numerous to name. Stephen King, Dave Eggers, Michal Chabon, Bret Easton Ellis, John Cheever, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, all are worthy for consideration of having written the GAN at some point. And, like I said, this list is not comprehensive, just my idea, what I like.

For me, Edgar Sawtelle is the first GAN of the 21st century.


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