It’s almost time to celebrate America’s supposed birthday. What better way to celebrate an arbitrary date with vacuous meaning than an arbitrary list of what I consider the best “Great American Novels.”
Goodreads has a list dubbed “The Great American Novel” (TGAN) that consists of 293 books. My complete list would be about a sixth of that, at least, but I have nary the time or dedication to compile such a list. Let’s stick to what I’m best at: superficiality.
First I think we should attempt to define what TGAN really is. And where do we go for the best information? Wikipedia, of course, which defines TGAN as “a metaphor for identity, a Platonic ideal that is not achieved in any specific texts, but whose aim writers strive to mirror in their work.”
I want to make my own definition, or, I should say, criteria for what encompasses TGAN.
1. It has to be about an American. Come on, Goodreads, are we really listing “The Hours” as an “American” novel? Part of it is about English author Virginia Woolf. She’s one of the greatest, but to be TGAN means it has to be American. What were we fighting the Revolutionary War if it wasn’t to have our books about us and not those guys in scarlet coats?
2. The setting should be stateside. To capture America, how can we be wandering around Europe sleeping with whores (“Tropic of Cancer”) or fighting a war in the Pacific (“The Naked and the Dead”)? That’s right, I’m throwing “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon out the window. And that goes for “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway, too. Put up your dukes, Ernest, because I’m fighting for this cause.
3. Its major themes should reflect America’s struggles and dreams, both in its past and its future. That might seem, on the surface, vaguely similar to Wikipedia’s definition, but it makes sense in my head. And that’s the only place that matters in all this rambling.
4. It represents a specific time in history. It should encapsulate the thoughts, cultural ideals, and events of a specific period in American history. A book such as “The Great Gatsby,” which appears below, celebrates this.
Now that we have concrete criteria, I’m going to give you my favorites and then you can shake your head, call me an idiot under your breath, and tweet angry remarks to @BroJackson1.
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville
Does the Atlantic Ocean count as America? You’re damn right it does. This book uses religion, which is always at the center of the American experience, as one of its major themes. Isn’t Ahab’s monomania somehow a parallel for our own obsessions to conquer everything in our path? I don’t know about all that but nothing screams Manifest Destiny like chasing a white whale halfway across the world. That’s America at its finest.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
Part of me wanted to say that a book needed to be scandalous for consideration. What we have in Huck Finn is a book tackling what is probably the most major issue in American history: race. More than anything else it reflects America at a time that it was only just beginning to find itself. And, as Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.'”
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
That Aussie bloke Baz Lurhmann went and ruined an American classic, 2 but he can’t take away from this being TGAN. Based around the ideal of the American Dream—the idea that we can have everything we ever wanted—this book fills all the criteria.
“Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West” by Cormac McCarthy
Brutal and raw this is the best novel about the lawless west ever written. Echoing “Moby Dick” in its ideas about the monomania of the chase, it also reflects on our obsessions with war and violence.
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
Religion crops up again. Steinbeck’s novel has a road trip, farming, and lots of heartache, all great American traditions. And it inspired one of the greatest Bruce Springsteen songs ever which was covered by Rage Against the Machine. You’re welcome for sharing that video. Here’s another one to listen to as you read through this list.
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
The nameless narrator is an African-American who thinks of himself as socially and culturally invisible. This is full of so much genius TGAN list could probably start with this title. “America is woven of many strands. I would recognise them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description.”
“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov
When I read this book I had the idea that Nabokov used Lolita as a representation of America: young, beautiful, full of hope. Inevitably she is taken advantage of by the old world, shown that there is no innocence and no beauty and that we will meet the same end as every country that came before us. If I were smarter, I’d write an essay on it.
“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac
Truman Capote said of Kerouac that he “wasn’t writing, he was merely typing.” Absurd, really, because this books lays out all the desperation of America and shows us, just as “The Great Gatsby” did, that the American Dream is an apparition.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson
“White Noise” by Don DeLillo
This is the ultra-modern version of TGAN. Borderline creepy and completely morbid, DeLillo seems to suggest that we’re all doomed and taking drugs to offset our fear of death might be the only answer. There is indeed something in the air of America that is rank. It has been years since I read it, but it hangs with me like a toxic cloud.
“The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen tackles The Great American Family in this one. They are a strange group and when you read this novel you won’t be able to put it down. You won’t find many things more American than a railroad worker and his family trying to gather for “one last Christmas” together.
“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace
Would you just read it already? It’s all I ever talk about.
“A Fool’s Progress” by Edward Abbey
Would you just read it already? It’s all I ever talk about.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
The dialogue draws on a 1930s southern vernacular that is distinctly American. Set in Florida it touches on the politics, cultural biases, and racism that defined the time. “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
“The USA Trilogy” by John Dos Passos
Twice I was well into the third book before giving up. The third time was the charm. It’s heavy in melodrama—do people really die in plane crashes?—but it makes up for it in the profile of what it’s like to live in big American cities. The “camera eye” sections and “headlines” sections are brilliant and had never been done before. One of my favorite lines ever came from “1919” when Ben Compton says, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”
“American Tabloid” by James Ellroy
Conspiracy theories? The JFK assassination? Hard-nosed, no-nonsense detectives? ‘Merica.
“The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy
Listlessness after the Korean War and the idea that maybe the American Dream was all a big fucking hoax. It took years before people actually came out and said how they were feeling but there were rumblings in Percy’s dark existential novel. One of my favorites.
“Ham on Rye” by Charles Bukowski
If ever there were a “autobiographical fiction” list this would be near the top. Bukowski’s prose are savagely honest and there are times when the honesty is laughable and other times steeped in so much sadness you’ll watch “Old Yeller” to wind down.
“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman
I’m going to finish off this list with a little known novel by Gaiman. Hold your britches, sci-fi-fantasy crowd. I know he’s well-known in some circles, but for many this is probably a “who the hell is this?” name. I doubt I’m wrong, despite his 1.8 million followers on Twitter. I mean Demetria Lovato has 15 million followers and I figured that was a retired Russian astronaut. And I know the book was published in the United Kingdom but all the action happens stateside. This is my list. This book draws on American myths and is heavy handed in its use of fantasy so it reads like a fable. I’m a firm believer that most books are impossible to understand fully unless you’ve read them for yourself. 3 Without question this book proves that. “I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”
- You know what I always hated? Group work in school. There was always one lazy asshole who never pulled their weight. My father’s old adage: “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you’re surrounded by turkeys” should explain why Wikipedia is totally sketchy and why group work at school is a waste of time. ↩
- I guess the book, in this case, is better than the movie. ↩
- And judging by the way I’m writing this even if though I’ve read this one it’s hard to put into words. ↩