Novelist John William DeFores coined the phrase 'Great American Novel' in 1868 when describing the state of literature within a country that had just come out of a bloody and divisive civil war that had left political uncertainty and tension throughout the land. Claiming that it had not yet happened, DeFores said that what would define such a novel would be how it showed “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.”
It is now arguable that 'The Great American Novel' has been achieved many times over since DeFores' declaration and here we look at some of the perfect examples of this phenomenon.
1. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Many underrate this novel for what it is, having been forced to read it at school, considering it too short or simply misreading it as a love story gone awry and all too often it takes non-Americans to see its true magnificence but does it show “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence"?
Many would argue that it portrays the lives of the rich during the roaring 20s, a time of excess and economic wellbeing, but look at the language and how ordinary American speech is elevated to a point of poetry and you'll see this novel is far more than what it is on the surface. Gatsby himself has climbed to his position from ordinary origins and shows who Americans want to be as much as who they are.
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Can a book that goes beyond the borders of America be considered a 'Great American Novel'? Taking place mostly at sea it sees the struggles of obsession and perception and also continually refers to race. It shows the lives of ordinary men drawn to the sea and under the command of an obsessive as they hunt an elusive white whale.
As a metaphor and an icon, this book has lived so long on its own merits that if the title of 'Great American Novel' deserves to be bestowed upon any, this is surely it.
3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Taking place in small town America perhaps this is the closest to the mark of all the novels you will on this list with it nailing the three criteria of ubiquity, notability, and morality as it has sold over 50 million copies, taught in American schools and questions racism, isolationism and perception in all the space of a few hundred pages.
The fact it has been taught in American schools for the past 30 + years shows a shared common experience with it whilst it addresses the faults of a nation in the microcosm of one girl's life.
4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
By exploring the themes of race, identity, and democracy, Twain gets to the very nub of what it is to be an American; a nation that still tussles with these themes some 130 years after its publication (perhaps tellingly, it was published in the UK a year before it was in the United States.)
Explored through the eyes of a child, there is a further suggestion that perhaps America, as a nation, remains as innocent and naive to these ideas and needs a sharper awakening. The fact that Hemmingway, Mailer (two people who probably have a right to lay claim to a position on this list) and T.S. Eliot all considered it the ultimate in American literature says something about its high regard.
5. Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
The plaudits lauded upon Pynchon are undoubted so, in terms of this list, it essentially boils down to which of his works are the most American. This story of the two surveyors that marked out the line between the North American and South American states is as vital to the discussion of America as it is an archaic depiction of the scar that almost tore America apart.
It asks about the ideals of the country and what it wanted to be as opposed to what it became and whether it can ever achieve its founding goals.
6. American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis
Can something that arose from a specific period and a specific profession ever be described as something that reflects the psyche of a nation? An anarchic, depiction of corporate America in the early 90s, it shows the decaying state of capitalism in America and the consumerist obsession that seeps through the echelons of society.
Sick and twisted, it filled with brand names and sex and social anxiety and points a grubby finger at America shouting "this is what you wanted!"
7. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Covering a dark part of America's history in its dustbowl, it is just about average Americans “just trying to get along without shoving anybody” and that is it. That is what makes such a strong contender for the title of 'Great American Novel' as it does not trouble itself with lofty ideals but rather just how one can live a reasonable life.
It shows something lesser than the American dream and carves out a new one, that being just the search for land, dignity, and a future.
8. Underworld by Don DeLillo
A non-linear narrative that just sees ordinary, working class Americans reacting to historical events over a 40 year period where it shows the American aesthetic and experience over those decades how the ordinary are caught up in the great events of history that shape a nation and our world
As the opening line states, “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”
9. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lust, hypocrisy, and obsession all present an image of America that could have only come from an outsider in an astutely dark and funny novel in how it is ahead of a generation in realizing how America is fetishizing youth, so much so that the name has become ingrained in the vernacular and common parlance.
Sly, witty and devastating, it uses the English language as a plaything despite the subject matter not being something to be toyed with and yet it is the breaking of that taboo that makes it stand out amongst the crowd.
10. U.S.A by John Dos Passos
A trilogy of novels that follows an experimental form looping around newsreels, the stream of consciousness and major historical settings that see its 12 characters as they struggle to find a place in American society. It is light on the detail of setting which makes it all the more expansive in other areas.
Its scant level of detail in some areas plays into its dreamlike narrative about real world situations.
11. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The true genius of this novel is that it is many things to many people raging through psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth all the while with a nameless narrator that allows it to revel in the substance of the riffs it pulls upon and layers up and up and up.
Despite not being visible the narrator has a face and as an African-American, they are rendered invisible by society. By viewing Amerifromrok a position of such lack of privilege the book twists and turns its way through the notion of the nation.
12. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Can something so intrinsically anti-American be part of the 'Great American' narrative? The fact that this novel focusses on the country's genocides, desire for war and slaughter of whole species it airs America's greatest shames and brings them up to the light. It is for this reason that, perhaps, it deserves to be called a 'Great American Novel'.
Nothing can truly grow without acknowledging its flaws and this book does that and then some.
13. Light in August by William Faulkner
The man who put modernism on the map and changed the very thought of what a linear narrative was created an incisive social commentary of human motivation and desire through determinism vs. free will and how this includes all things such as religiosity, the draw of female sexuality, and the power of the living past.
What makes it a truly American novel, though, is its focus on race and how it is perceived. A theme that remains forever prevalent in America.
14. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Three months of a life lived against the backdrop of important historical goings on, it shows a rejection of certain American ideals and the protagonist “as a person in the process of becoming." It shows a distinct, if a little distraught, vision of America through its own visions of identity, sex, and race.
In a novel that spawned a whole series about the 'Rabbit' character that all incisively pick apart the threads of American identity, this one has to be the most in-depth of them all.
15. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
A 900-page book with 100 pages of footnotes should not be a readable or attractive prospect but the labyrinth-like story that follows addiction and, oddly enough, tennis through an unsummarizable trail to an indefinable conclusion that makes it an almost perfect comic-tragic-ironic book through its form alone.
It is like the white whale of literature; few dare to brave the waters but those who do may just end up finding something special.
16. The Adventures of Augie March
Tracing the development of an individual through a series of encounters, occupations and relationships from boyhood to manhood. It trawls through the great depression and takes in all of life from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high in an all-encompassing look the crushed and the exalted in the land of democracy.
Lost in a world where he is an everyman, the narrator exposes alienating forces of American living whilst also capitalizing on its opportunities.
17. Gentlemen Prefer Blonds by Anita Loos
A comic novel about the jazz age and the roaring twenties, the novel is ahead of its tie in the way it presents gender politics and how the narrator uses her sexuality to control men and it playfully prods at the gender roles of the age and asks who is controlling whom in a delightful and comic manner.
Written by a woman with a female protagonist, given the time of its publication, makes it a contender for the title of 'Great American Novel' for presenting a view rarely heard from before and, alas, still.
18. Beloved by Toni Morrison
To call this a vicious and poignant critique of slavery and the slave trade is both true and yet harshly understating the true beauty and power of this novel that includes how the American identity has been, and continues to be shaped, by the acts of the past and the psychological effects on the psyche of a nation and the world.
Morrison's novels often have these themes and this Pulitzer prize-winning novel is as touching as it is raw and astute.
19. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching, this novel is about comic books and the people who make them. That may sound flippant, as does the title, but it brings in the themes of cultural assimilation and the search for an emotional and moral identity amongst the general public and how pop-culture can affect that.
Comic books are one of the truly American art forms and by setting the novel in this world it gives rise to some truly American themes.
20. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Is it really still OK to spend your life asserting your unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, when the rest of the world is in such a state? This is the question that Franzen's Freedom poses to the reader, and it's this question that also then rattles through the core of the American middle-class, the very people likely to be reading the novel.
The very issue stems from Americana and the wants of the average American, taken on the ideology and ideals that built the country.