The Great American Novel?


Lists of Great Literature usually disappoint me.  The temptation to add “important” books, in spite of their obtuseness, drives me nuts.  You will not find Ulysses or The Fountainhead on any “Great” list I create. If a book is not enjoyable as a novel, as a Good Read, don’t try to convince me that it is Great. Some books may be notable and significant, but they belong on a different list.  Also, if I have not read a book, I have not listed it. 

I can’t imagine naming only one single Great American Novel.  How can one book encompass our entire history—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the experience of African-Americans, the experience of Latinos, Baseball, New England, the Deep South, the West?  Impossible.  So, I have created an utterly subjective list of books I would nominate as the Greatest American Novels. Only one novel per author is listed.

Hemingway is not on the list because his novels take place in Spain, France and Cuba.  Other than a bit of being persnickety in my criteria, I would have chosen The Old Man and the Sea.

  • A Prayer for Owen Meany—John Irving
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—Betty Smith
  • All the King’s Men—Robert Penn Warren
  • Bang the Drum Slowly—Mark Harris
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop—Willa Cather
  • Deliverance—James Dickey
  • Fahrenheit 451—Ray Bradbury
  • Gone with the Wind—Margaret Mitchell
  • Jayber Crow—Wendell Berry
  • Lonesome Dove—Larry McMurtry
  • Moby Dick—Herman Melville
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain
  • The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—Ernest J. Gaines
  • The Call of the Wild—Jack London
  • The Chosen—Chaim Potok
  • The Color Purple—Alice Walker
  • The Grapes of Wrath—John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Jungle—Upton Sinclair
  • The Last of the Mohicans—James Fenimore Cooper
  • The Red Badge of Courage—Stephen Crane
  • The Reivers—William Faulkner
  • The Road—Cormac McCarthy
  • The Scarlet Letter—Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Stand—Stephen King
  • The Yearling—Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God—Zora Neale Hurston
  • To Kill a Mockingbird—Harper Lee
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin—Harriett Beecher Stowe

 What have I omitted that ought to be on the list, in your opinion?

Categories: Book Review, Lists/Top Ten, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

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24 thoughts on “The Great American Novel?

  1. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
    And surely something by Saul Bellow (Humbolt’s Gift ?)
    I’m also partial to Faulkner’s Light in August

    • Allan, I don’t know The Corrections. I will get it. And you are right about Saul Bellow. I need to re-read a couple of his to decide which one to include.

  2. That’s a good list. I’ve been giving this some thought lately myself. I really believe “The Scarlet Letter” might be the greatest American novel ever written. The struggles, issues, that Hawthorne addresses in that book are just as real today as they were when they were written. Its amazing. I would have to put Gatsby up there too for the same reason(s).

    As an aside, love Owen Meany. What a book.

    I’d personally rank “My Antonia” and possibly “Oh Pioneers” ahead of Archbishop, but its hard to argue, those are all good books.

    Also with Faulkner I am partial to “Absalom, Absalom,” but again can’t quibble.

    Again a great list.

  3. Also I hate to leave John Updike off of any list like this (although I am partial to his short stories). “Rabbit Run” would be my own personal nominee here.

  4. Marion, a few thoughts – Moby Dick is generally acknowledged as the great novel of the 19th century and Gone With The Wind is probably the great novel of the first half of the 20th century.

    Once upon a time, Pat Conroy told me while we were lifting some good whiskey that the great novel of the 2d half of the 20th century had not yet been written…and when it was it would be about the relationships of men and women during and post Vietnam. He further added that he probably was not capable of it because he did not experience Vietnam and he could not write steamy scenes. That’s a tall statement coming from a writer of his caliber. He made a stab at it with South of Broad but if you’re not from Charleston, that book is difficult to understand.

    So far the great novel of the Vietnam war by far is Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes – well written and really great because it’s mostly true. It ranks right up there with The Thin Red Line or The Caine Mutiny….but no sex scenes so it doesn’t meet Conroy’s criteria. Al

    • I wanted to include something by Conroy, but got diverted in the process. What do you think is his best? The Great Santini? Steamy scenes are not necessary though his insight otherwise may be right on. I have not read Matterhorn. I will get it.

  5. Joe

    The Fountain Head & Ulysses don’t belong in the same sentence. Some people decide not to read Ulysses and that is fine. But don’t put it in the same sentence with The Fountain Head.

    • So, Joe, which of the two do you like and which do you not like? I think I know, but your comment is not clear about that. As you can tell from what I wrote, I liked neither.

  6. Marion, I may be too close to the subject to give an unbiased judgement. Conroy is maybe the most technically proficient writer around today. He’s a joy to read. My favorite is The Lords of Discipline because I lived it along with Conroy. But many of us Citadel grads feel that Conroy sold out his friends and his school for the success of his writing. And there is no doubt he sold out his family by portraying them as a bunch of wackos, which they are not. Santini is a gross exaggeration…but it is no doubt a great novel. BTW, Santini, Don Conroy, was the most decorated aviator in Marine Corps history. Conroy of late has acknowledged the above and his mea culpa was My Losing Season. Likely too late.

    Matterhorn is about 9th Marines in Operation Dewey Canyon in 69 at Tiger Mountain. Google it. Once again I’m partial because it is almost identical to what I experienced in the 101st about 20-30 miles south of Tiger Mountain.


  7. Tom

    Ulysses is a great book BECAUSE of its obtuseness.

  8. Thank you for including The Color Purple — my own favorite. It changed my views on everything.

    • Laura, That is quite a statement. I’d be interested in knowing more. Fiction is powerful, and I keep writing non-fiction. But non-fiction can also be powerful. So I keep writing.

  9. Lola McCrarey

    Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

    • The Poisonwood Bible and Barbara Kingsolver are two of my all-time favorites, but it takes place in the Congo, so I disqualified it based on my personal persnickety criteria. I liked Pigs in Heaven and I can’t remember if I read the Bean Trees, so I didn’t want to include something I don’t remember reading. But The Poisonwood Bible is magnificent.

  10. Jack

    Where are the great critics of American society: Dos Passos, Dreiser, Norris, Lewis? The stylists James and Wharton? Thomas Wolfe?

    • I have added a couple to my list based on your suggestions (or, more accurately, your questions). I will repost the new list later. In the meantime, I need to read some of your suggestions. Having grown up in the deep south in the 1950’s and 60’s, “great critics of American society” were not on my reading lists. I have read none of Dos Passos, for example. Much as I wanted to like Thomas Wolfe and Henry James, I did not.

  11. Jim Catoe

    I’ve read many of the novels on your list and enjoyed most. I would like to submit for consideration “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. I quote the great Walker Percy in the forward to the book: “Here is Ignatius Reilly, without progenitor in any literature I know of—slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one—who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age.”

    • Jim, A Confederacy of Dunces did nothing for me. I tried and either it failed or I failed. I will return to it some day based on your recommendation, which I respect.

      • Jim Catoe

        Thanks Marion. I have had several friends over the years that matched the profile of Ignatius to a tee. To be honest, I probably harbor some of his miscreant traits in my genetic composition, which is probably why I enjoyed the book so much.

  12. Kim

    I’ve only read 12 from the list, but “To Kill A Mockingbird” is the first and last on my list. In my opinion, it IS the great American novel. Having taught it five times a day for eleven years,I still find something new and exciting every time I read it!

    I’m wondering if your “important” list the same as “marginalized” literature. That’s where I’ve usually found Z.N. Hurston. I don’t love “Eyes,” but do find it intriguing. Her dialect is spot on.

    Did you like “Unbroken” by Hilldebrand, “Mudbound” by Jordan, and “Wednesday Wars” by Schmidt? Maybe not great American lit, but I loved those! (I keep my own list of my all time favorite books- currently 45 greats and hundreds categorized less than great!)

    • Kim, I have not read the books you suggest but will put them on my To read list, which I have been compiling. I don’t need a book to be great to read it. I read what I lovingly refer to as junk–murder mysteries, etc.–but they can be entertaining and sometimes the social commentary is very insightful. John D. MacDonald, with his Travis McGee series, was writing about environmental issues long before it was cool–back in the 1950’s and 60’s.

    • Kim, I also wanted to comment on the marginalized issue. Another commenter mentioned something about that. My education was in the days of segregation. You can bet we read nothing by a black person or any other “marginal” person. I did read Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, in high school, and that was important in my pilgrimage.

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