TMR Picks The Great American Novels
If there’s one certainty about the literary community, it’s that we can never agree on what the Great American Novel is. For some the Great American Novel will always be The Great Gatsby, and for others the Great American Novel hasn’t even been written yet. Perhaps it’s fitting that the most quintessential medium of American art is also the one that is hardest to pin down — after all, we are a country built on fierce individualism, so why should we have just one novel? Nevertheless, The Millions recently published an article, “The Greatest American Novel? 9 Experts Share Their Opinions.” The list had some noble nominations, but we couldn’t help but suggest a few more during discussions around the TMR office. Eventually, we decided to compile our own list of the greatest American novels with nominations coming from our staff and interns. The list ranges from classics to things some might not even consider “American,” but to paraphrase Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes and so should the Great American Novel.
A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
It’s at once triumphant, indulgent, tragic, depressed, uneven, brilliant and partially fabricated. Maybe the perfect work to fit into the modern American psyche. Technically, it doesn’t fit the category, but bending the rules (or breaking them) might add to its appropriateness.
-Brad Babendir, intern
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Moby Dick; Or, The Whale by Herman Melville. Calling this book a novel doesn’t seem completely accurate. There is an adventure plot (kill the whale!) and memorable characters (Ishmael, Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck) and a narrative voice (in Ishmael) that remains distinctly American. It’s easy to forget about Melville’s breathtaking prose, and the precise and insightful observations about whaling and American industry. The large sections that have nothing to do with the explicit plot is what makes Moby Dick so great: there are digressions about anatomy, philosophy, sailing, and death, and the feeling is that this delightful book just barely holds together. But it does hold, giving us the most memorable—the most American—of tragedies: a quest novel laced in style, symbol, metaphor and soliloquies that is the best in our literature. (Honorable Mentions: My Antonia, Angle of Repose, Invisible Man, Stoner, Song of Solomon)
-Michael Nye, Managing Editor
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
What’s more American than decadence, idealism, and vanity mixed in with a little social upheaval? What is a more nouveaux riche versus vieux riche storyline than America’s coming-of-age in the landscape of modern Western society? We first decided how we wanted to identify ourselves as the Jazz Age was in full swing, and this novel makes the reader want to love and lust, hate and injure, fight and experience all in step with the vibrant characters throughout the story, who if they could not be described by anything else, they would be called “Americans…”
-Jeremy Hart, intern
How can I not say Gatsby? I mean, sure, surprise!, but the novel is the paragon of 1920s America, perhaps our most abstractly desperate days. Do we reveal more about ourselves than during those times when we’re most desperate? Fitzgerald renders an America ruled by capital — be it wealth or aesthetic — and because the characters have achieved the social pinnacle, and because by nature there cannot be another way to depart from top, the novel’s populace presumed or modeled after the most powerful Americans linger on every page with a sense of apprehended demise. As if one cannot ambition himself, no matter his fervor, beyond the boundaries of individual worth. Statuses fail, Fitzgerald shows us. We need something more. Gatsby sought that in Daisy. But his desire for her was no less flawed than the entire construct of societal hierarchy and achievement captured in the novel. He embodied everything both idealized and cynical, and he was always doomed because of this flaw. How is this not the most perfect rendition of the American Dream? How could I possibly select something else?
– Kyle Burton, Editorial Assistant
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Both novels depict different aspects and different eras of America. Gatsby, the Roaring Twenties and America in its prime; Kerouac, a great period of uncertainty for America in the mid-twentieth century. Gatsby also depicts dysfunction and class within American society — Kerouac, basically the same. Kerouac also explores the wild plains of America, places that most people on the East Coast can only travel to through his words. Each book is quintessentially American in its own unique way. Yet both have stood the test of time as they are both still timeless classics and — much to the chagrin of some — still required reading in schools. It is by these traits that each can vie for the title of the Great American Novel.
-Brianna Westervelt, intern
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
For me, the whole fun of picking a Great American Novel is going out on a bit of a limb. I toyed around with picking Willa Cather’s My Antonia because it is my favorite American novel, then thought I’d go a little further out on the branch with her The Professor’s House, since not enough people have read it and those who have mostly end up harshly (and wrongly) criticizing it, but both of those seemed to me like GAN’s of a particular era—not quite timeless enough. So I landed on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: Yeah, yeah, it’s regional—set in New Orleans, but for me this picaresque novel captures—through the exploits of Ignatios J. Reilly, Burma Jones, and a cast of other characters, the absurd, ambitious, pathetic, hilarious, passionate, self-obsessed, and self-destructive contradictions that make up American history. And I can’t think of a book I plain enjoy more than Dunces, despite the way the characters so often frustrate and even infuriate me—isn’t that a lot like the experience of being an American?
-Mike Petrik, Contest Editor
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I’m not terribly fond of boundaries, but neither were the rulers of Gilead when it came to personal or moral boundaries. This dystopian novel is the greatest true horror story ever written. It remains of particular importance for American women – and all women – now as much as when it was first published. It conflates so many past atrocities into one place and one time, and as you read there’s this nagging suggestion that it can – and more than likely will – happen again. A cautionary tale at its finest, and a breathtaking exploration of women and men under an oppressive regime. There’s hope, too, because no matter how structured our behavior is forced to be, those little humane moments can’t help but seep out.
-Alison Balaskovits, Social Media Editor
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
When selecting our choices of the “Great American Novel,” it seems to me that the books we consider ought to be relevant to American problems, even those that arise today. While the era in which the story takes place might not look the same, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents the problems that surface when a community considers itself “civilized” and appraises any person outside of that circle to be barbaric and worthy of pity or contempt. In the story, Huckleberry’s unquestioning compassion and flexible tolerance is mistaken by most to be ignorance. But “naivety” and “ignorance” aren’t interchangeable, and that fact will need to be taught again and again in civilized society. So while it might seem an unoriginal selection, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my pick, if only because it taught me that it’s o.k. to be naïve from time to time.
-Ben Cairns, intern
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
What’s more American than the superhero? Coming from humble origins yet still growing up to save the world, the superhero is the American Dream personified. The superhero is also what unites estranged cousins Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier as they devise a comic book centered around a masked crusader, The Escapist, on the brink of WWII. Chabon brings a sprawling, rich poetry to an artistic medium usually confined to pulp. Even if your comic books are relegated to a box in the basement or if you’ve never picked one up, Chabon’s passion for comics seeps through his writing and puts them into a deeper, artistic context. Add in Houdini hijinks, Nazis in Antarctica, the immigrant experience, what it’s like to be gay in 1950s America and a romance that starts at a party with Salvador Dalí — Kavalier & Clay becomes a true American epic.
-Tess Malone, intern
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
My choice for the “Great American Novel” is one that I feel is the most typically “American” story, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Set during the Great Depression, Steinbeck tells the tale of one family’s quest for relief during such a monumentally devastating time in American history. Steinbeck’s prose style is both easily accessible and universally relatable, making it an instant classic. This book exemplifies the American dream for many, emphasizing core values such as hard work, family, humility and decency.
-Claire Giovanoni, intern
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Egan’s novel pieces together the criss-crossed lives of two people as they destroy and revisit their pasts of rock n’ roll, loss, and love. A passionate depiction of life through music and family, using innovative formats such as power point, Goon Squad is a book of 13 short love stories disguised as a novel. Egan has created a new kind of storytelling for fiction that honestly portrays the lives of Americans.
-Delia Rainey, intern
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Native Son by Richard Wright
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Here are three American books that I read at just the right time in life. All are classics, definitely. The “great” part is in the timing of the read and the imprint on the mind of the reader. These are three of many that I read at just the right time, so they tattooed themselves on my consciousness: The Yearling for its recreation of a poor boy’s life and heartbreak in the Florida swamplands; Native Son for its racial rage that you can’t look away from. Catch-22 for its language play, American subversiveness and comic invention.
-Evelyn Somers, Associate Editor
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
What is more American than creating a religion based on acknowledging its own falsehoods, owning a Caribbean island, constructing a government on said island in order to both admonish and bolster that religion, and finally, rendering the island (and less than a minute later, the world) inhabitable? Described this way, Cat’s Cradle sounds, to me, like it could be the one page bio of one of Forbes’ richest men (though not all American, we still hold the most—something to be proud of, like the number of gold medals in the summer Olympics). Vonnegut’s self-deprecating (in a collective humanitarian sense) humor stands out as very American, and his playful, at times terrifyingly dark optimism strikes me as something we should cherish and be proud to consider an embodiment of our nation.
Drown by Junot Dìaz
Okay, so this is a short story collection, but it is the best piece I can think of that embodies what it means to be an American today, not to mention it is a great read. These stories tell the lives of immigrants and almost immigrants, of American citizens who are neither “American” nor any longer “Dominican”; the characters come from fractured families who straddle the line between achieving their “American dream” and crumbling into the growing abyss of poverty, slumming away in a life better than before but by no means great. This collection personifies those of us stuck in the middle: whether we are one of the staggering percentage of Americans speaking English as a second language and supporting any country but the one whose name is on our passport during the World Cup, or even if we come from a family that has slid from the suburbs, whose parents, cousin’s and siblings have lost jobs or homes, forcing us to adopt to our new surroundings.
-David Aubuchon, intern
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This book is an epic story of an hermaphrodite, an immigrant family, and the cultural transformations of a nation coming into it’s own. Middlesex is a great American novel not only for its level of craft, but because of its ability to capture the American spirit into 527 pages. I also applaud its featuring of an intersex narrator, and dropping him into the greater generational context of his family giving him more depth than is usually afforded queer characters.
-Bobby O’Neil, intern
The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells
The headliner of American Realism. The novel functions in American Literature as a complete denouncement of romanticism and also as a portrait of the simultaneously mobile and static social class system of 19th century America. Howells captures America’s “rags to riches” story in Lapham’s rise to fortune, but breathes realism into the idealistic myth through the protagonist’s comic inability to join the old-money American aristocracy and his eventual return to poverty at the hands of regaining his own morality.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
McCuller’s characters portray defining movements of American culture, like the labor movement and the Civil Rights movement, side by side with the darkness of personal struggle, like losing a loved one and coming of age. The characters find themselves universally isolated by the uncertainty of their own lives. In John Singer, a deaf-mute, McCuller’s characters create a god-like figure, each seeing in Singer what he wants most to believe in order to lessen his particular feeling of alienation. Thus, the novel defines the creation of religion as the instinctual reaction to darkness. In its focus on the effects of broad social movements on individuals, the novel captures the feeling of uncertainty that would eventually define twentieth century America.
-Kelly Kiehl, intern