Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Debate rages on over the "Great American Novel" question

It's taken us a little while to post on this, but a few weeks ago there was an article in the New York Times announcing the "Best American Novel of the past 25 years," based on the opinions of a wide range of eminent writers and critics (invited to participate by the Times' Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus). Their choice was Toni Morrison's epic novel from 1987, Beloved. Astute TST readers will have noticed from the right-hand column on this page that Mutt has been working his way through the very same novel for the past week or so (not entirely a coincidence, needless to say... although to Mutt's credit, I know that he's been planning on reading the book for a long time -- this just gave him the necessary kick in the butt!).

An announcement like this is bound to throw gasoline on the already-raging flame of debate that swirls around the question, "Is there such thing as the Great American Novel, and if so, which one would it be?" Even if you narrow down the scope to the last quarter-century, the idea of choosing one novel that somehow captures all of the hope and heartache, joy and pain of this great country within its pages is, of course, a fool's errand worthy of the venerable Man of La Mancha. But since this is America, and we do love our polls, Top 10 lists and ranking sheets... why not perpetuate our penchant for rating things, and ring in on this most challenging and interesting of futile questions???

To that end, this post is intended to express my own opinions, but even moreso, to start a conversation. I invite anyone reading this to consider the great tradition of American literature (no matter how familiar or unfamiliar with it you may be), and then to think about what books from within that great tradition have been most important to you. Who are the American writers that you would consider to be the most important, the most relevant in any age? Who are the American novelists that have touched your heart and soul with the most memorable force? What are the “great American novels” you’ve read that you know you will never forget?

If I had to choose one novel to answer the question “What is the great American novel?,” and one to answer “What is the American novel you personally consider to be the most powerful and important?,” I think my answer would be the same for both: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. To me, that is not only one of the most exciting and fascinating novels from any writer I’ve ever read (it’s easily my choice for the most memorable and perfect denouement in any novel ever written), but it also uniquely captures the American story to me somehow, as the crew of the Pequod strive alternatively for adventure, commercial gain, meaning in a relentless and brutal universe, and ultimately, spiritual redemption and the answers to life’s biggest questions.

In my opinion, based of course on my own reading experiences and what I know of their styles and impact, the five brightest stars in the American literary pantheon are Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Take away any of these writers and the entire landscape of American literary history would be permanently altered. As much as I respect other American legends, I can’t say with 100% confidence that this is true of others that might be mentioned in such company… two writers who I would say are very close to making that short list, but not quite there, are Steinbeck and Hemingway. Theirs is certainly an American literature, Steinbeck’s especially... but I don’t feel their work is quite as innovative or important as that of any of the previously mentioned five. (Yet, an argument could certainly be made for The Grapes of Wrath as the quintessential American novel… I’m not saying it is, but I can understand the inclination to nominate it.) Hemingway’s, in fact, strikes me as a tad bit overrated, although I am definitely no expert when it comes to his stuff. It’s obviously had a major impact on the writers that have followed him in this country.

Perhaps a Top 10 Most Essential American Novels of All Time list might look something like this (in no particular order):

1. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
3. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
4. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
5. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
6. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
7. Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
8. The Violent Bear it Away, Flannery O’Connor
9. Main Street, Sinclair Lewis
10. The Sketch Book, Washington Irving (contains American folk tales of enduring popularity such as ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Rip van Winkle’)

The other work that certainly belongs on this list in terms of its influence (indeed, I would put it on par with Moby Dick and Huck Finn in this regard), but is not here because it is not a novel, is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. No question about that.

Now of course, any time you make a list like this, you are going to end up making choices that others would consider questionable, if not outright controversial. My list is no exception to that rule, I’m sure. Of course it’s MY list, so it’s obviously going to be colored by my own personal opinions and reading experiences. For example, I know a lot of readers would probably consider me nuts to put Winesburg, Ohio on a list of Top 10 most important American novels – but from all I’ve read, it’s one of the most unique and powerful books written about heartland America and its people out there. It’s arguably the finest portrait of small-town America ever written, and the stories had a deep and profound emotional resonance with me that I’ve rarely experienced anywhere else. Even putting Flannery O’Connor on this list would shock some, but to me that’s a no-brainer – her stories and two novels are utterly unique in all of American (hell, WORLD) literature. And though perhaps a writer like Washington Irving is not as widely known and read today, the stories he created have maintained a permanent place in this country’s mythology and psyche... and he was, in fact, the first American fiction writer to achieve wide readership and renown overseas. In a very real sense, Irving put the entire category of 'American literature' on the map!

Of course, there are other great writers that immediately come to mind as American superstars, and many jaws would be open in astonishment in reading my list due to their absence from it… I’m thinking of the work of Henry James, James Fennimore Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Adams, Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, Booker T. Washington, T. S. Eliot, Henry David Thoreau, Willa Cather, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Theodore Dreiser, Ayn Rand, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thorton Wilder or Eugene O’Neill. And yes, it is very hard to imagine American lit without any of them… but somehow to me, these don’t seem like the pillars that, if removed, would cause the entire structure to collapse…

When considering the modern era (as the New York Times was), there are other writers that enter the conversation too, whose work certainly cannot be ignored. There are obvious choices, like Morrison, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Cormac McCarthy, Don De Lillo, Philip Roth and Thomas Pyncheon. But then there are less obvious, but equally worthy, ones, such as Thomas Wolfe, Walker Percy, Stephen Wright, or Raymond Carver. And poets ought not to be ignored either… the work of Emily Dickinson, Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams and Richard Wilbur have made an indelible mark on American letters as well.

What about you? Which writers and works would be on YOUR list? Any article or event that keeps the conversation about, and the reading of, American literature going is worth noting, even celebrating. So hats off to Tanenhaus, A.O. Scott, the New York Times Book Review and its contributors for this interesting project.

May the reading never cease… and may Americans keep rising to their potential as true and unique voices of artistic freedom and integrity, in a world that is ever in need of such shining beacons to guide it along its harried and haunted voyage.


Aura McKnightly said...

I'd put John Irving's name in there for discussion. And Kurt Vonegett (sp?) too.

And this might seem like blaspheme, but as far as shaping the fabric of what America reads and in some instances giving an idea of small town life, you could throw Stephen King in there just for sheer discussion. I mean, if you're talking the past 25 years...

But, I'll let the experts do their work...

Duke Altum said...

See what I mean about the "debate"? :)

Actually those are all good suggestions Aura, and one could definitely make a case for including them. They're not particularly high on my personal list, although Vonnegut probably should have been mentioned in my list of modern greats... 'Slaughterhouse Five' is a very powerful book.

And when it comes to writers having an impact on the American literary scene over the course of the past 25 years, King's name is going to come up... although whether his stuff should be considered "literature" at all is definitely worth questioning. Saying that doesn't take away from his talent however, nor his track record of success (obviously!).

Thanks for ringing in... that was the whole point of this post! You've already added valuably to the conversation...