"Gentleness is a divine trait; nothing is so strong as gentleness and nothing is so gentle as real strength"

- Ralph W Sockman
Greatest American Novel?

This topic came up tonight at dinner and someone suggested I ask the blogosphere.

What do you consider to be the greatest American novel, and why?

Put your thoughts in the comments thread. Thanks!

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Comments on "Greatest American Novel?":
1. Bird - 02/16/2014 8:30 pm CST

I am so not a fiction reader. Most moving novel I have ever read was not American (Les Miserables). Can't think of any American fiction that has stirred me to my bones, but, of course, I don't read much fiction.

2. Bill - 02/16/2014 8:35 pm CST

I had trouble pinpointing the greatest novel, personally, but I think I comes down to either Moby Dick or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Other nominations were The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath and A Prayer for Owen Meaney.

3. NHE - 02/16/2014 8:57 pm CST

Outside of Clancy and Grisham back in the day, I'm not much of a novel reader either. Of the American Classics I've read, To Kill a Mockingbird is by far the best.

4. Karl - 02/17/2014 6:17 am CST

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would probably get my vote, but Moby Dick is right up there for me. To Kill a Mockingbird is a fantastic and important one, too.

5. Karl - 02/17/2014 6:40 am CST

I just noticed the "why" part of the question. Huck Finn is just plain fun to read pretty much all the way through, something that can't be said for Moby Dick or some of the other nominees. It took on the huge social issue of racism as did To Kill a Mockingbird, but more subtly (for the most part) and with great humor and humanity. It captures so well (albeit through Twain's somewhat cynical and exaggerated lens) a sense of the America of that place and time, and the use of uneducated young Huck as the lens through which to process everything is inspired and well executed. Farce is balanced with "what's going to happen to them" story-driven narrative, with big social issues woven throughout but not in a preachy or dominating way.

None of that is to knock To Kill a Mockingbird or the other possible choices. Just a bit of what I appreciate about Huck Finn. If Flannery O'Connor had written novels instead of short stories, she might top my list.

6. Shrode - 02/18/2014 1:58 am CST

What would be the criteria to determine "greatest"?

Best written?
Best Story?
most popular?
most influential?
most remembered?
most timeless?

I would nominate for consideration:
Huckleberry Finn & Tom Sawyer together
Call of the Wild
"The Princess Bride"
Catch-22
Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy
I hate to admit it, but "The Great Gatsby"
and yeah, Moby Dick and To Kill a Mockingbird too.
What about "Pilgrim's Progress"?

I'm just glad there's no Hemingway or Faulkner on our list so far. The only reason anyone reads those guys is because their teacher's make them, and the only reason their teacher's make them, is because teachers' teachers made them too and they want to pass along the misery.

7. Karl - 02/18/2014 12:44 pm CST

I almost asked a similar question re. how do we define the "greatest" novel?

I don't think Pilgrim's Progress counts as an American novel.

Can you count Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as one novel?

Some of those others I might well have on a "favorite novel" list but maybe just based on how I interpreted the perceived weight of the word "greatest" I didn't put Jack London, The Princess Bride or other favorites of mine on the list. But I guess that's what makes a subjective question like this fun. I hope others will chime in with thoughts.

I like "The Old Man and the Sea" but haven't enjoyed any of Hemmingway's other writing that I have attempted. My limited experience with Faulkner is the same as yours.

I don't think Pilgrim's Progress is an American Novel. Not sure it's a novel, either. Is it? Does a straight allegory count as a novel? It's a great book, regardless.


8. Shrode - 02/18/2014 3:39 pm CST

Karl,
Thanks for responding!
I agree about favorites...but it is subjective, right? :-) I put Princess Bride in there partially to see if anyone was paying attention, and also because we got to read it my 10th grade honors English class. I figure the "canon" from which most of us have to choose from is books we were forced to read in school, right? :-)

I would make a case for putting Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn together. If it weren't for Tom, there would be no Huck. And citing "Huck" is I think, shorthand for both which are a part of our cultural memory. It's kind of like when "Return of the King" was given the Academy Award, but everyone knew it was for the whole trilogy.

"Old Man and the Sea" was the only Hemingway that wasn't terrible, because it wasn't about a bunch of selfish expatriates sitting around drinking and talking about adultery.

9. Andrew - 02/18/2014 4:42 pm CST

I'm just glad there's no Hemingway or Faulkner on our list so far. The only reason anyone reads those guys is because their teacher's make them, and the only reason their teacher's make them, is because teachers' teachers made them too and they want to pass along the misery.

Disagree strongly. Explanation forthcoming.

10. Bill - 02/18/2014 4:48 pm CST

Yeah, when I saw that comment I started digging a foxhole, knowing that Andrew might have seen it too. ;-)

I don't know much about Faulkner, but we're the guys who made a special trip to his house (me, Andrew and his friend Kenny) on our Civil War battlefields epic adventure.

11. Karl - 02/18/2014 5:03 pm CST

Shrode, good explanation. I agree many of these we read in high school or college but not all of them for me. Somehow I missed "To Kill a Mockingbird" until I was in my mid 20's. And my Christian school didn't have us read too much that was controversial or which parents might object to (which meant no cuss words or $ex scenes and thus ruled out much of 20th century lit.) I'm a lifelong reader and both during school and in the years since, the novels I read outside of any school's curriculum far outnumber those I read in school. And I'm a big believer in the classics - spent much of my 30's trying to work my way through many of them.

No Orwell on anyone's list yet. Not exactly fun reading but great in some senses.

I still dunno about the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn thing. It seems like saying The Hobbit and LOTR should be counted as one book. In both cases the second work is in some sense a continuation of the first story but it is also a much more mature and weighty and "adult" work that is a different *sort* of thing in its own right. At least that's how it seems to me. But no worries about disagreeing.

Andrew (and Shrode) I realized that I conflated Faulkner with Steinbeck in my earlier comment and withdraw my stated distaste for Faulkner. Didn't like Steinbeck (though only made a halfhearted attempt at Grapes of Wrath), did enjoy the little bit of Faulkner that I read and I ought to try some more.

12. Bill - 02/18/2014 5:23 pm CST

No Orwell on anyone's list yet. Not exactly fun reading but great in some senses.

He's not American - he's British.

Although you just did inspire a post that I've been meaning to get around to.

13. Andrew - 02/18/2014 10:06 pm CST

I'm not going to really bring the ammunition on Faulkner. I will say only that The Sound and the Fury is one of the most powerful novels I've ever read. Light in August probably comes closer, though, to those quintessential American qualities that we might expect the "greatest" American novel to have. Faulkner's voice is, in my opinion, as close as it gets in America to matching the voice of the OT prophets (speaking purely of the quality of his voice, and not necessarily the content).

Moby Dick or Great Gatsby have my vote if the criterion for greatness is something like, "far-reaching literary influence." Those two novels have done more for separating American literature from Britain than anything else I can think of.

Karl, if you ever think of giving Steinbeck another go, Of Mice and Men is a much better starter, IMO, than The Grapes of Wrath. Far shorter, and better, I think.

I wonder if there are any more recent novels that might enter the conversation. Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo have all written great novels, but I'm not sure that any stand out above the others. (Blood Meridian, maybe?)

Marilynne Robinson is probably the best Christian writer around, though I haven't seen her in any Christian bookstores. Both Housekeeping and Gilead are excellent works of art (both widely acclaimed - Housekeeping won the National Book Award, and the other was nominated, I believe) that are explicitly Christian.

If I could nominate one book from the last 20 years, it would be David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I don't know if I've ever been so engrossed in a book for so long. It's a masterwork, IMHO.

14. Karl - 02/19/2014 6:21 am CST

Oops - you got me there, Bill. Should have checked on Orwell. I wonder why I've always thought of him as an American? Probably due to cold-war stuff - anyone who was anti-communist must be American as apple pie.

Andrew, you asked about recent novels or authors that might one day enter the conversation. I'd nominate Donna Tarrt - The Secret History, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch - as a candidate. Just got turned on to her writing recently and she is brilliant. Not cheerful, not Christian. But amazingly gifted.

15. British Nathan - 02/19/2014 8:04 am CST

Orwell? Orwell? HANDS OFF THE GREATEST JOURNALIST MY COUNTRY HAS EVER PRODUCED!! ;)

I can't complain; I was about to say Margaret Atwood as a great American novelist but then remembered she's as Canadian as maple syrup :)

Not The Handmaid's Tale, though. Haven't read Handmaid's Tale but I think it would annoy me, being a dystopia that we're just *never* going to fall into. The Maddaddam books, though - well, we're pretty much there...

16. Karl - 02/19/2014 10:39 am CST

Man I feel dumb about Orwell.

I have to take back what I said about Donna Tartt. Just learned she is a practicing Roman Catholic. Raised in Mississippi. No wonder her writing sometimes reminds me distantly of Flannery O'Connor. From an article in First Things reviewing her most recent novel:

“she affirmed: 'As a novelist who happens to be a Roman Catholic, faith is vital in the process of making my work and in the reasons I am driven to make it.'

"But she acknowledged a “constant tension” between her religious beliefs and secular vocation, and explained why she is so careful about combining the two. Nothing is more damaging to fiction, she wrote, than writers who try to impose their beliefs on their novels in a forced or unnatural way. Therefore, writers should “shy from asserting those convictions directly in their work.”

"True to that vision, The Goldfinch remains a largely secular story, and its characters often act as if God does not exist: They live for the moment, sin boldly, and speak in profane ways. Theo himself fluctuates between nihilism and hope, and compares his plight to the chained bird in The Goldfinch , observing “what a cruel life for a little living creature—fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.”

"And yet, echoes of the divine can still be found throughout The Goldfinch , even within the often despondent Theo . . ."

17. Andrew - 02/19/2014 10:19 pm CST

I've read A Secret History and enjoyed it. I want to read The Goldfinch soon, once I've been taken off my book-buying ban :-).

Speaking of Flannery O'Connor, I think she's someone who could have written a truly great American novel had she lived longer. I don't think anyone touches her short stories, but I believe she had some great novels in her. Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away each have moments of real brilliance, but still feel like elongated short stories. Definitely on my list of greatest American fiction writers, for sure.

18. Karl - 02/20/2014 9:51 am CST

Andrew, make sure you don't skip The Little Friend, either. It doesn't get talked about as much as Tartt's debut novel (Secret History) or current best seller (The Goldfinch) but I am really enjoying it. Set in Mississippi and as drenched with the deep south as The Secret History is with Vermont, it gives a glimpse into Tartt's own childhood and is the work of hers that most reminds me of O'Connor. And it's a compelling read.

I agree O'Connor could have written a great novel had she lived longer.

19. dbd - 02/21/2014 11:08 am CST

Quasi-objective vote: Moby Dock again

Sentimental favorite who hasn't been mentioned: Philip K Dick.

Did you guys know that, secondary to his sci-fi speculations being a cover for his methed-out paranoia, his methed-out paranoia was itself a cover for his own (paranoid/sci-fi) brand of Christian mysticism? Well it was.

Also seconding Delillo despite his decline, and Marilynne Robinson despite her mysterious choice to split Gilead/Home into two incomplete-feeling books.

But, where's Jared to boost Updike and Auster?

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