The Great American Novel — my pick

1. It must reward successive rereadings and get better each time.

2. It must be canonical and grip the imagination.

3. It must be linked to American history and letters in some essential way.

4. It must span the intellectual, the emotional, the religious, and the metaphysical.

5. It must be fun.  You must be sad when the book is over, and wish it had been longer than it was.

6. It must be about a large white whale and have numerous Biblical allusions.

That leaves us with Moby Dick at the top. 

The most indicative chapter for the book’s strangeness is "A Squeeze of the Hand."  Has anyone done a better literary treatment of a homosexual ******-****, much less when writing about whale spermaceti?  Excerpt:

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,  – literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,  – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Here comes the best part:

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.

Get the picture?  But do read the whole (short) chapter at the link, just in case you are confused about the context…

The method of the novel, if you can call it one, is madness.  It is a collage of impressions, tales, facts about whaling, erotic interludes, and observations about social science.  Occasionally the plot resurfaces but this can involve less rather than more tension.  Moby Dick also can be read as pure commentary on the Bible or Shakespeare.  Melville knew who his competitors were. 

I’ve talked to many people who find the book offputting.  Delve right in and embrace the strangeness.  Take the ostensible masculinity and interpret it, and all the other foibles, as over-the-top.  Dig out the implicit theology.  Think of it as a new literary model.  And best of all, read only one short chapter a day.

Tomorrow you get the near runners-up.  Do feel free to offer your first place picks in the comments.

Comments

Huckleberry Finn.

I'm sure it'll make your runners up list.

I second Huckleberry Finn.
If I were agreeing to Tyler's criteria, I would pick the Old Man and the Sea, which offers a big fish as well.

James Woods has a fascinating review of Andrew Delbanco's new book on Melville in the last december issue of the New Republic. 12/26. In one characteristically insighful passage he writes:

Again and again, Melville stretches his similes and metaphors, risks their formal success, pushes them to the rim of the plausible, so that rather than simply asserting that x is like y, he seems often to be floating a hypothesis: suppose that x were seen as y.

Check it out....Of course, on the more banal side, we also have Melville to thank for giving Starbucks its name.

Moby Dick is the obvious choice and one that gets little argument. My 10th grade English teacher (he was one of the greats) held it as his bible. When a hapless classmate tore out a page in class to blow his nose, we all feared for the boy's life.

But your earlier post asked for darkhorse candidates which Melville's opus certainly is not.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

Sadly, "The Adventures of Augie March" doesn't have a white whale. But it does have some satisfyingly bizarre eagle-training.

Moby Dick, for all its many virtues, is not an easy read. And at the risk of being insufficiently elitist, that matters. Should the Great American Novel be one with the greatest impact on the most people? In that case To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, or Gatsby are more likely, simply by ease of use.

Melville was a genius (and I love Typee, too), but can something be the Great American Novel if most Americans can't be bothered to read it? And accuse them of being lumpen Xbox players if you like, but there is a very large book-buying and book-reading population. (Thanks, Oprah.)

Books and plays help to teach us how to live-- that's where the impact is. So if not many people can/will get the lessons from it, it hurts its case as Great American Novel significantly.

Gravity's Rainbow gets a bad rap because so many people are SO pretentious about it. It's a really FUNNY book though, and it fits all of the criteria, except for #6.

I would vote for GR, but I wouldn't complain about Moby Dick's inevitable victory.

There hasn't been one that deserves the title, and there probably never will be.

Another vote for Infinite Jest. Aside from #6, it fulfills the requirements with flying colors. Gravity's Rainbow horribly fails #5, for me -- I like to secretly tell myself that Wallace had the same reaction to the end of GR that I did and designed IJ, with its circular never-quite-reach-the-end conclusion, to address it.

If only Ahab had access to a Nozick:

nozick, n. (from nostrum + physick) Political snake oil, a patent medicine, esp. a cathartic or purgative. "Waste not logick, not yet strong physick, on the Leviathan; serve it nozick, and stand back." - Hobbes.

From the philosophical lexicon.

I read Infinite Jest and loved it, but doesn't it fail the first clause of #2? It's not canonical, and I think it has a very small chance of ever acquiring that status.

I go back and forth between Moby Dick and Gatsby, occasionally thinking Gatsby is too narrow in scope, until I reread it and realize it's not. Ask me again in 20 years, though, and Blood Meridian may have overtaken them both. It clearly meets criteria 1-5 and the second clause of 6. It also arguably meets the large white whale clause, since many critics have drawn parallels between the giant albino Judge and Ahab and/or the Whale. Finally, I was struck the last time I read it by how applicable its themes are to our involvement in Central Asia, and I think that is an essential quality of a classic work of literature/the GAN--it should always remain relevant even as the world changes.

Moby Dick is a bad pick. (No pun intended.) Its a far too difficult read to be a great book.

A great book should work on several levels. Ie when you read it the first time you read it for the plot. Accordingly the plot should be understandable and interesting. Then when you reread it you should discover the other layers.

Take Shakespeare as an example. You can read his works in mindless way and get great satisfaction from the plot and the language. But you can also read it in a thoughtful way, looking for hidden symbols and references and you discover something new every time you do this. Moby Dick fails to be interesting the first time when you read the book for its plot.

Anyway the interesting question is of course not finding the good books but the bad ones. To exclude Serbian pornographic novels and the like, the question should be the following: "Which literay work, that is commonly considered a classic, is the worst you have read?" Maybe your next blogging subject, professor?

Grapes of Wrath.

Ms. Eclectic suggests Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.

My own choices waver between The Sun Also Rises, The Last of the Mohicans, Elmer Gantry, and Green Eggs and Ham.

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

Plain and simple.

I think I'd take Catch-22 over Gravity's Rainbow for that period.

I can't believe anyone's even suggesting Infinite Jest, a book I've read twice & liked very much. Give me a break.

The line from Absalom, Absalom! (which I've argued for in another thread here) is, more or less, "I dont hate the South. I don't hate it. I dont! I dont! I dont!" Which I keep meaning to get on a T-shirt.

Agreed that Gravity's Rainbow gets a bad rap. It's a fun book and arguably the Great American Postwar Novel. Joyce and Pynchon have been almost smothered by allusion-hunters.

I would have said

Of Mice or Men, though technically it's a novella or
Death of a Salesman, though it's a play

so that leaves me with Slaughterhouse-Five, Montana Wildhack's breasts are clearly representative of a great white whale.

I taught American English for thirty-two years - - Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick and To Kill a Mockingbird were all great, though my own choice was To Kill a Mockingbird - - much more thought in much shorter space. My students loved it.
Let me add a new favorite for your consideration - - don't laugh - - It's Lonesome Dove. Loved it. Highly recommend it.

I like Mike's _Lonesome Dove_ suggestion, one of my favorite books. I've taught English for 20 years and half as many summer sessions and I nominate: 1) _Grapes of Wrath_; 2) _All the King's Men_ (Robert Penn Warren); 3) _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ (although I have reservations about the last third of the novel); 4) _Invisible Man_ (Ralph Ellison); 5) Thomas Wolfe's _You Can't Go Home Again_; 6) _From Here to Eternity_ (James Jones); 7) _Going After Cacciato_ (Tim O'Brien); 8) _Lonesome Dove_ (Larry McMurtry); 9) _The Great Gatsby_ (Scott Fitzgerald); and 10) the short story collections of Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, and/or Flannery O'Connor (all of whose loosely-connected stories are novelesque reads).

My selection would be The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. Also, I believe Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis should receive some attention.

Comments for this post are closed