The Great American Novel — my runners-up

1. Faulkner.  He came close to winning.  But which novel?  Absalom, Absalom is the deepest and richest.  But you need to read it at least twice in a row, and that makes it less of a story.  Here is the first pageAs I Lay Dying is the most enjoyable.  Read it through once, without trying to understand it.  Then read it through voice-by-voice.  Then read it through again.  Sound and the Fury and Light in August (Faulkner’s easiest major work) cannot be dismissed either.

2. Henry James – The Golden Bowl.  Are you interested in Girardian doubles, the triangulation of desire, self-deception, the use of gifts to imprison, the mediation of desire through objects, and the dynamics of marriages?  This was James’s last and best novel.  For my taste Portrait of a Lady is static and stands too close to the Merchant Ivory tradition.  Interestingly, I believe not one of you mentioned James in the comments thread.

3. Huckleberry Finn.  It seems more Shakespearian each time I read it.  Right now Yana is reading it and loving it.

A few comments: Fitzgerald is not quite there.  I am tempted to count Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as a novel, not a poem.  Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Nabokov’s Pale Fire are close, although my wife will not let me treat the latter as an American novel.  Philip Roth has many excellent novels but no one for me stands out.  Only the first third of Gravity’s Rainbow is wonderful.  I prefer Hemingway’s short fiction and most of all his sociological non-fiction on bullfighting.  Bellow is excellent but I wonder how much his books will mean to people one hundred years from now.  The dark horses you already have heard about.


Fitzgerald is not quite there.

Let me be the first to ask: why not? That's
a sufficiently idiosyncratic judgment that
I'm guessing there must be some very
interesting thought process behind it...

I think in addition to your criteria, there is an additional one that is critical, and perhaps most important. The GAN must be a work _that could only have arisen in America_. By that condition, of the titles I've seen mentioned here, only Huck Finn qualifies. I'm sure there are others, and I'm still thinking. Perhaps Catch-22, some Roth, surely there are others.

I had to read Faulkner in college. It was the one with the 3 page long sentence about the Idiot Ike Snopes having sex with a cow, only I didn't know that until the prof told us in class later. I have not picked up Faulkner since then. Too much effort, not enough entertainment.

Great. Thanks. You make me want to go back to the ones I haven't read in 40 years (i'm so changed surely my reading will be); the ones you chose are so big they still send off echoes from far back in my memory.

Billy Budd. The Scarlet Letter. Faulkner as Colossus. The great old ones remain great. And if Kate Chopin can be rescued from the feminists, she, too, packs a wallop. And Cather's life force! She & Chopin give us the twentieth century battles at once - self & other.

But Fitzgerald - he seems great style but little substance. It seems strange to see him in this company--but maybe I've been missing something.

I haven't read any Faulkner or Henry James but I'm definitely a fan of Fitzgerald. Little substance? What do you mean? What books of his have you read?

Fitzgerald covers a different theme than others, perhaps: mainly the lifestyles of rich, intellectual dilentattes. But at the same time he cuts deep into what day to day life is about and makes witty observations on it. It's just kinda surreal sometimes.

I'm not going to try arguing against Melville or Faulkner--they certainly
deserve their reputations. But I've never enjoyed any novel more than
Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove". For those who have seen the miniseries
but haven't read the book, you've missed a lot. Good as it was, the
miniseries completely missed the book's humor.

Dos Passos!

Comments for this post are closed