Examining the concept of the Great American Novel

The other day in writing about how the publishing industry has marginalized the value of the novella, I mentioned two books as being the seminal American books: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

I stand by that claim but I want to elaborate on the idea of the Great American Novel, a concept long discussed and debated by literary critics, English professors, and enthusiastic readers for decades, if not centuries.

What is the criteria for being the Great American Novel?

Nobody knows. Some have tried to posit criteria but literature is not a science–it’s art and therefore subjective to individual interpretation.

Can there be more than one Great American Novel?

I certainly think so. Are The Executioner’s Song and East of Eden what everyone thinks are the Great American Novels? Definitely not–East of Eden still hasn’t gotten the admiration and study it deserves from the literary community.

Perhaps this concept of the Great American Novel needs to be abolished and put in its place an American canon, which we surely have. For my part, I would put into this literary time capsule: The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the WestMoby-DickAtlas ShruggedA Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, Tinkers, and The Jungle.

Some might disagree, others would surely add to my list, perhaps adding Richard Wright’s Native Son or Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, maybe even David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces.

I don’t disagree (except with Infinite Jest)–these novels simply didn’t speak to me the way the ones I mentioned before did.

And those won’t speak to everyone else the same way they did to me.

It took me reading Catcher in the Rye twice to finally grasp its beauty and its intergenerational appeal: Holden Caulfield, racked with pain, rages against all normalcy and tradition.

Jay Gatsby, so rich in things but poor and desperate in spirit, in love.

Captain Ahab dedicating his life to chasing his obsession, which he has no possibility of killing even if he should catch up to it–the futility and the consequences of undying rage.

Though I disagree with its ideology, Atlas Shrugged–a groundbreaking concept for a novel in the 1950s, a prelude to steampunk culture, and an ode of devotion to capitalism and free-market economy.

Though not a scene is set in America, A Farewell to Arms captures the essence of the American spirit during World War I: Repress your emotions, do your job, and move on with your life. The tragedy is made all the more heart-wrenching because of the characters’ unwillingness to voice or show how much it hurts them.

The Grapes of Wrath is a stark portrayal of life in the Dust Bowl and for the Okies in California. On par with Sinclair’s The Jungle in terms of its influence on journalism, Steinbeck sought truth and reported it in this novel–though not without a tinge of fiction and narrative in it as well. The message of the novel is not only American but also universal (or should be at least): Help people in any way you can. We are brothers and sisters. We are connected and we need each other to survive.

Tinkers is a short but utterly magical read. Paul Harding is man, like film director Wes Anderson, who sees beauty and magic in everything, even the most mundane things such as insulation or drywall. As I wrote about in another post, profound brevity is essential to writing and Tinkers is nothing if not brief but profound. In its 55,000 it so beautifully renders scenes over 40 years of a family in flux.

The Jungle, as mentioned above, and Sinclair in general are essential to investigative reporting and littérature vérité. Without Sinclair’s fearlessness and foresight in reporting the conditions of meatpacking factories at the turn of the century, John Steinbeck may never have undertaken to report on the conditions lived in by the Oklahomans of the Dust Bowl and their struggle in finding livelihoods in California. Hunter S. Thompson’s yellow-gonzo journalism may never have found an audience. Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song may never have been written. The entire genre of creative nonfiction would likely have never come into the mainstream.

So what are The Executioner’s Song and East of Eden about anyway? I talk about them enough but why are they so important to me and why do I think they are so essential to the heritage of American literature?

The Executioner’s Song is the story of Gary Gilmore, who, after being released from prison in the 1970s, took little time in killing two people, seemingly for no reason. He was of course imprisoned again and, to the shock of the nation, demanded he be executed–which hadn’t been done in Utah at the time in almost a decade.

The novel is exhaustive in its examinations of Gilmore’s life before and in prison, of his girlfriend Nicole’s and their relationship, and the media’s obsession with Gilmore, the death penalty, and sensationalism.

Most amazing to me is the fact Mailer published the 1,100-page novel in 1979, just three years after Gilmore committed the murders and was imprisoned. Granted he admits in his acknowledgments that he had typists and researchers helping him but 1,100 pages in three years–of a recent event–is to me astounding dedication and skill. I’m writing a true-crime book myself about an event that took place in 2004 and it’s exhausting, absorbing, and I have no idea when it’ll be done.

Capote took years to write In Cold Blood and needed Harper Lee’s help to complete it.

The Executioner’s Song is a once-in-a-lifetime work and I doubt a book as ambitious, timely, comprehensive, and entertaining will ever be written.

Regarding East of Eden, Steinbeck considered it his magnum opus, though readers and literary critics tend to disagree with him, favoring Grapes of Wrath. I love Grapes of Wrath but it’s creative nonfiction and Steinbeck wrote it with the mindset of a journalist–objectively–with all the emotion of a Jack London book.

East of Eden, on the other hand, is bursting with the romanticism of a Victorian novel. Steinbeck describes in almost excruciating detail the environment of California. He did this because, by his own admission, East of Eden was the closest thing he would write to an autobiography: He wrote it for his children, his grandchildren, to remember him by.

Besides the rich details, Steinbeck weaves an intergenerational story similar to that in Tinkers and retells the story of Cain and Abel–then tells it again and again. The novel, though very grounded and straightforward-seeming, is actually very existential and philosophical, asking why the story of Cain and Abel–the story of envy and avarice–happens over and over in life. Will it ever stop?

East of Eden is not perfect but it’s engrossing, almost addictive, to read.

I saved McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for last because it has a special place in my heart. I hesitated it in saying it was on the same level as The Executioner’s Song and East of Eden only because I think it’s audience is narrower than the latters’, which have universal appeal because of the familiarity of their messages.

Blood Meridian has a morbid message: The more intelligent humanity becomes and the more knowledge we have, the more depraved we become.

The novel takes place in the deserts of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Mexico, and southern California. If you’ve never lived in the desert, the world presented in Blood Meridian will seem like an alien world, one where the morals of society, the morals of society past, have never existed.

In McCarthy’s world there are no laws, no values. It’s a primitive world where the strongest, the most willing to commit violence and abhorrent acts on other people, survive.

On the surface the story is of a group of mercenaries hired by the Mexican government to kill Apaches. And they do so with pleasure. Sadism is the only emotion in the novel, which took me two tries five years apart to finish.

It’s unconventional, difficult to sympathize with, relentless, and unapologetic but it’s also incredibly complex, well thought out, and astoundingly visual.

If any of these novels intrigue you, I encourage you to give them a try. You may not be able to finish them, it may take you a while to finish them, but in the end I don’t think you’ll regret it.

What novels

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