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What Is The Great American Novel?

October 27, 2020

When a classmate in college announced that his goal in life was to write THE Great American Novel, I thought, well, that’s kind of arrogant.

At that time, I was struggling to finish writing coherent short stories. Writing a novel would have been an accomplishment. Writing a great novel? Writing THE great American novel? That still seems too ambitious for me.

Critics can’t even agree what THE great American novel is right now. Below is a list of novels that make most Great American Novel lists. I don’t see my former classmate’s name on any of them. Actually, I don’t remember what his full name was, but I know his novel still hasn’t made the cut.


Moby Dick by Hermann Melville

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

The Great Gatsby by John F. Fitzgerald

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy


I’m not saying any of these books are THE Great American Novel. I’m just saying they’re on various lists. There probably isn’t really any book that is THE Great American Novel. It’s just a silly topic designed to start stupid arguments when we should be reading books rather than arguing about them.

To be fair to my former classmate decades ago, he might have written THE Great American Novel, but it wasn’t recognized as such by literary agents or book publishers. My classmate wasn’t rich and didn’t have connections. I think he was a pretty good writer, though.


Enough about me! What do you think? Do any of these books deserve to be acclaimed as THE Great American Novel? Is there really any such thing as THE Great American Novel?

  1. All the Kings Men. Years of overseas service gave me many questions. WHAT DO I READ TO UNDERSTAND AMERICA? Reaction was suitably humble.

    • When I was a kid, All the President’s Men was a big deal. Then years later, I learned about All the King’s Men.

      Now I’m interested in reading it (“it” being All the King’s Men). Good suggestion.

  2. I am always confused when they say THE GREAT American novel. Why THE great American novel? Why the GREAT American novel? Why The Great AMERICAN novel. See what I mean? That is a huge pair of shoes to fill. First you have to be THE… meaning most people have stumbled across you and have been impacted by you severely. And then you have to be GREAT… meaning there is very little out there that compares to you. Lastly you have to be great and the to the AMERICAN …consciousness? Way of life? People? What? As far as my thoughts on this go, it’s an awful statement to make and assumes only the books of which luck, opportunity and cultural capital have allowed them to be at the forefront of anything. Secondly, I have read every single one of the ones that have made your list and some impacted me way harder than others. For example I can never ever forget The Grapes of Wrath, but Moby Dick did not linger in my mind beyond the last page. There are others who will say something entirely different. There are other books which are not as famous which may have packed a better punch or addressed a Great American Issue better. Or maybe there are plenty of Great American Novels and this title is given to those which have a big impact on the American Way? Anyhoo. This post was an excellent read on a gloomy british morning. I wonder if we have a Great British Novel and what that may be.

    • Remember, it’s not “… a Great British Novel; It’s “… THE Great British Novel!”

      British literature might more to to work with than American literature. I think every country should have its “THE Great ________ Novel… or Poem… or Something.

  3. I think the Great American Novel should expose the heart and soul of America. Magnificent and mortal sins.

  4. A thought-provoking post. If by the Great American Novel you mean that a book must talk about important historical or social issues that are special and particular to the US rather than just penned by an American author – many on your list qualify. The weakest are probably The Last of the Mohicans and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Surely, no one could seriously argue either of these books is the Greatest American novel? I know that Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has been demoted to the level of housewives’ reading material, but very unfairly so – and it can surely replace with dignity any Twain’s lesser or otherwise work. Some of the best Edith Wharton’s books also expose the high society of New York, so such books as The Age of Innocence will never lose their relevance either and could also qualify.

    • I disagree (a little bit, not enough to get into a full-rage argument) that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a weak choice. It deals with a bunch of social issues of the time period (and some today as well), where other choices focus on one or two issues.

      Then again, I haven’t read all the other choices (including The Age of Innocence), so I might not know what I’m talking about.

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