The idea of the Great American Novel dates back to 1868, when John William DeForest discussed the concept in an essay for The Nation (you can read part of the essay here).  DeForest defined the Great American Novel as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” After dismissing the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne as potential candidates, he named Harriet Beecher Stowe’s controversial 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the “nearest approach to the desired phenomenon,” but seemed discontent with that choice as well.

Over 140 years after DeForest’s essay, there is still no consensus on the Great American Novel, and new books enter the debate every decade. The potential Great American Novels I probably hear cited most often are Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but the list of contenders is quite possibly endless. Cases have been made for The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Beloved by Toni Morrison, among many others. Ask anyone of a literary mindset what they consider to be the Great American Novel, and they will most likely answer with the one they learned the most from, the one that they believe changed their lives, or even the one they simply enjoyed the most.

This brings me to the first issue I have with the Great American Novel: like every other art form, literature is subjective. All readers approach a book with differing points of view about genre, character, writing style, and what literature is generally meant to accomplish. What one reader sees as a beautifully written, insightful novel, another sees as a boring tome with irritating characters. I do not believe it is possible to name any piece of literature definitively as “the greatest” and transcendent of nearly all literary biases and arguments.

Even the concept itself could be considered subjective. Should the Great American Novel extol the virtues of the nation or expose its flaws? Should it celebrate or criticize the American Dream? Does such a novel have to define the American spirit and experience throughout the entirety of U.S. history, or does it just have to capture the atmosphere and issues of the time in which it was written?

These questions lead, finally, to the main reason I do not believe in the Great American Novel. America has changed a great deal since DeForest wrote his essay, but even in the 1860s, it was hardly a homogeneous society. Experience of America has always depended a great deal on race, gender, class, and where one lived. As the nation has become larger and more diverse, this has continued to be true. The contenders for the Great American Novel (at least the ones I have read) capture some aspect of U.S. history and the American experience very well. I found The Great Gatsby a brilliant portrait of the excesses of the 1920s and the frequent failure of wealth to bring true happiness, while The Grapes of Wrath offers heartbreaking insights into the financial and emotional strain of the Great Depression. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird both explore racial themes and realities about growing up. These are all important novels, but not one can completely define America or its people by itself.

In a 2010 article for The Daily Beast, author Malcolm Jones wrote, “The authors who have caught America on paper best did it incrementally, not all at once. It’s the sum of Twain and Wharton and Faulkner that delivers their versions of America, not any single book.” This quote and the article make an excellent point; any writers who too self-consciously attempts to write the Great American Novel could ruin their own productivity, not to mention end up with a novel too bogged down with themes, characters, and plotlines to be coherent or meaningful to readers. Besides, America is such a diverse and complex place that its story has be told in increments by an equally diverse group of writers. No author and no book can say everything there is to say about America as a whole, or even about American in a particular time and place. Like literature itself, America is very subjective.

For as long as there is a United States of America and for as long as there are novels, I am sure the debate over the Great American Novel will continue. I am also sure that authors will continue to attempt writing it. Those aren’t necessarily bad things; the discussion is still interesting, and as an aspiring writer myself, I can understand an author wanting to take on that challenge. All that being said, I think there are so many great American novels (with plenty more to come) that we don’t really need one Great American Novel. Why single out one novel when there are so many important and incredible American stories to tell?

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