Near the end of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the white-whale-obsessed Captain Ahab shouts, “The ship! The hearse—the second hearse!... its wood could only be American!” The same could be said of the book itself: Its wood, too, could only be American. Which is why it is so often nominated for that distinctive laurel, the Great American Novel.
Other classic contenders include James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. To that list could be added more recent challengers: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld, to name but a few. Then there are the dark horse candidates, the lesser-known, lesser-read gems like Ross Lockridge Jr.’s Raintree County and John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, which are no less worthy of inclusion. Should Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises be considered even though it is set outside the United States? Should Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita be in the running, even though Nabokov lived in America for only a quarter of his life? What are the parameters and qualifications for this literary heavyweight title?
I can imagine what some readers must be thinking. The Great American Novel? Why are we still banging on about that old thing? I, too, have been skeptical of the title and its pursuit. But the times have changed me, changed us all. Earlier this year, a Gallup Poll showed that in the Trump era “American pride” has hit an all-time low. And as we’re told almost daily, we’re more divided as a nation now than at any time since the Civil War. In this fractious season, I’ve begun to re-evaluate my estimation of the Great American Novel. Precisely because it was once one of our perdurable national myths, shouldn’t we think twice before consigning the idea to the attic of sentimental, has-been notions?