The Great American Novel.
Books as varied as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom have all been considered for the title of Great American Novel.
(Personally, I would make arguments for Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and My Antonia by Willa Cather.)
But, for all the ‘nominees,’ the title never gets handed out.
The obvious reason is that the American experience is so wide, so varied, that the books listed above can’t hit on every American’s experience. Since there is no quintessential AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, no book can be said to contain it. Especially as times change. Once upon a time Uncle Tom’s Cabin could’ve had a good argument going for it…but today the language is dated and the storytelling so melodramatic that the landscape narrows too much.
Jack Kerouac’s (our writing mentor for May-June) novel On the Road has been mentioned with the books listed above as a contender for the Great American Novel. I can get behind that argument. In fact, having read and loved Great American Novel contenders, On the Road is a personal favorite for that title.
Why? It has all of the flaws of the previously listed books. It can’t possibly encapsulate the entirety of the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
But, it has some strong elements that recommend it:
1. On the Road avoids being about a single region of the United States like Gone with the Wind, The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Age of Innocence, etc. (Hm. New York and the South seem to have placed some big claims on being All-American, huh? That’s probably a post for a different time….) The reader of On the Road, being a road trip, is flung from New York to Denver via Chicago, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming in just the first five chapters. It literally and figuratively moves all over the map. The traveling element (which dominates other Great American contenders like Huckleberry Finn and Grapes of Wrath, by the way) is a huge part of the American experience. I can name less than a handful of people – Americans – in my own experience who have not crossed multiple state lines. Roads dominate our landscape…more so now than when Kerouac was writing.
2. Kerouac’s main character, Sal, runs the gamut of class standing. Class is one of those topics that pops up again and again in American Literature. (Examples already listed: Age of Innocence, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, Invisible Man, Freedom, Great Gatsby, The Jungle.) Sal navigates class distinctions fairly well. He’s just as comfortable hitching a ride with two university students as two railroad tramps. When he arrives in Denver, his buddies set him up in a decked-out apartment, but he doesn’t mind drinking or partying in the questionable side of town.
3. Probably the biggest argument for On the Road being the Great American Novel is that it doesn’t flinch from talking about things that we still don’t always discuss openly – but are there nevertheless. Kerouac brings out a whole slew of topics that are woven through the American tapestry: drugs, music (specifically jazz and bop), sex (pick a gender, any gender), fast cars, open spaces, political affiliations (yep, Carlo Marx is a character), and even apple pie with ice cream. It is all in there.
4. Race. You cannot write about the American experience without acknowledging race. While Sal likes to think himself sympathetic, he is coming from a place of (trigger word) privilege in all cases. He inserts himself into several situations — musical venues, California work camps, etc. — and engages with different races, but is always able to leave when he wants…to go on the road. Novels like Huckleberry Finn, Beloved, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man all come at this topic from dramatically different perspectives and On the Road is no different.
So, The Great American title is still up for grabs — maybe someone reading this is writing it as we speak. But I do think Kerouac’s novel should be slotted in as a serious contender.
What novels do you think are good considerations for the Great American novel? How should the American Experience be captured? Can it be captured at all?
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