The Great American Novel is a literary concept that has yet to see fruition. It comes from an old (and sometimes snobby) notion that the United States still has to write a great literary classic that can hold its own compared to the countless iconic masterpieces that have been written in Asia and Europe.
The origins of the concept go back in history. The United States is still a relatively young country, compared to the centuries-older civilizations in Asia and Europe. This caused it to be seen as nothing but a former British colony lacking a traditional/cultural heritage and still looking for its own place and identity in the world. The USA has no great ancient epic sagas, mythologies, or fairy tales, let alone novels that are the equivalent of Asia's The Epic of Gilgamesh, Mahabharata, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Tale of Genji, and/or Europe's The Iliad, Nibelungenlied, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, or War and Peace.
Naturally, this absence has been a centuries-old shame and frustration for the ever-proud and confident USA. In that regard, writing a Great American Novel has become the literary version of The American Dream. Every American novelist aspires to write it one day, and in popular culture, this has become a Running Gag and a good example of Speculative Fiction. This concept is more a cultural sensibility than anything derived from history. USA is far from being alone in having a belated literary tradition. As noted by many scholars, Russian Literature was mostly marginal until the 19th Century, when Aleksandr Pushkin arrived and Pushkin was a contemporary of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and yet the Russians don't really have any concept of a "Great Russian Novel" (even if they have many great novels in the Russian language). Likewise, the nations of South America largely had its creative and literary renaissance in the 20th Century, as did many other nations in the world and even in these cases the idea of catching up to the European canon has generally not been an essential concern.
"Genre fiction" (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, mystery, crime, horror, etc.) novels are generally excluded from consideration, though some of the titles seen below feature elements of one or more of those genres. Pure graphic novels are usually left out of the running as well.note
- The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper.
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
- Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
- Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
- The House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
- The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
- Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.
- Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.
- An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.
- Light in August by William Faulkner.
- Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner.
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
- The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (not to be confused with the British H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man).
- The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Russian-born, but he wrote it in English first before translating it back into his own native tongue).
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
- Rabbit Run by John Updike.
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
- Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
- JR by William Gaddis.
- Ragtime by EL Doctorow.
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
- Lonesome Dove by Larry Mc Murty.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison.
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
- Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth.
- Underworld by Don De Lillo.
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (according to some).
- Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (according to others).
Appearances and references in popular culture:
- The manuscript for Mobile, America in Ben Bova's Cyberbooks. We never see any of the text, or even discover what it's about. All we know is that it's The Great American Novel and a great work of literature.
- In The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Esther is rejected from an advanced writing course she'd applied for, so she decides to spend the time writing the Great American Novel, but realizes she hasn't had sufficient experience.
- In The Simpsons episode "Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song" Principal Skinner gets fired. He tells Bart that he now "finally has time to do what I've always wanted: write the great American novel. Mine is about a futuristic amusement park where dinosaurs are brought to life through advanced cloning techniques. I call it Billy and the Cloneasaurus".
Apu: Oh, you have GOT to be kidding, sir. First you think of an idea that has already been done. Then you give it a title that nobody could possibly like. Didn't you think this through...?
(time skip) ...was on the bestseller list for eighteen months! Every magazine cover had...
(time skip) ...most popular movies of all time, sir! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?! ... I mean, thank you, come again.
- Discussed in Everybody Loves Raymond: Raymond's puzzling over book ideas, and Debra asks him if he's considered writing the Great American Novel. Ray replies: "I thought about that, but then I realized I don't want to read the Great American Novel."
- Philip Roth wrote a novel titled The Great American Novel; ironically, it's among his least-known works. Roth's book serves, in part, as a Genre Deconstruction of the concept, with the narrator deciding that it's pointless since no one will ever agree on what is the Great American Novel.
- Uncyclopedia humorously declared a string of profanity-ridden vandalism to be The Great American Novel, complete with a detailed analysis of its meaning.
- There was a commercial for paint, showing various ways to do up a room, starting with a room to "Write the Great American Novel" that eventually becomes a nursery, ages up with the 'protagonist's' daughter, and after she moves out, reverts to the original design and becomes a room to "Finish the Great American Novel."
- In The Wire, when asked about his future, a laid-off journalist replies that he might as well get to work on the Great American Novel. There is also some intentional meta-textuality behind the moment , because The Wire has been consistently called the Great American Novel (at least for television) even before ending its original run.
- The Wire's authors went on to create Treme, in which Creighton also has ambitions of writing the Great American Novel.
- This website by Chris Tolworthy argues that the 1961-1989 run of Fantastic Four was the Great American Novel.