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, despite having a nearly thousand-year head start on America, Russian Literature was mostly marginal until the 19th Century, when Aleksandr Pushkin arrived. Pushkin was a contemporary of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper and yet the Russians did not really have or need 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
That said, there have been a number of candidates for that badge of honor over the decades (per The Other Wiki's article on the subject):
- Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner.
- The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
- Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon.
- The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth.
- An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.
- Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison.
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
- Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (according to others)
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
- Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- The House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (not to be confused with the British H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man).
- J R by William Gaddis.
- The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper.
- Light in August by William Faulkner.
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Russian-born, but he wrote it in English first before translating it back into his own native tongue)
- Lonesome Dove by Larry Mc Murty.
- Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.
- Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.
- Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
- Rabbit, Run by John Updike.
- Ragtime by EL Doctorow.
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
- Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
- Underworld 1997 by Don DeLillo.
- The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos.
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.
- Bojack Horseman's father, Butterscotch Horseman, was a failed novelist who dreamed of writing a "Great American Novel". Unfortunately for him, his grand ambitions far exceeded his mediocre talents, and spent the next few decades trying to figure out how to even compose this book. He eventually managed to publish his work, entitled The Horse That Couldn't Be Broken. The novel was both a critical and commercial failure that was doomed to obscurity.
- 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 Fournote was the Great American Novel.
- In the current version of the Game of Life, writing the Great American Novel is one of the possible accomplishments you can achieve through collecting LIFE Tiles.
- Lou Reed has gone on record saying that his entire musical career, The Velvet Underground and all, was his attempt to write the Great American Novel using rock and roll as his vehicle.