Not that I’m the most literate type, but at some point or other most people probably find themselves asking what is THE Great American Novel. There’s no simple answer because the idea of what America is and feels like changes with time. The last book that for me utterly captured a certain essence was “Lonesome Dove,” and yet that was over 30 years ago. Three books published subsequent to it, “Beloved” (Toni Morrison), “Infinite Jest” (David Foster Wallace) and “American Pastoral” (Philip Roth) are generally regarded to have made the cut of sustained greatness, but those are all late 20th century (and none of which I’ve read, sadly.)
I’d be interested in knowing what 21st century novels are considered Great American Novels that help capture for the ages who and what we are, because I can’t come up with a single one. Why is that (other than my being ill-read and out of the loop)?
The term "The Great American Novel" was coined in 1868 by John William DeForest in an essay reprinted in The Nation, according to Emily Temple in an article in Literary Hub two years ago. At the time of his essay, DeForest described “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon.”
The Literary Hub article also noted that New York Times film critic A.O. Scott had also observed that, “The great American novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster — or Sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, that quite a few people — not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation — claim to have seen.”
And with that in mind, a recent article by John Stanton in Nantucket’s The Inquirer and Mirror newspaper concerned a symposium which focused on Herman Melville, his masterpiece “Moby-Dick” and the author’s psychological relationship with Nantucket. The symposium was hosted by author and Nantucket resident Nathaniel Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea” account of the ill-fated whaling ship Essex won the National Book award. (The connection between the Essex and the Pequod is obvious.). Whether “Moby-Dick” is the Great American Novel or not, it’s invariably at or near the top of almost any list.
But one wouldn’t have known such in 1851, the year of the book’s publishing, because it was a commercial flop and languished in obscurity for about 70 years before rising from the literary dead and forgotten.
“In 1851, it was so out of tune that people actually considered whether he had gone crazy,” remarked Philbrick. "It was after World War I that American artists in Europe finally made ‘Moby-Dick’ the hip book to read and even William Faulkner said it was one of the few books written by someone else that he wished he had written.”
Following are other Philbrick quotes from the newspaper article cited and a summary of the information provided:
"He (Melville), when he was writing Moby-Dick, was channeling things. He was speaking in tongues, almost. There is a small chapter in the novel, for example, where Melville contemplates millions of years of whale spouts “sprinkling and mystifying the gardens of the deep.” Such ideas, language, allusions, symbolism and illusions were too much for readers of the mid-1800s and may have been better received in the 1970s as innovative experimental fiction. People go back to “Moby-Dick" time and again.
“Whether people see Ahab as Hitler or some other leader who shall remain nameless who uses the appeals to passion and a sense of outrage to rile up the people rather than their intellect and sense of justice. He (Ahab) stole the Pequod. He is completely off his rails ...”
“He (Melville) was so enraptured with Shakespeare, Milton, all of American literature and history that it was just flowing through him in this passionate rush.” Not the least of which was instigated by his own personal sense of loss, that being the death of his father when the author was 12, which “created a deeply-bruised psyche with a very finely-tuned antenna to life. He knew what it was like to have failed expectations from watching his father, and the great hurt that left in him all his life,” explained Philbrick.
After "Moby-Dick" failed in the marketplace, Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne that he understood that writing the way he wanted to would never be profitable, but that he felt it was the only way he could search for the world’s truth. “Though I write the gospels of my time, I will die in the gutter,” he wrote.
Though some have suggested that Melville was truly close to insane at the time of his death in 1891 at the age of 71, he was not dysfunctional or homeless, had held an unrelated job for 20 years to supplement his income and continued to write. Years after his death, the author’s small writing desk was found and someone discovered a motto that that he had inscribed and hidden inside: “Keep true to the dreams of your youth.”