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Great American Novel

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The idea of the "Great American Novel" is the concept of a novel which is of high literary merit and shows the culture of the United States at a specific time in its history. It is presumably written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic.


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While fiction was written in colonial America as early as the 17th century, it was not until a distinct American identity developed in the 18th century that works classified as American literature began. America's identity as a nation was reflected alongside the development of its literature.

The term "Great American Novel" derives directly from the title of an 1868 essay by American Civil War novelist John William De Forest.

In modern usage, the term is often figurative and represents a canonical writing, making it a literary benchmark emblematic of what defines American literature in a given era. Aspiring writers of all ages, but especially students, are often said to be driven to write the "Great American Novel". Theoretically, such a work would be the greatest American book on American culture which could ever be written. Thus, the "Great American Novel" is a metaphor for identity, a Platonic ideal that is not achieved in any specific texts, but whose aim writers strive to mirror in their work.

Books referred to as a "Great American Novel"

At one time, the following works have been considered to be a Great American Novel:

19th century
  • 1826: James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans
  • 1850: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
  • 1851: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick
  • 1852: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
  • 1876: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • 1884: Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • 20th century
  • 1919: Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio
  • 1925: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
  • 1925: Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy
  • 1932: William Faulkner's Light in August
  • 1936: William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
  • 1936: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind
  • 1938: John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy
  • 1939: John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
  • 1940: Richard Wright's Native Son
  • 1951: J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
  • 1952: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
  • 1953: Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March
  • 1955: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita
  • 1960: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
  • 1960: John Updike's Rabbit, Run and sequels
  • 1973: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
  • 1975: William Gaddis's J R
  • 1985: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West
  • 1985: Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove
  • 1987: Toni Morrison's Beloved
  • 1996: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest
  • 1997: Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon
  • 1997: Philip Roth's American Pastoral
  • 1997: Don DeLillo's Underworld
  • 21st century
  • 2000: Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • 2004: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
  • 2010: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom
  • References

    Great American Novel Wikipedia