July 5, 2007


The Great American Novel was written by: (a) Steinbeck (b) Cather (c) none of the above (Julia Keller, 7/01/07, Chicago Tribune)

But if you had to pick just one ...

That's my mantra this time of year, as I try to entice friends and colleagues into playing my favorite parlor game: Name the Great American Novel.

Resistance is always prompt and principled: There's no such thing. America is large and diverse; different novels have different agendas; and what does "great" actually mean, anyway?

To which I always retort: Yeah, yeah. But if you had to pick ...

With the glorious Fourth looming dead ahead, it's an excellent time to play the home version of this game: What's your pick for Great American Novel? Not the best novel written by an American. Rather, the best novel written by an American that most clearly reflects the spirit, character and destiny of America, both its good and bad sides, its mistakes and its triumphs.

Her picks, like those of the Modern Library (which is what got Brothers Judd rolling lo those years ago) and most other lists put together by academics and critics, are pretty much crap. Among the better options would be several novels that are seldom considered to be great literature: Ben Hur; All the King's Men; Bang the Drum Slowly; The Witchfinder; Cool Hand Luke; The Chosen: Shane; Falls the Shadow; The Killer Angels; Bright Lights, Big City; and even some flawed classics, like Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association or Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 5, 2007 9:10 AM

So, Mark Twain doesn't make your short list, eh?

Posted by: ed in texas at July 5, 2007 11:09 AM

Thanks for the review of The Killer Angels. I'm just finishing it and it is a great novel.

Posted by: Buttercup at July 5, 2007 12:12 PM

Huck Finn is wildly overrated as a novel, though amusing enough.

Posted by: oj at July 5, 2007 12:13 PM

"I am an American, Chicago born, and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted."

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at July 5, 2007 12:56 PM

The Killer Angels, definitely.

Posted by: Mike Morley at July 5, 2007 1:12 PM

My Antonia is my hands down favorite. All the other suggestions and hundreds of other books are excellent as well, but as the title says, "if you had to pick just one..."

Posted by: erp at July 5, 2007 4:47 PM

All of the books oj lists are great, but do they qualify as necessarily the "great American novel", emphasis on American, ie saying something especially important about America? Of those, maybe Cool Hand, perhaps Wolfe, and King's Men qualify, tho the latter is more about the South.

To my mind Huck Finn is the GAN of the 19th century, and the book I pointed to above that of the 20th.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at July 5, 2007 5:41 PM

Huck Finn is devoid of Americanism, predictably given the author's failure to love his country.

Posted by: oj at July 5, 2007 7:21 PM

If this post gets just one reader to read "Falls the Shadow" it will be successful.
A must be for one the top two novels of all time, even tho' I can't think of the other one.

Posted by: Mike at July 5, 2007 9:25 PM

"Bonfire of the Vanities" is a better story than "A Man in Full", though it is not a better novel - Sherman McCoy is just too boring (while Charlie Croker is, or was, a force of nature).

I'll try "Falls the Shadow". I had not heard of it before reading here.

Posted by: jim hamlen at July 5, 2007 11:29 PM

Thanks for the suggestion. I'll give it a try too.

Posted by: erp at July 6, 2007 3:29 PM

Mike, Amazon has several books entitled,"Falls the Shadow."

Who's the author.

Posted by: erp at July 6, 2007 4:58 PM

Sharon Kay Penman

Posted by: oj at July 6, 2007 7:02 PM


Posted by: erp at July 7, 2007 7:56 AM