Great American Novel
The "Great American Novel" is the concept of a novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representative of the zeitgeist
Zeitgeist is "the spirit of the times" or "the spirit of the age."Zeitgeist is the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambiance, morals, sociocultural direction, and mood associated with an era.The...

 in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 at the time of its writing. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. In historical terms, it is sometimes equated as being the American response to the national epic
National epic
A national epic is an epic poem or a literary work of epic scope which seeks or is believed to capture and express the essence or spirit of a particular nation; not necessarily a nation-state, but at least an ethnic or linguistic group with aspirations to independence or autonomy...



While fiction was written in colonial America as early as the 16th century, it wasn't until a distinct "American" identity developed during the 18th century that what is understood to be "American literature" began. America's identity as a nation was reflected alongside the development of its literature.

The term "Great American Novel" derives from the title of an essay by American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 novelist John William De Forest
John William De Forest
John William De Forest was an American soldier and writer of realistic fiction, best known for his Civil War novel Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty.-Early life and career:...

. More broadly, however, the concept originated in American nationalism
American nationalism
American nationalism refers to nationalism among the people of the United States. Nationalism is the correct and recognized term for the associated ideology and political movements, within the present United States, and during its history.-Origins:...

 and the call for American counterparts to great British authors.

In modern usage, the term is often figurative and represents a canonical
Western canon
The term Western canon denotes a canon of books and, more broadly, music and art that have been the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes the "greatest works of artistic merit." Such a canon is important to the theory of educational perennialism and the...

 writing, a literary benchmark emblematic of what is 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 is, presumably, the greatest American book ever written, or which could ever be written. Thus, "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.

In literary parlance, the term "Great American Novel" is in reference to actual works. Although the acknowledgment is not a formal award (in contrast to a Pulitzer Prize
Pulitzer Prize
The Pulitzer Prize is a U.S. award for achievements in newspaper and online journalism, literature and musical composition. It was established by American publisher Joseph Pulitzer and is administered by Columbia University in New York City...

 or the National Book Award
National Book Award
The National Book Awards are a set of American literary awards. Started in 1950, the Awards are presented annually to American authors for literature published in the current year. In 1989 the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization which now oversees and manages the National Book...

), it is considered a mark of prestige, and is thus seen as a worthwhile goal for writers to attempt.

Though the term is singular, many novels have been referred to as "the Great American Novel".

List of possible Great American Novels

At one time or another, the following works have been considered to be the Great American Novel:
19th century
  • 1851: Herman Melville
    Herman Melville
    Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick and the posthumous novella Billy Budd....

    's Moby-Dick
    Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, was written by American author Herman Melville and first published in 1851. It is considered by some to be a Great American Novel and a treasure of world literature. The story tells the adventures of wandering sailor Ishmael, and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod,...

     (full title: Moby-Dick; or The Whale)
  • 1884: Mark Twain
    Mark Twain
    Samuel Langhorne Clemens , better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist...

    's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel by Mark Twain, first published in England in December 1884 and in the United States in February 1885. Commonly named among the Great American Novels, the work is among the first in major American literature to be written in the vernacular, characterized by...

20th century
  • 1925: F. Scott Fitzgerald
    F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was an American author of novels and short stories, whose works are the paradigm writings of the Jazz Age, a term he coined himself. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Fitzgerald is considered a member of the "Lost...

    's The Great Gatsby
    The Great Gatsby
    The Great Gatsby is a novel by the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald. First published in1925, it is set on Long Island's North Shore and in New York City from spring to autumn of 1922....

  • 1936: William Faulkner
    William Faulkner
    William Cuthbert Faulkner was an American writer from Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner worked in a variety of media; he wrote novels, short stories, a play, poetry, essays and screenplays during his career...

    's Absalom, Absalom!
    Absalom, Absalom!
    Absalom, Absalom! is a Southern Gothic novel by the American author William Faulkner, first published in 1936. It is a story about three families of the American South, taking place before, during, and after the Civil War, with the focus of the story on the life of Thomas Sutpen.-Plot...

  • 1938: John Dos Passos
    John Dos Passos
    John Roderigo Dos Passos was an American novelist and artist.-Early life:Born in Chicago, Illinois, Dos Passos was the illegitimate son of John Randolph Dos Passos , a distinguished lawyer of Madeiran Portuguese descent, and Lucy Addison Sprigg Madison of Petersburg, Virginia. The elder Dos Passos...

    's U.S.A. trilogy
    U.S.A. trilogy
    The U.S.A. Trilogy is a major work of American writer John Dos Passos, comprising the novels The 42nd Parallel ; 1919, also known as Nineteen Nineteen ; and The Big Money . The three books were first published together in a single volume titled U.S.A by Harcourt Brace in January, 1938...

  • 1939: John Steinbeck
    John Steinbeck
    John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr. was an American writer. He is widely known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden and the novella Of Mice and Men...

    's The Grapes of Wrath
    The Grapes of Wrath
    The Grapes of Wrath is a novel published in 1939 and written by John Steinbeck, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962....

  • 1951: J. D. Salinger
    J. D. Salinger
    Jerome David Salinger was an American author, best known for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, as well as his reclusive nature. His last original published work was in 1965; he gave his last interview in 1980....

    's The Catcher in the Rye
    The Catcher in the Rye
    The Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel by J. D. Salinger. Originally published for adults, it has since become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage confusion, angst, alienation, language, and rebellion. It has been translated into almost all of the world's major...

  • 1952: Ralph Ellison
    Ralph Ellison
    Ralph Waldo Ellison was an American novelist, literary critic, scholar and writer. He was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ellison is best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953...

    's Invisible Man
    Invisible Man
    Invisible Man is a novel written by Ralph Ellison, and the only one that he published during his lifetime . It won him the National Book Award in 1953...

  • 1953: Saul Bellow
    Saul Bellow
    Saul Bellow was a Canadian-born Jewish American writer. For his literary contributions, Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts...

    's The Adventures of Augie March
    The Adventures of Augie March
    The Adventures of Augie March is a novel by Saul Bellow.It centers on the eponymous character who grows up during the Great Depression...

  • 1955: Vladimir Nabokov
    Vladimir Nabokov
    Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a multilingual Russian novelist and short story writer. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist...

    's Lolita
    Lolita is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, first written in English and published in 1955 in Paris and 1958 in New York, and later translated by the author into Russian...

  • 1957: Jack Kerouac
    Jack Kerouac
    Jean-Louis "Jack" Lebris de Kerouac was an American novelist and poet. He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Kerouac is recognized for his spontaneous method of writing, covering topics such as Catholic...

    's On the Road
    On the Road
    On the Road is a novel by American writer Jack Kerouac, written in April 1951, and published by Viking Press in 1957. It is a largely autobiographical work that was based on the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America. It is often considered a defining work of...

  • 1960: Harper Lee
    Harper Lee
    Nelle Harper Lee is an American author known for her 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which deals with the issues of racism that were observed by the author as a child in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama...

    's To Kill a Mockingbird
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was instantly successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature...

  • 1973: Thomas Pynchon
    Thomas Pynchon
    Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. is an American novelist. For his most praised novel, Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon received the National Book Award, and is regularly cited as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature...

    's Gravity's Rainbow
    Gravity's Rainbow
    Gravity's Rainbow is a postmodern novel written by Thomas Pynchon and first published on February 28, 1973.The narrative is set primarily in Europe at the end of World War II and centers on the design, production and dispatch of V-2 rockets by the German military, and, in particular, the quest...

  • 1975: William Gaddis
    William Gaddis
    William Thomas Gaddis, Jr. was an American novelist. He wrote five novels, two of which won National Book Awards and one of which, The Recognitions , was chosen as one of TIME magazine's 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005...

    's J R
    J R
    J R is a novel by William Gaddis. Published in 1975 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., J R was Gaddis's second novel and received the National Book Award in 1976....

  • 1985: Cormac McCarthy
    Cormac McCarthy
    Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist and playwright. He has written ten novels, spanning the Southern Gothic, Western, and modernist genres. He received the Pulitzer Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for The Road...

    's Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West
  • 1996: David Foster Wallace
    David Foster Wallace
    David Foster Wallace was an American author of novels, essays, and short stories, and a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California...

    's Infinite Jest
    Infinite Jest
    Infinite Jest is a 1996 novel by David Foster Wallace. The lengthy and complex work takes place in a semi-parodic future version of North America, and touches on tennis, substance addiction and recovery programs, depression, child abuse, family relationships, advertising and popular entertainment,...

  • 1997: Thomas Pynchon
    Thomas Pynchon
    Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. is an American novelist. For his most praised novel, Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon received the National Book Award, and is regularly cited as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature...

    's Mason & Dixon
    Mason & Dixon
    Mason & Dixon is a postmodernist novel by American author Thomas Pynchon published in 1997. It centers on the collaboration of the historical Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in their astronomical and surveying exploits in Cape Colony, Saint Helena, Great Britain and along the Mason-Dixon line in...

Further reading

  • Brown, Herbert R. "The Great American Novel." American Literature 7.1 (1935): 1–14.
  • Knox, George. "The Great American Novel: Final Chapter." American Quarterly 21.4 (1969): 667–682.
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