JOHN WILLIAM DE FOREST coined the term “Great American Novel” in 1868. In an essay he argued that the novel had yet to be written that captured “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”. Worthy authors, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, he said, had “staggered under the load” of trying. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in his reckoning, had come closest with her epic slave tale, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (despite its “very faulty plot”).
Ever since De Forest wrote those words, literati have speculated about what book might qualify as the GAN. Whereas the great British works of literature have tended to fixate on class, that is just one of the strands that wind through America’s defining novels. In America class is often related to its ethnic diversity, the result of waves of immigration that began with the first English settlement in Virginia in 1607 and was soon followed by the forced transportation of slaves from Africa. Novelists have celebrated America’s variety and, perhaps more often, wrestled with the racism and exclusion suffered by people who were not fully accepted by their countrymen. A third great theme is America’s vastness, which encourages writers to fill their pages with wanderers, runaways and opportunity-seekers. Many great novelists, from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck to Colson Whitehead, combine these strands in ways that might have persuaded De Forest.
Our candidates for the GAN both hew to and depart from common ideas of what it should be. They are the choices of people who work on our American politics podcast Checks and Balance (plus a couple of staffers from other parts of The Economist). You can listen to an episode about the GAN here. Our selection does not aspire to be the Great American Shortlist. There are no books by Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Saul Bellow, nor any by Twain, Steinbeck or Jonathan Franzen. Some of our choices are established in the canon; others may someday enter it. In general they take a bleak view of America, perhaps one that is too dark. But all these works capture something of America’s character.
The Age of Innocence. By Edith Wharton. Macmillan Collector’s Library; 384 pages; $14.99. Simon & Schuster; £9.99
If a propensity for action is a quintessential American trait, this book searingly portrays its absence. “The Age of Innocence”, published in 1920 but set in New York in the 1870s, is the most famous novel about the Gilded Age, a time of breakneck American growth. The city is in transition. In the book’s second paragraph Wharton writes of the new people whom New York is “beginning to dread and yet be drawn to”. Yet this is a book not about change, but about the forces that resist it. Wharton’s New York is a city of manners and convention, of immaculate surfaces and unruly thoughts, which rise insubordinately in the blush of a cheek or clasp of a hand.
It is this gap between exterior and interior life that torments Newland Archer, Wharton’s protagonist. Archer is due to marry May Welland but falls in love with her cousin, Ellen Olenska. She represents a new mode of being. Newland is entranced by “a world where action followed on emotion with such Olympian speed”. But he neither chooses to leave with Olenska nor chooses to stay. New York’s expert social artisans craft a result, which Archer accepts joylessly, as his imagined life with Olenska overshadows his real one with Welland. In this novel what is left unsaid, and the actions not taken, are as important as what is said and done. Wharton can convey with an ellipsis what other writers require a paragraph to describe. In Gilded Age New York the old gives way eventually to the new, as it always does, but not for Archer. Societies move forward, even as men remain stuck, haunted by the past.
Invisible Man. By Ralph Ellison. Vintage; 608 pages; $17. Penguin Modern Classics; £9.99
“Invisible Man”, published in 1952, was an immediate success. A year later Ralph Ellison became the first African-American to win the National Book Award. The novel is a shaggy-dog story. The first-person narrator—he’s never named—starts off as a student at a nameless university in an unnamed place in the South (probably modelled on the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black university in Alabama, which Ellison attended). The protagonist goes to New York City, where he has misadventures, and becomes a prominent figure in the Brotherhood, a fictionalised Communist Party, with which Ellison had a brief pre-war flirtation. He eventually falls foul of both the Brotherhood and Ras the Exhorter, a black nationalist leader modelled on Marcus Garvey. After a night of violence in Harlem, the narrator ends up living alone in an underground room whose walls are lined with burning light bulbs.
Ellison is a stunningly vivid and imaginative writer, creating scenes that linger in the reader’s imagination for months, even years. The battle royal that opens the novel, in which black boys are blindfolded, forced to fight and then electrocuted for the pleasure of rich white spectators, is horrific in its matter-of-fact brutality. But the book is also ruminative and funny.
Although race is its theme, “Invisible Man” is not a protest novel. It doesn’t make simple political points. It celebrates complexity, argument and an expansive, protean idea of America. As Ellison put it in the introduction: “My task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American…as a way of dealing with the sheer rhetorical challenge involved in communicating across our barriers of race and religion, class, colour and region.”
The Sound and the Fury. By William Faulkner. Knopf Doubleday; 368 pages; $16. Vintage; £9.99
The American South is America distilled. When William Faulkner wrote his great novels in the early 20th century, the South was by turns prideful and ashamed: of its grand aristocratic families alongside its poverty, its bellicosity alongside its chivalry, its racial hierarchy alongside its fervent Christianity. No one grappled with these immense contradictions as Faulkner did.
“The Sound and the Fury” is “a real son-of-a-bitch”, Faulkner wrote to a friend to whom he sent a copy. “This one’s the greatest I’ll ever write.” Anyone who casually cracks it open may also feel like swearing at first. The novel uses the modernist technique of stream of consciousness. The minds in this case are those of the Compson family, a once proud Southern dynasty that is undone by alcoholism, cynicism, greed, obsession and promiscuity. Following the narrative requires the reader to engage in some jigsaw-style rearrangements, but patience is rewarded by journeys that lead to extraordinary vistas. The mind of Jason Compson is as sulfuric and searing as the atmosphere of Venus. The shattered intelligence of Quentin is difficult to traverse, yet you are compelled to. The interior narration of Benjy, who is mentally impaired and mute, flits unencumbered across time and space. Faulkner took his title from a soliloquy of Macbeth: Life’s “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”. In Faulkner’s hands, the tale signifies everything.
Stoner. By John Williams. New York Review of Books; 288 pages; $16.95. Vintage; £9.99
John Stoner, born in 1891, grows up on a farm in Missouri with parents who hardly ever speak. He gets a scholarship to study agronomy at the University of Missouri and, upon graduating, haltingly explains to them that he has switched his major to English. Literature is to him a mystifying tangle of words but a seductive one. Stoner becomes an English professor at the same university. He has few friends and one enemy, an administrator. After an altercation, they don’t speak for 20 years. When Stoner finally finds someone he can talk to (not his wife), his nemesis sees to it that the relationship comes to an end.
“Stoner” was published in 1965 to favourable reviews and poor sales. It remained obscure until the early 2000s, when it was republished and prominent authors like Ian McEwan discovered and publicised it. The novel dangles and rejects American clichés: desiring a better life for one’s children; holding on to impossible hope; overcoming adversity; acting on a heroic patriotism. In their place are mundane realities: a failed marriage; an alienated family; mid-level ambition; fear of death in battle. Yet Stoner’s quiet life, lived amid loud American dreams and loud American disappointments, turns out to be a rich one. In John Williams’s poignant telling he is sort of an American hero.
Ask the Dust. By John Fante. HarperCollins; 192 pages; $16.99. Canongate; £9.99
John Fante’s LA story, a flop when it was released in 1939, is now widely considered to be a classic. It is the tale of Arturo Bandini, a 20-year-old writer living in squalor on the west coast. Readers live in the mind of a self-absorbed man who, through spite and cowardice, ruins every good thing he touches.
Set in Depression-era Los Angeles, itself a central character, the book also reads like a dark internal monologue of America itself. Bandini’s uncomfortable relationship with Latinos, Jews and others who come from backgrounds that differ from his seems to stem from discomfort with himself. He taunts a Mexican waitress with whom he is in love, telling her that she could never be a true American (which is a bit rich, she points out, coming from a black-eyed “Eyetalian”). Despite claiming to be an atheist, he appeals to religion whenever life doesn’t live up to his expectations. Fante has been called a “pre-Beat” writer. His prose—staccato, incessant, funny—was the forerunner of a uniquely American style. Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski are among its heirs. Bukowski, who in 1979 wrote the introduction to a reprint of “Ask the Dust”, called Fante his “god”.
A Visit from the Goon Squad. By Jennifer Egan. Knopf Doubleday; 368 pages; $18. Little, Brown; £9.99
If many American novels are driven by agency, “A Visit From The Goon Squad” is powered by angst. Made up of 13 short stories loosely linked by Bennie Salazar, a music executive, and Sasha Blake, his assistant for a while, the book continually shifts perspective and form and is pervaded by unease. The tales sprawl across countries and decades, from the late 20th century to the near future. Jennifer Egan, whose novel won the Pulitzer prize in 2011, uses this loose-limbed structure to explore the inner lives of people inhabiting multiple Americas. Despite their differences, all are united by a despairing feeling that circumstance shapes their lives far more than their actions can. “Time’s a goon right?” one middle-aged rocker says to another. “You gonna let that goon push you around?” Of course, although some characters put up a fight, in the end time wins. Ms Egan’s America is not a country where anything is possible. When her characters do find some sort of fulfilment, it is rarely the kind they had envisaged in their youth. ■
The Economist’s Culture section often reviews great novels, American and not. Examples include a review of a pair of books by Richard Ford and Colson Whitehead and one of a novel by Barbara Kingsolver. We also consider the work of less famous writers, such as Leila Mottley and Salvatore Scribona. We have written about the aspiration of Rudyard Kipling, an Englishman, to write the GAN. When a Great American Novelist dies we often publish appreciations of their life and work. Here, for example, are considerations of Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and Philip Roth.