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The First Book to Ever Be Dubbed the "Great American Novel" Might Not Be the One You'd Guess

The history of the term "Great American Novel" is as interesting as the first book ever given that title by John William De Forest in 1869.

Many aspiring writers set out to craft the next Great American Novel. The designation is, at best, amorphous and extremely subjective, but at its core it refers to American-set novels by American authors that have had some important historical impact, as you might suspect.

Curious and enthused as I am by word histories, I was inspired to look up the origin of the term, and was not disappointed.

The Origin of the "Great American Novel" Designation—and the First Book to Receive It

The term "Great American Novel" gained traction as a result of an 1868 essay of the same name by John William De Forest. Aside from the essay, De Forest is best known for authoring the Civil War novel Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, which I don't expect would be the first work to come to anyone's mind as a quintessential example of the designation.

In the brief essay, which you can read here, De Forest describes writing such a work as "[the] task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel," or "a tableau of American society."

He first misdirects his readers to two of the most esteemed authors of his time, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper.

And he finds them wanting. In fact, he accuses Cooper of being an exceptionally boring writer who knew nothing of the Native Americans he (in De Forest's opinion) hamfistedly wrote about in The Last of the Mohicans.

Next, De Forest looks with much greater admiration at Nathaniel Hawthorne, "the greatest of American imaginations."

But despite his "profoundest reverence" for Hawthorne's artistry, still he finds that the classic author's works fall short of the title of Great American Novel. Hawthorne's characters, he argues, "have no sympathy with this eager and laborious people, which takes so many newspapers, builds so many railroads, does the most business on a given capital, wages the biggest war in proportion to its population, believes in the physically impossible and does some of it." That is, they're not real enough—not average or representative enough—to embody that American tableau.

Ultimately, he suggests that no one had yet written the greatest Great American Novel.

But he did think there was one that was worthy of the title: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Now, Uncle Tom's Cabin is certainly a well-known classic and widely read for its historical significance. But as I learned when I polled WD readers on social media, it's not THE one that comes to mind for most people. (Keep reading below to see which ones they did mention.)

Published in 1852, its publication was predated by Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

Funny enough, De Forest acknowledges that it's a pretty faulty story, with plot holes here and there and some glaring clichés. But Great and uniquely American nonetheless. "It was a picture of American life," he writes, "drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait."

You may have read it in high school or college, and if so, you probably remember how startling some of the racial stereotypes (some of which were created by the book itself) and violence within its pages seem from today's perspective. And as De Forest suggests, it's pretty heavy-handed and far from perfect.

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But during its time, it captured distinctive aspects of American life in a way many—many—readers could relate to: It was the best-selling novel of the 19th century in the US and the second best-selling book of the century in general after the Bible. It also flipped the damn table, metaphorically speaking. Instead of painting an elaborate picture of a slice of life, it turned a mirror upon the most glaring flaws in American society, capturing and caricaturing them and the players within it in a way that prompted societal change unlike any American work before it. A response to the cruel Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (and a critique of the meaning of masculinity for white men), the book is credited as one of the most significant catalysts of abolitionist action. There's even an apocryphal story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said, "So this is the little lady who started this great war."

The Progression of the Great American Novel

Since the publication of De Forest's essay, many names have been added to that unofficial running list of eminently familiar "great American authors" whose works gradually sculpted the literary fiction genre into what it is today. Aside from the authors De Forest menetioned, literary critics have named works by: Herman Melville, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, J.D. Salinger, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, Harper Lee, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (even though they were comic book writers), Vladimir Nabokov (even though he was Russian-American), and a few others who are less recognizable in popular culture.

These are, of course, titans of the literary world. Mostly white men, you'll notice, which of course speaks to the continued power dynamic in the country, but with a few by women and people of color. What's interesting about most of those non-white-dude writers is that they, like Stowe, seem to have not only "painted the American soul," but also redefined the parameters of whose souls belong in that painting.

After I read the essay, I asked people on Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit what book comes to mind when they think of quintessential "Great American Novel."

Cynic that I am, I was expecting mostly Steinbecks and Hemingways with a dash of Lee. And there was some of that, but there were also some I hadn't expected.

Top 10 Great American Novels according to WD social media followers (by number of mentions on July 3, 2018):

  1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  4. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  9. Philip Roth's satirical work The Great American Novel (the cheeky response)
  10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson* (though it has elements of memoir)

And a few additional mentions I hadn't considered (in no particular order):

  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  • Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
  • Call of the Wild by Jack London
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  • The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Soulja
  • This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Underworld by Don Delillo
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  • Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
  • American Pastoral by Philip Roth
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
  • Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller
  • To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
  • Winesburg, Ohio (short story collection) by Sherwood Anderson

And as I mentioned before, no one brought up Uncle Tom's Cabin. (Update: Later, one user mentioned it on Facebook.)

So what does this all mean for writers? Given the broad range of books in our collective imagination, there's good news: If you seek to write the next Great American Novel, all you have to do is write from your experience as an American. But that might mean helping other writers continue to redefine the way they think about the American experience, and whose experiences are part of that greater tableau.

As an addendum to this piece, I thought it fairly interesting that De Forest's essay says that "the Great American Poem will not be written, no matter what genius attempts it, until democracy, the idea of our day and nation and race, has agonized and conquered through centuries, and made its work secure." Which of course begs the question: Has the Great American Poem now been written? By whom? Whitman, Poe, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Angelou, Elliot, and Plath come to mind. Who else do you think of?

*Note: This list is longer and more diverse than the one you'll find on the Wikipedia page for the topic.

Regardless of your genre (mystery, romance, horror, science fiction, fantasy, mainstream, or literary), you will hone your writing skills as a result of this class’ examination of the ways masters of the art and craft created intellectually and emotionally rich and compelling stories that became classics.

Regardless of your genre (mystery, romance, horror, science fiction, fantasy, mainstream, or literary), you will hone your writing skills as a result of this class’ examination of the ways masters of the art and craft created intellectually and emotionally rich and compelling stories that became classics.

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