Not The Great American Novel

The recent death of one of the Names of American literature inspired the usual maunderings on “the Great American Novel”, something that irritates me immensely. I ended up having to sit on my hands to not respond to the discussion at one site, because if I did comment I would have been waxing sarcastic, possibly at levels that could melt steel.

Leaving aside the fact that I can’t stomach the writing of the author in question, what is it about this whole TGAN thing? I’d ask if the people who make the noises about this realize how ridiculously insecure they sound, but it’s painfully obvious they don’t. Hell, it’s clear none of them have ever stopped to think about what TGAN actually means/

For starters, “the” Great American Novel – is the USA so devoid of intellectual and creative ability that the whole country can only manage one great novel? Is the culture here so monolithic and unchanging that one, and only one, novel can encapsulate the American experience now and in the past 200 and a bit years?

This is what those who talk about TGAN are saying. They’re effectively claiming that the experiences of Americans shortly after the American Revolution aren’t that different than the experiences of Americans North and South during the American Civil War (and let’s not go anywhere near that can of worms), aren’t that different than the experiences of… well, you get the picture.

Actually, it’s worse than that, because the whole buy-in to TGAN implies that the USA is so culturally insignificant that one novel is enough. It’s a cultural cringe to end all cultural cringes, overlying the unstated assumption that American culture is inferior to that of… well, Europe. After all, no-one ever talks about writing “The Great English Novel”, or “The Great French Novel”, or “The Great Russian Novel”, or – may I be forgiven for even saying this – “The Great Portuguese Novel”. Those places have their traditions and they accept those traditions as part of their culture. The USA is in that rather psychotic teenage era (nations take longer to grow up than humans, funnily enough) where the luminaries can only see the flaws. (As a side note, the teenage era may be why America is so neurotic about whether other nations like us. It’s like wanting to be with the cool kids at school.)

If you want great American novels, there are plenty. Huckleberry Finn is one that comes immediately to mind. The Grapes of Wrath could well be another. I suspect if I sat down and thought about it I’d end up with a good-sized list, and everything on it would be completely different from everything else. There would be novels that focused on the integration of immigrant families into the American culture, novels that dealt with the westward expansion, novels that looked at the impact of America’s growth on its native population, novels of the Great Depression, of one or another of the world wars, of the modern era, and of every geographic niche the country hosts.

Partly that’s because America, like Canada and Australia, is physically huge and covers a breathtaking range of climate and terrain. Terrain and climate shape culture in all sorts of ways, some of which you can even talk about without getting the politically correct crowd in a lather. (For an exercise, look at the land around Sparta. Then look at the land around Athens. See why the Spartans became Spartans?)

Partly it’s the newness of the country – like many of the younger, post-colonial nations (in the sense that it became a nation after being a colony) America hosts a mix of cultures, most of them belonging to people who left their home culture and adapted what they knew to fit their new environment. That means the traditions still sit lightly and can change often. It certainly doesn’t mean they don’t exist (Trust me on that. Moving from Texas to Pennsylvania was like moving to a different country with any number of different traditions). It also means that the culture shows its roots. Something can be distinctively American and still show its mixed Irish and Italian origins. That doesn’t make it less American or less worthy – unless of course you happen to think that American culture doesn’t exist or can’t match its continental cousins (I’m deliberately leaving Asian cultures out of this because I’m not as familiar with them and I’d rather not make any more of an idiot of myself than I can help).

So, please, shut the hell up about TGAN. It doesn’t exist, it won’t exist, and you only look like insecure teenagers when you blather on about it.


  1. (For an exercise, look at the land around Sparta. Then look at the land around Athens. See why the Spartans became Spartans?)”

    Because they came from Sparta?

  2. Another problem with finding or writing TGAN is how many great American novels have been shunned as “regionalist.” Elmer Kelton’s “The Time it Never Rained” would be one example. As if people from Hawaii or Vermont could not identify with someone trying desperately to hold onto dignity and land and to provide for their family as drought creeps up and takes hold of everything they hold dear. Hamlin Garland’s “A Son of the Middle Border,” or Cather’s “My Antonia,” Conrad Richter’s “Sea of Grass”, even E. Rolveg’s “Giants of the Earth” are very good novels that are often brushed aside as too regional, too immigrant centered, too out of date to be TGAN.

    1. Exactly. They are all great American novels. America is too large and too diverse for one novel to be all there is. It’s just a cultural cringe that says America is only worthy of one great American novel.

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