UncategorizedMark Rudio

The "Great American novel" parlor game

UncategorizedMark Rudio
Does anyone even do this anymore? Shutterstock photo.

Over yon in the Reverberate Hills, Patrick is seeking auxiliary material to augment his reading of Finnegan's Wake- a novel I have no intention of ever reading, but that didn't stop me from commenting on the post. It turns out both Patrick and I are currently reading Moby Dick, in anticipation of SFO's upcoming production of Jake Heggie's opera based on the novel, which Lisa proclaimed in another comment "IS the great American novel."

While I may end up agreeing with her assessment when I've finished it, her comment immediately brought two thoughts to mind. The first was, No it's not- the Rabbit tetralogy is the great American novel (even though Rabbit Redux is admitedly a significantly lesser part of the greater whole). My second thought was how impossible it is to really make such a claim- especially in 21st century America- for starters, which America, and whose, are we talking about? And that's really just the tip of the literary iceberg (or minefield).

While Moby Dick may well be the best American (meaning as commonly defined in the U.S.A.) novel of the 19th century, and I'm fond of parlor games like these, I really don't think it's possible to claim any novel as representing the apex of American (and I really mean U.S.) literature. Our country has always been fractured, though possibly never as much as it is currently except for during the Civil War era, and the character of life in the U.S. has changed radically since 1776 (or for that matter 1607, or 1492 or...). But more importantly, I would argue that the definition of what "American" means is something that can no longer be agreed upon, and this is really on my mind during this absurd election season. We can agree there have been great novels that capture something essential about the country, but the country that inspired novels like Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn is not the same as the one which produced The Bluest Eye, Lolita, Blood Meridian, As I Lay Dying, The House of Mirth or the Rabbit books, to randomly name just a very few, all of which I'm sure have their partisans supporting their merit for the title.

Even attempts to name the greatest American novelist, as was recently attempted by The Guardian of all things, are specious at best. How one could include Nabokov (a Russian!) and exclude James (and Dreiser for that matter) in the final list of 32 contenders? It's beyond my comprehension, though it is fun as an exercise, and perhaps a more accurate measure in trying to identify that ineluctable modality of what consitutes an American literary canon.

Better, or easier at least, to approach it by timeframe, yet even there lay faultlines of race and class, not to mention geography. And even within the time frames of the 19th and 20th centuries, two wars (it would be justifiable to claim four, and even five if we stretch into the current century) radically altered the shape and perception of what "American" means. But I appreciate Lisa's declaration, and I'll stick with my own, with the following qualification- the Rabbit books comprise "the great American novel" of the post-war, White, middle-class, United States of America. There are many worthy contenders, with different qualifications of course: An American Tragedy, The Ambassadors, The Custom of the Country, The Crossing, Revolutionary Road, As I Lay Dying and Sabbath's Theater are some which spring to mind without looking at the bookshelves.

What say you?