Great American Novel ?

December 02, 2004

Blogging has been light because I have been wrestling with both insomnia and a big stack of papers to grade. I had the students read Uncle Tom's Cabin and write about that and some of the other primary documents for this semester. While driving the other day I had a semi-random thought inspired by all this lack of sleep and all this UTC.

I asked myself if UTC was the "great American novel" - a question I have asked myself before.

My answer this time surprised me. My answer is below the fold, but before you click on "more blather" ask yourself:
What is the Great 19th-Century American Novel?
What is the Great 20th-Century American Novel?
What is the "Great American Novel"?


And I want your immediate gut responses.

Now click.

My gut answer was that UTC was the Great 19th Century Novel but that Faulkner's As I Lay Dying was the Great American Novel.

In fact, if I were to rate the contenders for the title of Great American Novel, both of the 20th-century entries would be at the head of the pack:

Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby (J's choice)
Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
Twain, Huckleberry Fin

I am not sure what the other plausible contenders are - much I think depends on how you set the criteria for the great national novel.

What surprised me is that I could not tell you which Faulkner novel is As I Lay Dying - as soon as I finish grading I will toddle over to the library, check it out, and read it to see if my gut answer was in any way correct. So my 20th century answer was from the gut, and I could not tell you why, while my 19th-century answer was reasoned through and is something I could talk about at great length - I touch on it on my Reading Log writeup of UTC, but I could go on and point out that UTC is speculative fiction written about an imagined future (check the chronology in the book) while Huck Finn is historical fiction written about an imagined past. The former is often more telling about our anxieties, the latter about our questions.

So, comment away - those of you who read this far. What are your votes, and do your gut and your reason agree with one another?

And so to bed.

Posted by Red Ted at December 2, 2004 08:06 PM | TrackBack

Agreed on Huck and Gatsby, but you must add the Rabbit quartet of John Updike. Run, Redux, Rich, and Rest expain better than political science how Americans can end up with a president like Bush. And the novels are not even overtly political. Interestingly religious, though.

Posted by: g-lex at December 3, 2004 05:39 PM

Truth be told, I could never get more than ten pages into Updike.

I shall have to try again.

Posted by: Ted K at December 7, 2004 09:26 AM

Maybe it is generational. I was doing what you are now doing as long ago as the 1960's.
Updike has a perfect ear for middle-class conversation, middle-class separation from religious roots, and middle-class befuddlement.

Posted by: g-lex at December 7, 2004 10:42 PM
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