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What’s the Great American Novel? Publishers Weekly asked that question of its bookish readers last March. The top three contenders (in ascending order) are about a teenage boy drifting down the Mississippi with an escaped slave, a self-made millionaire hitching his dreams to the woman he loved and lost, and a 9-year-old girl and her older brother confronting racism in a small Southern town. Can you guess the titles?
The term “Great American Novel” traces back to an essay published in The Nation, January 1867, by author and critic John DeForest. Surveying the literary scene at the time, DeForest could find no likely candidate or author for the GAN title: Washington Irving was too cautious, Fenimore Cooper too boring, Nathaniel Hawthorne too artsy and high-minded. None of them captured the spirit of “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.”
This energetic description skirts a darker side of America: the avaricious and desperate side which, according to historian Page Smith, is inseparably linked to the opportunity mindset. In America, anyone could succeed, which also meant that anyone could fail. And if you failed, it was your fault; failure could not be blamed on an oppressive system or greedy landlord. For every entrepreneur building a city or business, there were a dozen rootless young men roaming the vast continent like Ishmael in Moby-Dick (a “Great American Novel” that DeForest overlooked), searching for a foothold or escaping a bind.
Escape is the undercurrent of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published 14 years after DeForest’s essay and the first novel to give full voice to the headlong, rough-hewn spirit of America. But, like its author, it is deeply pessimistic. The only hope for our hero at the end is to “light out for the Territory” before his Aunt Sally adopts and civilizes him, “and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
To Kill a Mockingbird, always a top contender for the Great American title, is more positive about human nature—or some humans, at least. It’s a rare reader who doesn’t find the ideal father figure in Atticus Finch, or empathize with Scout and Jem as they confront the ugly attitudes of their little town. But ugly attitudes are common to all cultures and times, and confronting them is the challenge of literary heroes worldwide, from Jean Valjean to Yuri Zhivago. Though the premise of racism is rooted deep in our national conscience, there’s nothing particularly American about the theme.
That’s why, if our Great Novel is supposed to be expressive of American energy (and American overreach), The Great Gatsby gets my vote. Gatsby has its detractors, due to an overly literary style, a thin plot, or a lack of sympathetic characters. Still, no novel better captures the fraught nature of the American dream: boundless opportunity, sometimes tragically misdirected. The title character has chosen the girl of his dreams, Daisy Buchanan, to complete himself; he has “forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath,” and of course it all goes wrong. Jay Gatsby is famously difficult to get a handle on, both for his fellow characters and for the reader. That’s because the self-made man is empty at the core.
Disillusion haunts the final pages. In the closing paragraphs, narrator Nick Carraway imagines Long Island as it must have appeared to the first European explorers: “man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent … face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
Reader, be warned: No material prospect, however grand, is big enough for the dream we were made for. We have an object “commensurate to our capacity for wonder,” and then some: the One who created that very capacity. The Great Gatsby reminds me that wonder is not a cheat; it has its match, and a home for the restless heart.