The Ultimate Great American Novel

“The Great American Novel” is an idea difficult to define yet clear in every American mind, or at least in the minds of some of America’s readers. It is that ideal book that captures some universal quality of American life and popular aspiration, and especially of quintessential patterns of American thought and speech at a particular time and place during the nation’s history. For a truly timeless work, it would give an insight into enduring universalities of Americanness as perceived through a compelling story cast in idiomatic and ephemeral particulars.

It is impossible for any one novel to achieve this ideal for any length of time, or even at all. But, a few do ascend artistically far above the accumulated mass of published and unpublished American novels. Here are eight that I think qualify as being contenders for the unattainable title of “The Great American Novel.”

First, they are listed by publication date:

(Herman Melville, 1851)
(1820s-1840s New England whalers at sea)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(Mark Twain, 1884)
(1830s-1840s, rafting down the Mississippi River)

The Great Gatsby
(F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)
(1922, love longing, triangles and betrayal in wealthy suburban New York)

The Grapes of Wrath
(John Steinbeck, 1939)
(1930s homeless Oklahoma farmers on the road in California)

The Catcher In The Rye
(J. D. Salinger, 1951)
(1950, a prep school boy’s New York City)

To Kill A Mockingbird
(Harper Lee, 1960)
(1933-1935, in a rural Southern town)

(Joseph Heller, 1961)
(1942-1944, US Army Air Force men in Italy)

(Kurt Vonnegut, 1969)
(1944-1945, 1968, 1976, US Army survivor of the Dresden fire-bombing).

Secondly, they are listed by the time periods of their stories:


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Great Gatsby

The Grapes of Wrath

To Kill A Mockingbird


(1944-1945, 1968, 1976)

The Catcher In The Rye

Thirdly, they are listed in my rank order:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


The Great Gatsby

The Grapes of Wrath

The Catcher In The Rye



To Kill A Mockingbird.

I would group the eight novels thematically as follows:

Moral defiance versus obedience to the avaricious and vengefully obsessed, before the Civil War:
– The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
– Moby-Dick

The soulful poets among the materialistic urban elite, as social failures by definition:
– The Great Gatsby
– The Catcher In The Rye

Prejudice against the wretched dispossessed in a time of economic depression:
– The Grapes of Wrath
– To Kill A Mockingbird

The sanity of being creatively insane to try surviving the random heartless cruelties of war, and of life:
– Catch-22
– Slaughterhouse-Five

So, perhaps an Ultimate Great American Novel would offer us the compelling attraction of seeing strong individual moral character successfully defy the social strictures that direct people into lives of soulless materialistic gain and obsessive and even vengeful ambition; and, by artful indirection rather than polemics, it would lead us to condemn those aspects of our society by which the most wretched and dispossessed are inflicted with the cruelest forms of exclusion, exploitation and persecution; and it would show us how to recognize those morally insightful and artistically apt observers of our unappealing and often denied social realities, despite the casting off of such poets by materialism’s powerful. Finally, such a novel would delight us with a realization of good triumphing over monolithic indifference, by showing how its good-hearted empathetic poet-observers and realists, who captivate our attention, escape monstrous injustices and random fatal cruelties by their own artful nonconformities. Seeing such escapes would give us a lightening hope: perhaps we could do it too.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) wrote that “a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,” and Huckleberry Finn is “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” Because of his innate good character and his beneficial friendship with Jim, an escaped slave, the adolescent Huckleberry Finn comes to see black slavery and its enabling racism as morally wrong despite their being treated as upright and legally essential to American society, by the white adults of his time. It is important to note that Jim, the runaway black slave, is the noblest adult in this story. This is the quintessential American novel, scintillating and funny, still fresh, still relevant, still controversial.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written” (D. H. Lawrence). It tells of Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest, aboard the whaling ship Pequod, for revenge against the white whale, Moby-Dick, for having bitten off his leg at the knee on a previous voyage. Melville gives detailed and realistic descriptions of whale hunting, the extraction of whale oil, and life aboard ship among a culturally diverse crew. Mixed into this narrative are explorations of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God.

The Great Gatsby

In 1923, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940) wanted to write “something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” That effort produced his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. The story centers on the young and mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby, and his quixotic and obsessive passion for the beautiful former debutante Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby’s main problem is Daisy’s oafish, wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan. Because of their inherited wealth, Tom and Daisy are spoiled and thus careless people, and that causes damage to others of humble origins who have their own great aspirations: the American Dream. The story is told by lyrical observer and incidental participant Nick Carraway. Fitzgerald’s artful, fluid prose conveys not only the interesting plot of the social drama, but a sense of the times, the nature of the characters, and – very subtly – his own judgments about each of these.

The Grapes of Wrath

While preparing this novel, John Steinbeck (1902-1968) wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects],” he also said “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, changes in the agricultural industry, and bank foreclosure. Down and out and on the road during the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California along with thousands of other “Okies” in the hopes of finding jobs, land, dignity, and a future. Steinbeck’s sympathies for people like the Joads, and his accessible realist prose style, brought him a large following among the working class worldwide, and recognition with the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1962.

The Catcher In The Rye

Jerome David Salinger (1919-2010) matched Mark Twain’s achievement in Huckleberry Finn, of presenting the story of a rebellious and kind-hearted teenager, Holden Caulfield, in the very specific idiomatic speech of the protagonist, his peers, time and place. This novel presents an unparalleled view into the angst and alienation filling a perceptive teenage boy’s mind, trying to unravel the complexities of innocence, identity, belonging, loss, and connection. James Joyce had said that he wanted his own book, Ulysses, to be so richly detailed in describing Dublin on 16 June 1904 that one could thereafter recreate the entire city of that time out of his novel. Salinger did just that, with The Catcher In The Rye, for the New York City of a prep school lad during Christmas week, 1950.


Joseph Heller (1923-1999) mined his experiences as a U.S. Army Air Corps B-25 bombardier, who flew 60 combat missions on the Italian Front during World War II, to write his best novel, Catch-22. This satiric novel unfolds in a non-chronological manner, and it centers on Captain John Yossarian, a B-25 (a twin engine, medium bomber) bombardier, who along with his companions attempts to maintain his sanity during his time at war, despite its continuous undercurrent of deep dread, which is punctuated by random instances of explosive terror. The great hope is to return home alive. There are many comical elements in this book, and Yossarian is a serious nonconformist, a wise ass, but all these laughs are forms of gallows humor to help these men trapped in war to momentarily release their tightly knotted tensions. This is an anti-war book. In the novel, the Catch-22 itself is a circularly constructed Air Corps rule that makes it impossible for an airman to arrive at a valid excuse – except being killed – for being relieved of combat duty. Milo Minderbinder, one of the characters in Catch-22, is the quintessential icon of a capitalist, a parody that is so exquisite because it is so realistically accurate.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

To write Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) drew on his experiences as an American prisoner of war, captured by the Germans in 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, who witnessed the destruction of the city of Dresden by an incredibly intense firestorm created by four British and American aerial bombing raids, dropping high explosive and incendiary devices, between 13-15 February 1945. At least 25,000 Germans, mainly civilians, died as a result of the indiscriminate area bombing of an ancient city with scant military installations. Slaughterhouse-Five is an overt anti-war novel published during the height of the Vietnam War. It presents the science fiction-infused story of Billy Pilgrim, an innocent Everyman-type who is a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army and survives the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. This experience forms Billy into the not-so-usual individual he becomes by his maturity in present-day 1968 upstate New York, and the guru-seer he becomes thereafter, “unstuck in time” and in out-of-his-control contact with the Tralfamadorians, aliens from deep outer space. Vonnegut’s prose is almost child-like, and his science fiction episodes are whimsical, but the essence of this book and the drive behind it are very serious.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) reflected on her observations of her own father, a lawyer, to write this warm, Southern Gothic novel about the rape trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, by a white court and jury, in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression, in 1936. The rape victim-accuser is an unmarried white woman whose father is a rabid racist; Tom Robinson is a married man with children: a black family. This story unfolds as the observations of two young white children, primarily Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout), and her older brother Jeremy (nicknamed Jem), who live with their widowed father Atticus Finch, a highly principled, anti-racist and quietly brave man. Atticus Finch is Tom Robinson’s defense attorney. About this novel, the critic J. Crespino wrote in 2000 that “In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.” To Kill A Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only published book from 1960 until 2015 (seven months before her death), when her publisher, J. B. Lippincott & Co., issued Go Set A Watchman, an inferior novel based on an earlier draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. I suspect this was an act of pure exploitation by Lee’s publisher.

Are The Movies Any Good?

Nothing equals the experience of reading these books, and having their artistry unfold intimately in your own mind and at your own pace. Do yourself a favor and read each completely before you see any movie or even movie clip of it (actually, a movie of somebody’s interpretation or even misrepresentation of it).

Also, make sure to avoid all introductions, prefaces, essays about and critiques on any of these stories before actually reading the full texts that the authors labored to gift us with. Don’t allow the blather of others to pollute the purity of your own first impressions and – just as good as any critic’s and English teacher’s – your own analysis and artistic appreciation of what the authors have given us.

The nature of American society and the American cinematic industry makes it impossible to create accurate and meritorious movies of three of these novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher In The Rye. The barriers to making good movies of these three stories are, respectively: the inability to face Mark Twain’s searing frankness about 19th century American racism; the inability to produce a movie as elegant, layered, lyrical and subtle as Fitzgerald’s novel; and similarly with Salinger’s novel, which he anticipated by stipulating that movie rights to his stories never be sold.

There are good movies of Moby-Dick (in 1956, by John Huston and Ray Bradbury), The Grapes of Wrath (in 1940, by John Ford, Nunnally Johnson and Darryl F. Zanuck), Catch-22 (in 1970, by Mike Nichols and Buck Henry), Slaughterhouse-Five (in 1972, by George Roy Hill and Stephen Geller), and To Kill A Mockingbird (in 1962, by Robert Mulligan, Horton Foote and Alan J. Pakula). But read the books first!

Other Great American Novels

Obviously, there can be as many different nominees for inclusion in lists of “great American novels” as there are enthusiastic and opinionated readers of American literature. A listing of often cited works for inclusion among the “American greats” is given by Wikipedia (

Remember, readers come in two sexes (and varieties of sexual orientation), of all ages, and from the wide multi-cultural spectrum of the American people, and beyond. So, the type and period of American novel that would captivate any given reader, as a “great book,” can be quite different from the novels I have listed.

I’m not arguing, just gratefully enjoying and appreciatively learning from the sincere and varied literary artistry of the dedicated authors cited here. Enjoy!


7 thoughts on “The Ultimate Great American Novel

  1. Nothing like a list of the greatest whatever to stir up objections. There’s something peculiarly American in the idea that has preoccupied writers for a century now about writing ‘the great American novel’. It’s an idea absent from, for instance, British or French culture, both of which have produced very great novels and continue to come up with excellent ones. Hasn’t ‘the great American novel’ something to do with a messianic strain in our thinking that has resulted, on a lower level, in the belief in our ‘exceptionality’?

    That said, I’m sorry you left out that immense novelist Henry James. His ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ or ‘The Ambassadors’ meets all your requirements. Perhaps the cosmopolitan and aristocratic setting put you off. But to penetrate the American psyche James needed to compare it to something different.

    As for movies from novels, J.W. Eagan set down the golden rule: “Never judge a book by its movie.”

  2. Mulling over your list I’ve come to the conclusion that it, as the song goes, “accentuates the positive”. There’s nothing very dark save, maybe, Heller, Vonnegut and some of Steinbeck. I could see a place for Nathanael West’s ‘The Day of the Locust’, Raymond Carver’s stories, a James M. Cain novel, Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and William Burroughs’ best. The negative can, in the long run, product positive blossoms. Reading a memoir of A.J. Lees, British neurologist and renowned researcher in cures for Parkinson’s disease, I was surprised to learn that he found lifelong encouragement in ‘Naked Lunch’. One surprise of your list is that you left out Hemingway. Not that I mind. I think he was too much with us.

  3. Here are some of the responses I got by e-mail, and my replies:

    From: Paul Whalen
    Subj: Dos Passos
    By your definition the USA trilogy is a great American Novel. To Kill a Mockingbird?

    Thank you for your response. Many others also include Dos Passos in the Pantheon. “To Kill A Mockingbird” has had a major impact on American society since the day it was published, and continues to.


    From: sjnsn
    Subj: ninth candidate

    Seems to me that Great American Novel should address what this culture really is. So I’d have to suggest that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, is very much about what this country really is, not just molded by slavery, but expressing its religiosity. Political prejudices interfere with the simple reading of the novel. Uncle Tom (a term of respect by the way,) may dote on Little Eva. But to insist on flinty hatred of a sweet little dying girl? Not one of Tom’s real sacrifices is made for white people. And the treatment of sexuality is remarkable so far as I know. What other popular novel of 1852 insists its readers know Mrs. St. Clare doesn’t have sex with her husband?

    It is quite common to prefer The Scarlet Letter as a candidate, on the premise Puritanism is essential to the American soul. Well, perhaps, but I think Hawthorne’s literariness was partly turning away from the society around him. He didn’t write about the America of his day for political reasons.

    Interesting article in Counterpunch, congratulations.

    Thank you for your response to my article. Many others agree with you about including “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Scarlett Letter” in the Pantheon. There are many worthy candidates, aren’t there? Thanks for the kind words.


    From: Tony Christini
    Subj: Great American Novel

    Thoughtful article at Counterpunch on Great American Novel. Below are the first three novels that come to mind when I consider your reasonable definition of a great American novel. That two of these three novels are not exactly American is irrelevant, it seems to me, for reasons that could be plainly elaborated, and in any case were largely touched on by Hugo himself long ago, per quotation below.

    Recently, I took my shot at a Great American Novel of sorts, satiric, here, Empire All In:

    Victor Hugo [quote]:
    I don’t know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: “open up, I am here for you”.

    Thanks for your response to my article.

    On “Parable”: have you seen the 1974 movie “Zardoz”? Ursula Le Guin’s (book) “The Dispossessed” comes to mind as well.

    On “Les Miserables”: Yes, a timeless masterpiece of French, and World literature. Perhaps an American variant is “The Grapes of Wrath.” The 1935 American film of Les Miserables is very good in its way (with Frederic March and Charles Laughton), realizing such a film can only really be a sequence of selected scenes from the book.

    On “Wizard of the Crow”: Perhaps some combination of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Frank Waters, and Hip-Hop spoken-word that is elevated stratospherically above the gutter will be devised by some American writer, to arrive at a uniquely American equivalent to the African novel you cite.

    On your book: Congratulations! Hope you have success (beyond the writing of it) with it. In reading the promo for it I thought of the 2006 movie “Idiocracy.” Thanks again for your letter, and best of luck with your writing career.


  4. From: Kevin Bartelme:

    As long as you are embarked on the very commendable task of examining the American novel you might also check out Melville’s “The Confidence Man”, William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”, Nathaniel West’s “A Cool Million” and my very own “Ain’t Life Swell?” available on Amazon or from Coolgrove Press. Happy reading.

    Thanks for the reply, and the recommendations.

  5. More responses by e-mail:


    From: Hergern Junge

    Dear Mr Garcia, this is a mail sent from Namibia by a German lover of John Dos Passos, Thorstein Veblen and the Wobblies (International Workers of World) and Jelly Roll Morton.

    You have guessed it. I am recommending the USA Trilogy.
    Reason 1: an immensely accurate description of the USA’ s stepping into the vicissitudes of Empire.
    Reason 2: Dos Passos exploded on to the world scene with new narrative techniques thus changing the narrative globe
    montage (Brecht’s Three Penny Novel) Eisenstein’s film cuts, Walter Benjamin’s shock and others

    In these Trumpian days novels and poems can be a help


    Thank you for your response to my article. You are not the first person to recommend Dos Passos to me. I can see you have good taste in American literature and ideas. I am in the middle of reading “All Quiet On The Western Front,” in English of course, my German is zero.


    From: Mark Backus

    Dear Mr. Garcia,

    I read your article “The Ultimate Great American Novel” in Counterpunch with interest. It reminded me to review my list of movie and theater versions of Moby-Dick. I think some may be at least as good as John Huston’s version. Here they are in case you are interested:

    Hamlet with Hamlet as Ahab; Horatio as Ishmael, the reader, or Starbuck; the play itself as the Pequod; and “seems” as the White Whale/universe. Or maybe Ahab as Hamlet and Ishmael as Horatio? Who’s playing whom?

    Gravity, with George Clooney as Ahab, Sandra Bullock as Ishmael, Space as the ocean, space suits or capsules as the Pequod, and planet earth as the White Whale. Multiple stages or rebirths.

    The Truman Show with Jim Carrey as Ahab and the TV/movie audience as Ishmael/the reader, the town as the White Whale/universe, and Ed Harris as God. Includes a voyage and the Paul Giamatti saying, “There she blows.”

    Cast Away, with Tom Hanks as StarbuckAhab/Pip, an airplane as the Pequod, and a soccer ball as Ishmael? Wait, maybe Wilson is Ahab and Tom Hanks is Ishmael.

    Lost at Sea, with Bob as Ahab/Pip.

    American Beauty with Kevin Spacey as Ahab. Who is Ishmael? I don’t know – his daughter? Suburbia as Pequod? Gay authoritarian neighbor as MD?

    TV: Candid Camera, with the mark as Ahab, Starbuck, and Ishmael all at once? The hilarious “reveal” of the illusory universe. Smile!

    And best of all: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Jack Nicholson as Ahab, “Chief” as Ishmael/reader, an insane asylum as the Pequod, and Nurse Ratched as the White Whale/universe. Features a fishing trip on the ocean. I love it when Jack finds out the other inmates are there voluntarily. Who wants to wake up when you can be safely asleep? “The shorts under his work pants are coal black satin covered with big white whales with red eyes. He grins when he sees I’m looking at the shorts. ‘From a coed at Oregon State, Chief, a Literary major.’ He snaps the elastic with his thumb. ‘She gave them to be because she said I was a symbol.’”

    Mark Backus

    Dear Mr Backus (any relation to Jim?),

    Thank you for your enthusiastic comments in response to my article. I’ll add it to my collection of responses on my blog (in the comments section below the blog entry for my article).


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