asks the impossible question and then puts forth this list of finalists:
Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
James, Portrait of a Lady
Twain, Huckleberry Finn
Cather, My Antonia
Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Warren, All the King's Men
Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
Ellison, Invisible Man
Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Updike, Rabbit, Run
Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor
Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
Nabokov, Pale Fire
Roth, The Great American Novel
I've read the bolded entries. I've read books by all the authors except Stowe.
Okay, here are my thoughts:
* Nabokov is Russian, so he doesn't count.
* Rabbit, Run
is the worst novel ever written and possibly that could ever be written; sucks so badly that there simply are no words for its badness.
* The Age of Innocence
isn't even Edith Wharton's best novel, The House of Mirth
* Harper Lee's book was probably written by Truman Capote.
* We all love Raymond Chandler, but seriously, what's he doing on the list?
* The Sound and the Fury
is over-rated and is obsessed with some weird shit about Quentin's sister's panties; the real work in the Quentin oeuvre is Absalom, Absalom
* Huckleberry Finn
is great for a while, but suffers from a cop-out ending, where Twain lost his nerve.Sorry. Jim dies at the end.
* Moby Dick
is a Hardy Boys' story, but is useful in pointing out the horror of 19th Century whaling. It only has a reputation because New Critics such as T.S. Eliot needed Melville's book to make some damned point or the other. The books to read are Benito Cereno and Billy Budd.
* A Farewell to Arms
has aged poorly, reads like a parody of Hemingway, and is NOT EVEN SET IN THE UNITED STATES! The plot is as follows: "Catherine Barkley was hot. I bent her over the end table. She got pregnant. The war continued. She died. My kid died. I walked back to the hotel in the rain." If you want Hemingway, In Our Time
is the book, although not a novel. Hemingway's one decent novel, The Sun Also Rises
, also is not an American novel.
* Henry James? He loses points for feeling inferior as an American.
* Philip Roth. Portnoy's Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus. In fairness here, I haven't read The Great American Novel
is great, but loses points for nearly destroying my life with its excessive cynicism (not a book to read when you're a teenager).
* Hawthorne? Young Goodman Brown
* Nathaniel West, Miss Lonelyhearts
and The Day of the Locust
should be added.
* Ditto something by Nelson Algren.
* The Sot-Weed Factor
is a great choice and one of the funniest, best-written books ever. Set aside a month and check it out.
The correct answer to the question is Gatsby
. It's the great American novel, and the best written. My Antonia
is up there, too, and a great counterweight to Gatsby (as is Cather's Neighbor Rosicky
) and I was pleased to see it on the list. The Day of the Locust
is the best book about Hollywood.
BTW, over at Powerline, some people were suggesting Atlas Shrugged
. Okay, I've read it. Rand's prose sucks. No other way around it.