The great American novel is the ideal book that captures the spirit and feeling of America during the time of its writing. It is suppose to encompass the culture and identity of the time period. Many authors have tried to write the great American novel. They strive to create a masterpiece that will be viewed as the perfect American novel. After taking all these factors in, what book is the great American novel? Has anyone ever written it?
Classic American Literature
In truth, there is no one book that perfectly depicts the spirit and culture of America. However, there are many authors who have come close and their works have been categorized as Classic American Literature. These books do justice to the era in which they were written and are used in classrooms to better understand our country and to help appreciate works of literature. Here are some of the more popular books that define what the great American novel is all about.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Great American Novel – Written by Mark Twain and published in 1884, this story depicts life on the Mississippi river during the 1830’s. The book follows the adventures of the wild and “uncivilized” Huck Finn as he helps a slave named Jim escape from his owner. They two go rafting down the Mississippi, having several encounters with people common to the area of that time. The book deals largely with racism and the relationship between whites and blacks during that time period. It also takes on the dilemma of moral choices.
The Scarlet Letter –Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850, the story is set in the 1700’s in Boston during its Puritanical era. The book follows the life of an adulterer named Hester Prynne. She has been accused of adultery, a very major sin in the Puritan communities, so has to wear a red letter “A” sewn on her clothing, to mark her as an adulteress. She will also not reveal the name of the man whom she had an affair with, and the red letter is also part of her punishment for that. In fact, it turns out she had an affair with the town’s minister who bears his shame silently until he dies from it at the end. The themes of the book are about sin and guilt and there are hidden meanings all throughout the text. It is a very proper example of what early Puritan life was like in America.
Moby Dick – the classic book about the great white whale was written by Herman Melville in 1851. The opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael” is a famous quote in literary circles. The story follows a young sailor named Ishmael who finds a job on the whaling ship The Pequod, captained by the one-legged Captain Ahab. Ahab is searching for the whale Moby Dick, who destroyed his previous ship and bite off his leg. The captain is burning with revenge for the whale, which will ultimately be his downfall. The book is really about Ishmael’s soul-searching as he examines himself throughout his journey. At the end of the story, Ahab finds Moby Dick but the whale sinks the ship and takes the captain down to the sea with him. Of all the crew, only Ishmael survives. The books themes revolve around the dangers of obsession and revenge and how they can consume your life.
Catcher in the Rye – Written by J.D. Salinger and published in 1951, this book is a classic representation of rebellion. It is a metaphor about our fears of change and growing up. Its portrayal of teenage angst has caused it to become required reading in most high schools. The main character is a young man named Holden Caulfield who has been expelled from prep school. Holden ends up in the city in a cheap room and spends the rest of the book on a drunken soul-searching quest. The title for the book comes from a moment in the book when he has sneaked back into his parents house to talk to is younger sister. He confides in her a dream he had where he stood in a rye field watching children play. His job was to catch the children if they got too close to the cliff. Thus, a catcher in the rye. At the end of the book, Holden has decided to go back to school.
Of Mice and Men – This tragic tale set during the Great Depression was written by John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Peace prize. Set in the 1920’s and based off of the author’s own experiences as a wandering hobo, the story follows two migrant workers, Geroge and Lennie. George is smart but cynical while Lennie is large, strong, but dim-witted. The two want to settle somewhere where they can start a farm. Lennie, in his child-like innocence, wants to tend rabbits which he likes to pet and feel their soft fur. The two are actually on the run from the last job because Lennie was accused of rape when he innocently touched a woman’s dress to see what it felt like. The two find a job on a ranch and are doing well. But tragedy strikes when Lennie accidentally kills the wife of the ranch owner’s son. In his fascination, Lennie was trying to feel her long hair. The son forms a lynch mob and goes after Lennie. George, because Lennie is his friend and wants to spare him the pain and suffering from that mob, shoots Lennie in the back of the head. The book centers on man’s struggle with loneliness and despair, which was all very prevalent for migrant workers during the Depression.
Old Man and the Sea – Written by Ernest Hemingway in 1951, this short novella captures man’s epic struggle against nature and himself, both of which plagued Hemingway throughout his life. The story takes place in a fishing village and tells about an old fisherman named Santiago who hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. Convinced that he is about to end his streak of bad luck and prove that he is still a worthy fisherman, Santiago takes his boat far out into the Gulf where he hooks a huge marlin. For three days Santiago struggles and fights against that fish out on the open sea. He finally manages to catch the fish and ties him to the boat so he can haul him home. On the way, he has to fight off sharks that eventually devour the large marlin. By the time he gets home, there is nothing but the skeleton left. However, his fellow fishermen are impressed with the size of the skeleton and Santiago is redeemed in the eyes of the village.
The Sound and the Fury – Written by William Faulkner in 1929, this book is probably the most famous and celebrated works of literature of the 20th century. It is written with a broken time table, meaning the book’s four main section are out of order. More to the point, they were all written from the skewed and biased point of one of the four narrators. The book basically follows the decline of the Compson family, a once well-to-do family descended from the Civil War hero General Compson. The story takes place over a number of years and the family falls into financial and social ruin. The sources of the family’s problems, and the themes of the book, are racism and selfishness. By the end of the book, most of the family members have all met with a tragic accident. What makes the book so great is the narrative technique the Faulkner uses in his writing which perfectly captures that thought processes of people.