What is the Greatest American Book?

American Classics
Because I do this kind of thing every once in a while, and because it's 4th of July week here in my beleaguered United States of America ... and, finally, because I'm on vacation and won't be able to post very often in the next few days, I'd like to spend this entire week on a single question: what is the greatest American book ever published?

It happens that I have an answer in mind. It took me a minute or two to settle on this answer, but once I began to ponder the question in the widest and most holistic sense I began to feel very sure that my answer is the best possible one -- a no-brainer, even, when you consider the cultural impact this book has had since its publication.

I'll reveal what I consider to be the greatest American book on Friday morning. Till then, I'd love to hear what you all think.

And, regarding my pick, I've got one hint and one rule.

HINT: my pick does not feature two beatniks riding in a car, nor does it feature a one-legged sea captain chasing a whale.

RULE: if you've been around LitKicks for a while, you can probably guess my selection, so please don't post a comment revealing it. (This means you, Ectric).

The floor is open. What is the greatest book ever published by a writer who is a citizen of the United States of America?

UPDATE: my own answer to the question has been posted here.
62 Responses to "What is the Greatest American Book?"

by Milton on

Tropic of CancerOut of his consistently professed hatred for his native land, and while in the process of exiling himself from it, Henry Miller paradoxically manages to highlight all of the virtues that make the United States an occasionally great country. It's a 20th Century reiteration of the Enlightenment values on which the country was founded, only with far more swearing and hotter sex. (A close runner-up would be "A Moveable Feast." Why is it that great Americans always come through so much better when pretending to be Parisians?)

by brooklyn on

That's a good question, Milton ...Neither of these match my selection, but I like them both.

by kkizer on

GatsbyNot going to put up a defense. Everyone will have their own opinions and they'll all be different. Ask me tomorrow and I'll probably name a different book.

by Sophronisba on

WaldenBecause it epitomizes the individualist streak in American culture.

by oupblog on

DreiserAn American Tragedy

by jamelah on

Huck FinnI thought about this for, oh, twenty seconds, and decided that this was my choice. I was a little surprised at how decisively it is my choice, considering the fact that I haven't even thought of this book in years, but there it is. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my nominee for The Great American Novel.

by Richard Grayson on

The Education of Henry AdamsIndispensible.

by Billectric on

hell, i don't knowI might have to go with the 2 beatniks in the car. I'm reading Kerouac, by Paul Maher, Jr. I think for a while I was so saturared with the beats that I needed to step away and take in the wide variety of other literature. Levi, I know you have expressed the same sentiment. But I'm feeling reconnected to On the Road again, bigtime.

by calgodot on

The key word is book.Isn't it?

by Stokey on

people don't read literatureNo books (except Iliad/Odyssey) have had anywhere near the influence of the Bible, the Gita, and the Koran. Most people don't read much literature, probably don't know it exists, or care. I'd have Americans read books about values - The Town and the City; Winesburg, Ohio; maybe The Martian Chronicles, or Black Elk Speaks (http://blackelkspeaks.unl.edu). Walden's a pretty good choice too.

by bluewings on

Greatest American Book"Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck.

by nixin on

Fear and Loathing on the CampaignTrail '72No prize necessary.

by R. W. Watkins on

The Naked And The DeadNorman Mailer: The Naked And The Dead (1948). Not necessarily his best stylistically, but it captures the American spirit in all its nuances.Speaking of July 4th, Sunday (July 1st) was Canada Day; so to be somewhat patriotic for a change, I'd have to say a threeway toss-up between Morley Callahan's 'They Shall Inherit The Earth', Hugh Maclennan's 'Two Solitudes' and Mordecai Richler's 'Joshua Then And Now'....

by brooklyn on

Very observant, Cal ... you are correct that in reference to my own choice I could not employ the classic phrase "Great American Novel".

by danjazz on

Incredibly (or maybe not, this is America after all), friends of mine who teach college English tell me that Huck Finn can no longer be taught because it is 'racist, sexist,' etc. etc.

by drplacebo on

Two Beatniks in a carSo, two Beatniks are driving in a car, and the one Beatnik says to the other one...Sorry, couldn't help that.Based on the clever deduction by calgodot and what I have read in these pages, is the book "Pragmatism" by William James?

by Billectric on

That's up there near the top for sure.

by djrob1972 on

I'm not sure if this is THE best American novel, but it certainly may be the best on the subject of war. Very good, nonetheless.

by djrob1972 on

The Grapes of WrathA sweeping journey into the soul of a struggling American family-the Joads- and certainly one of my personal favorites. Steinbeck was a master.

by R. W. Watkins on

A couple of other observations about Mailer: Not only does he take First Prize in the Greatest U.S. Novel division, but also in the Most Underrated U.S. Novel division, for his second, 'Barbary Shore' (1951 or '52), and Greatest (Only?) U.S. Social Butterfly Poet division, for his volumes 'Deaths for the Ladies (and other disasters)' (1962), 'Cannibals and Christians' (1966), and the compilation 'Modest Gifts' (2003). It should be noted, as well, that Mailer may very well be the only U.S. author who ever set out quite consciously to write The Great American Novel--I think he's achieved it at least three or four times over....

by brooklyn on

"Pragmatism" by James -- a wonderful suggestion, Doc! It isn't my choice, but this may be only because James spread his great ideas over so many different books that I couldn't pick this title or any other as his one key work.

by LoganR on

it's no easy choice...but i have to go with Sound and Fury - american from the dust up.

by Billectric on

I think Kerouac set out to write the great American novel, too.

by LizKateS on

Maybe I'm just too young...I think Catcher in the Rye might just be the best American novel. Think of how much Salinger's sort of stream of conciousness narration (and he brings it to us a uniquely succinct, frank, American way) affected everything after... he defined the modern bildungsroman novel. And what about The World According to Garp? Its winding plot and unique, timely fixation on sex surely influenced all episodic novels that came later. Anyway, enough literary pretension from me for the day. I've gotta go write some more shit about Queens.

by deminizer on

I would go with...The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the two guys crisscrossing the country in the car, F & L in Vegas, or The Great Gatsby if it were me. We Americans like to travel and collect stuff and break things. Damned consumerists, go figure, but I assume since you say book and not novel you're thinking about either non-fiction or bubble gum crap, so you're looking for most the influential book and dear God I hope you're not talking about the Dan Brown thing... (gulp) I bet you are and that's scary cuz' you might be right if that's the case, still, on moral principles I gotta' say Civil Disobedience or All the Presidents Men. Thoreau helped influence passive defiance, which obviously hasn't taken root here, but abroad, with the likes of Ghandi, it has influenced many, and Woodward and Bernstein helped tackle a corrupt regime and get an honest president into power j-u-s-t long enough to screw up the gas prices really badly, though in all honesty Star Wars came out while Carter was president so the whole four years wasn't an entire waste... though there was that disco crap and the Kiss in make-up stuff. Damn. Thanks Levi. Now I'm going to be depressed on the 4th! Thoreau inspired others to play nice so we could take over, Woodward and Bernstein made it easier for the Reagan/Bush Axis of evil to take a grip on the nation for the better part of three decades and perhaps America's greatest influence on literature, alongside the Bible and Qu'ran and War and Peace and The Plague is potentially a story about sexism and corruption in the church... there's a shocker, our literary contribution to the culture of global society might be that of a lame episode of Jerry Springer in print...Well.At least we have Poe.

by soyblood on

the life before us (madame rosa)by romain gary(w/ the disclaimer that thereare books that i have not yet red.)

by stevadore on

For the Birds...My emotional choice is On The Road, because of its trememndous impact on my life.I guess Catcher would fall into that same category.For Whom The Bell Tolls is right up there also. Wow!I also tend to agree w/ 2 others in suggesting Grapes Of Wrath...but after much serious contemplation, I have to nominate To Kill A Mockingbird. Mainly for the theme and it's absolute perfect timing. And it makes me feel ok being white. Go figure.

by jamelah on

I'd read it long before this, too, but I wasn't in college that long ago (6 years) and was taught Huck Finn in an American Lit. survey course. Fortunately there are still places in the world (in the United States) where people aren't on the lookout for things to offend them.

by Billectric on

You may be young, but you "defended" your choices well.

by mileage on

catch 22had to be a tie with 1984 (not american, after all) as themost powerful novels i ever read, but greatest "book" from the perspective of what?influence on our society? overall popularity/gross sales? I'll haveto get back to you-thanks!

by R. W. Watkins on

I will say this much about To Kill A Mockingbird: It's without doubt the novel that's been most faithfully adapted to the big screen--both on a U.S. level and on an international level. (Actually, that's a good thread to start, Levi: What novels, short stories, plays and comic books have been most faithfully adapted to the big and small screens...?)

by R. W. Watkins on

Category Where Americans are LosersFrankly, if there's one category of literature--and I guess we are focusing almost exclusively on the novel in this particular context--where U.S. authors have been highly insignificant--big losers, if you will--it would have to be children's literature. Other than a few things by Judy Blume (Are You There, God?...), Betsy Byars (Summer of The Swans), and E.B. White (Charlotte's Web), U.S. authors have been traditionally too tied up with Puritanism in the old days and political correctness in recent decades to pull off any truly interesting children's novels. Things haven't fared much better here in Canada, where Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables) has ruled for three quarters of a century--much to the delight of the Japanese, who eat up her antiquated tales like ice cream. Still, for my money, the Brits, the French, the Swedes, and other Europeans rule when it comes to the children's novel. Folks like Lewis Carroll, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Gunnell Linde have been light years ahead of North American children's authors.

by jota on

my interview with Uncle RayFor billectric, who really wanted to know more."The act of writing is, for me, like a fever -- something I must do. And it seems I always have some new fever developing, some new love to follow and bring to life. I've never doubted myself; I've always been so completely devoted to libraries and books and authors that I couldn't stop to consider for a moment that I was being foolish. I only knew that writing was in itself the only way to live."-Ray BradburyIt was the summer of 1990 and I was in Los Angeles on assignment to cover a national convention of health professionals and dietitions. The LA riots were light years away, not many people paid attention to some place called Iraq, and O.J. Simpson was considered a hero. George Bush was in the White House, George Herbert Walker Bush.The keynote speaker, for some reason I know not why, was none other than Ray Bradbury, the author of such books as The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and, of course, Fahrenheit 451.Now, I have met a number of celebrities in my life, one president, lots of athletes, movie stars, and even rock stars (one day I encountered Dee Snyder, sans makeup, in a used book store in midtown Manhattan. Imagine that, the lead singer of Twisted Sister reading a book - a business management book at that - I think he was considering leaving the band and going solo and man, that kat was tall and buttuuuugly...). Anyway, getting back to the story.So after the keynote, I go up to the press room to file my story. I had already interviewed people from the night before, and was just wrapping up when one of the conference organizers, a woman whose mother, Frieda Kaplan, had created this entire line of exotic produce, like cherimoya (tastes like ice cream) and purple potatoes. So my friend pops her head into the otherwise empty press room, sees me typing away, and calls out, "hey Jay, want to meet Uncle Ray?"Now "Uncle Ray" is the affectionate name legions of Ray Bradbury fans have given him. I looked over at her nonplussed but inside my heart was about to pop out of my ribs. See, it was Ray Bradbury who helped inspire me to be a writer. I had discovered him in fifth grade, about the time my parents were going through a lousy divorce. We were poor and now lived in public housing. The kids in the neighborhood were pyschopathic, especially to the new arrivals. My guts hurt most of the time and I didn't have the stomach to go outside and play just to let Eugene Cruz spot me, knock me down, and scratch a fork across my chest like he had done twice already. So when this bookmobile first pulled up in front of our apartment building, I was in heaven. I remember the first time I checked out a book and nervously asked the guy at the wheel how many books I could check out. He looked at me funny and said, "kid, you take as many as you can read. But we come here every Wednesday, so you don't have to worry about it, ok?"I checked out about ten books that day and lugged them up four flights of stairs. Reading was my only solace. It was summer, and I didn't know hardly anyone, but these books took me places where I had never been before. One of the first books I read was the Martian Chronicles. I was delighted to discover in this book a short story I had already read in fourth grade. "There will come soft rains..." I was in the advanced reading class and I hated how the rich kids in the class treated me, leaving empty seats next to me and mostly ignoring me and keeping me out of their conversations, mainly because I wore the wrong clothes, my skin was too dark, I had a chipped tooth and I was small and skinny. But reading gave me confidence. It was something I was good at and I didn't care if people laughed at me. I learned so much and could escape the chipped paint, squat concrete blocks of buildings where we lived and I could travel to other planets, other universes, other times.So the next Wednesday the bookmobile returns and I check out every Ray Bradbury book they had: Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine. I ate those books, consumed them, devoured them in the middle of the night, never stopping except to eat or wash up. I read in the bathtub, on the floor, in bed, and kept turning page after page. I had to know more. I felt like a pilgrim being taught a secret language. And it started out as a pre-adolescent thirst for science fiction.I then began reading more sci-fi, stuff like Arthur C. Clarke's The Nine Billion Names of God, Childhood's End, and Rendezvous with Rama. Next I began reading Brian Aldiss' Barefoot in the Head. Then I read Phillip Jose Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go. I followed up with A Canticle for Leibowitz, and then 1984. BOOM. And from there I began reading other authors, agonizing over Ayn Rand, laughing my ass off with Kurt Vonnegut, discovering Hemingway, Joyce, Beckett, and shit, the list just goes on and on stretching from Jack Kerouac to Don Delillo to Albert Camus and beyond. Uncle Ray had lit a rocket up my ass.So, of course, muthafucking A! do I ever want to meet Uncle Ray.So I put down my stuff and follow my friend to the speaker's lounge. We're at a posh hotel in downtown LA. The room is on the fourth floor and you could see the work being done a few blocks away on what is now the landmark LA library building. There's about a dozen leather armchairs set about two round tables, each with pitchers of water and fresh fruit.No one is in the room except Uncle Ray. He's relaxed, wearing an open collared polo shirt and khaki slacks. His hair is long and amazingly white. He's wearing big black framed glasses and he's a little florrid in the face. He spots me as he's munching on a pear. He waves me in.I look to my friend and she gestures with her open palm and retreats. So it's just me and Uncle Ray.I sit down across from the man and uncap my pen. "So, young man, tell me your name."I do so and explain what newspaper I work for.He chuckles. "How do you like your job?"This catches me off guard as I'm supposed to be interviewing him.I put the pen down and start gushing like a fool, asking him a million questions, like how did he know exactly what new tennis shoes feel like the first time you put them on? How did he come up with those strange martian names? I asked him if it was true that the author of so many books about space and astronauts is actually afraid of flying."No, that's not true. I go to Paris a lot. You can't get there by car, you know."So I tell him how I grew up reading his books and wondered what he thought about the movie versions and if he ever met Rod Steiger. If I remember, he said no authors are ever entirely pleased with a movie version because so much of the romance is left out and too many unnecessary things are added in. But if the movie keeps the tone or the spirit of the romance, it's better than nothing.I told him my intention was to someday give up reporting and turn full-time to writing."You already are, just write for yourself."That made me laugh and I told him about all the editors and journalism professors and english teachers who had drilled and admonished me to think first of the audience."Ho ho!" Uncle Ray hooted. "No, you are your own best audience. Write for yourself. Get up out of bed and get to it. Listen to the stories and the voices in your morning head and bring them to life."I asked him how he wrote.He told me he gets up and after listening to the voices in his head, he sits down and pounds out about three to four thousand words a day."Hemingway did a thousand. I'm no Hemingway so I write more and that way I can edit it down."I asked him if he knew exactly how the story would end before he sat down to write."Hell, no," he laughed. And his cheeks shook. He tossed the half-eaten pear into a nearby waste can."That kills the creativity. That's the fu
n part. Sit down and play. It's funny. Some people call writing for a living work. It's play. Every day I get up and I play. That's the secret to a long and happy life."The interview ended, and I thanked him for his time. I never did write down what happened that day, at least not until now. So there you go, Bill, true story. My one hour with Uncle Ray was pretty fucking cool. He probably will never remember me. But I will always remember meeting the hero of my youth.The one thing I learned from Uncle Ray is that good writers are great readers. A heartfelt thanks to you, dear old Uncle Ray.-peace outjota

by brooklyn on

That's an interesting point, R. W. -- something I'd never thought about, but you may be right.

by jota on

Whoa there.It's Like This, Cat by Emily NevilleThat Was Then, This Is Now by S. E. HintonSounderby William H. Armstrong Hog Butcher by Ronald FairThe Summer of the Metsby Levi Asher

by bluefire on

Jerry SpringerRoCkS!

by R. W. Watkins on

Well, I can't comment on the other authors, but what I remember reading of S.E. Hinton brings to mind quotes like "...overrated...." and "...boring...." I remember reading bits and pieces of The Outsiders, That Was Then--This Is Now and...Rumblefish...? (Was there something called Rumblefish, or am I imagining things?) I don't remember being too impressed. Also, by the time I was in the age category for reading Hinton, I had already read Steinbeck (Of Mice And Men), Melville (Moby Dick), Shakespeare (Macbeth), and Mario Puzo (The Godfather), and had watched the Swedish children's series Den Vita Stenen (a.k.a. The White Stone--based on Gunnel Linde's novel) when the CBC carried it here in Canada; furthermore, it was around this time that punk, New Wave, Heavy Metal, and those dark Jodie Foster films and Francis Mankiewicz's Les Bons Debarras were starting to happen, and to put it bluntly, S.E. Hinton just didn't cut any ice for an 11- or 12-year old in this post-Julia Hede/Rachel Sweet/Jodie Foster/Charlotte Laurier world. It was, quite frankly, like trying to watch The Facts Of Life after watching Kubrick's version of Lolita.

by Billectric on

Top-friggin'-NOTCH, Jota.I sent this to Brad Hamlin. He's a big fan of Uncle Ray.

by bluefire on

'If they give you ruled paper,write the other way.'

by R. W. Watkins on

Wow, I must admit to being rather taken aback that more people aren't siding with me on Mailer--if not for The Naked And the Dead, then at least in regards to one of his other classics....

by drplacebo on

Thomas WolfeNo, not the guy who wears the white suits.I really loved Look Homeward, Angel when I was young. I loved the rambling prose, the ecstatic descriptions. And what I especially loved was that it was about an ordinary family living their lives, but Wolfe made it seem epic in scope.I haven't read this book in a long time, but maybe I should go back and pick it up. Kerouac was influenced by Wolfe, and you can see the similarities in their styles, especially in the use of the author (thinly disguised) as the protagonist.

by R. W. Watkins on

I've never read Wolfe, but I've been told that we could never have had a Charles Schulz as we know him without the former. Peanuts was one of my biggest, earliest influences (one of the few pieces of literary Americana that could be fully comprehended and appreciated by Canadians too), so I have to give Wolfe two thumbs up, regardless of my not having read him....

by bhadd on

The Federalist PapersI think great means wide, and United States of America is so! Great post!

by bhadd on

Interesting though I think he's way overrated. Way over! I'm amazed Gravity's Rainbow did nothing too.

by R. W. Watkins on

Well, if it's not a Novel...Black Like Me...?Profiles In Courage...?The Autobiography of Malcolm X...?The Book of Mormon...?Fart Proudly...?The Warren Commision Report...?All The President's Men...?My American Journey...?Howl and other Poems...?None Dare Call it Treason...?This Time The World!...?No One Here Gets Out Alive...?The Warhol Diaries...?Subliminal Seduction...?The End of Childhood...?Twas the Night Before Christmas...?Marvel MasterWorks: The Amazing Spider-Man #s 1 through 10...?Captain America #1...?The Complete Bazooka Joe...?The Secret Diaries of Laura Palmer...?Kill It, Then Grill It...?

by brooklyn on

That's a lot of books, R. W.!

by Billectric on

The Skull of the Waltzing Clown,by Harry Stephen Keeler? I Know It Allby Isaac Asimov?Curious George Rolls A Drunk,by Gibbon Macaque?The One Time Jack Kerouac Stopped Off in Roanoke Virginia,by J'ponna Bandwagon?

by bluewings on

Grapes of WrathGrapes of Wrath

by tkg on

How is the Maher bio? I have not read it.I'm not sure if you know this but there is a little bit of history going back 10 years or so between Maher and myself and Levi and a number of others.

by tkg on

Uncle Tom's Cabin? Dr Spock? Cat?This is a hard question. I don't know and can't come up with an answer. The books I am to mention here are not my answers, per se.I never read Uncle Tom's Cabin and would guess few if any here have read it. But Lincoln met with Harriet Beecher Stowe during the Civil War and said -- so you're the lady who wrote the book that started all this.Starting the Civil War from the good side is quite a cultural impact.I've also heard Dr Spock's book on child rearing (the name I don't even know) I have heard has had a major cultural impact.I do think On the Road qualifies for consideration. It definitely impacted the culture big time as we can see by the last 50 years -- and it reminds me that OTR has its 50 year publication anniversary this year.Maybe a book I have read -- Cat in the Hat.Who knows. This is an interesting thing to think about.

by bdr on

HuckYes?

by brooklyn on

much funI love all these favorites, people! Thanks a lot to everyone for being so responsive. Of course, my answer is no more valid than anybody else's. But I am looking forward to posting my answer to this question, and explaining in detail why I feel strongly about this.And I'm happy to say that my selection has been mentioned by at least one person in this thread.

by danjazz on

Tropic of CancerThis is purely a personal choice - this book completely changed my life. I still reread it, and I have the wonderfully quirky movie starring Rip Torn.On the Road also changed my life and would be a close second.Both books showed me that another life was possible, a life outside of office jobs and suburbia.How about selecting the best book of the 20th century, or the best novel?

by R. W. Watkins on

Hmmm...Now you've got me thinking I may have already hit upon the correct answer. (I DID supply more non-novel possibilities than anyone else, no matter how ridiculous The Collected Bazooka Joe [Does this book actually exist, I wonder?] and American Nazi Commander George Lincoln Rockwell's This Time The World! looked in my list.) It's interesting because I was just about to add two more titles to that list: Twain's Life On The Mississippi, and Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby & Child Care (preferably, the original version, with its politically incorrect sexist leanings and tobacco-for-teens stance). Still, I'd have to go with Black Like Me, if you're not excluding non-fiction. Either that, or one of the works of Emerson or Thoreau--Walden or Civil Disobedience or something (can't say I've read much in the way of early American philosophy). Poetically, it would have to be Howl & Other Poems, or one of T.S. Eliot's works--if you consider Eliot an American. U.S. authors--like Canadian authors--seem to be rather famous for publishing a lot of great short fiction, but still, no particular stories or solo collections stand out (then again, no one seems to take short fiction seriously anymore)....

by Billectric on

The Maher bio is quite good. I can barely put it down. Should be done with it today.History between you, Levi, and Maher? I'm intrigued.

by xmattxyzx on

The RecognitionsThe Recognitions

by Billectric on

I knew it! It IS The Skull of the Waltzing Clown by Harry Stephen Keeler.

by mileage on

the best i could come up with:Rachel Carson's SILENT SPRING !

by bluefire on

'The Human Beings'By D.S. Broussard.I like it.. shitty as it was.. somehow it seemed to ring a bell.

by Rah on

Franny and ZooeyFor me, so far, Salinger is the most artful American storyteller I've encountered. Zooey is a response to the central spiritual theme of modernity, as Beckett averred - paralysis. Many other seminal books have more "adventure"; Huck, Lolita, Gatsby, even Catcher, but the delicate inward impact of Franny and Zooey has, for me, yet to be surpassed. Its also ridiculously perfect in form, an exemplar, as Gibran said, that the truest books are short.

by brooklyn on

Posted!Folks -- I've so much enjoyed your responses. My selection is now up -- I think it's a good sign that several of you, like me, thought of "Walden" by Thoreau -- and I also think it's interesting that "Huck Finn" and "The Grapes of Wrath" got so many votes.Thanks for participating, and please don't hesitate to respond to my new post and let us know what you think of my reasoning ...

by eroma on

best bookSong of Solomon