The American Idea in 10 Great American Novels

As we celebrate the 240th anniversary of the United States of America, I've been pondering how we define great American novels.How do we define Great American Novels?

As we celebrate the 240th anniversary of the United States of America, it’s a question I’ve been pondering. Since I like to think on my own but not alone, I turned to The American Idea: The Best of the Atlantic Monthly—150 Years of Writers and Thinkers Who Shaped Our History.

Published in 2007 to mark the Atlantic Monthly’s 150th anniversary, the book isn’t about American novels but rather about the larger idea of America, as a state of mind and of being. The doorstop-sized collection includes great American writing that has appeared in the magazine’s pages over the last century and a half: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Ian Frazier’s “Stalin’s Chuckle.”

Named for the ocean that separated the States from Europe, Atlantic Monthly was founded in 1857 as an anti-slavery publication. Its founders include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell, great American writers, all. The magazine was, according to Holmes, their “intellectual Declaration of Independence” and part of a larger revolution in American literature that resulted in “works with a distinctly American voice, a distinctly American point of view, and distinctly American themes.”

In 2006, the magazine’s editors offered this eloquent definition of “the American idea”:

“It is the fractious, maddening approach to the conduct of human affairs that values equality despite its elusiveness, that values democracy despite its debasement, that values pluralism despite its messiness, that values the institutions of civic culture despite their flaws, and that values public life as something higher and greater than the sum of all our private lives.”

Distilled to its essence, this sounds, to me, like optimism and hopefulness, a “let’s just DO this thing” mentality. If the British tagline is “keep calm and carry on,” ours might be revised to read, “carry on, and we’ll figure it out as we go along.” Not as catchy, to be sure, and doing so inevitably has its problems.

A naïve definition of optimism and hopefulness might look always for the shiny, uncomplicated, happy ending. But then I’d imagine it’s easy to be optimistic when it never rains, easy to be hopeful when flowers bloom at your fingertips. To keep believing in the possibility of a better world in spite of flaws, complications, vulnerabilities, mistakes, cruelties—that’s the kind of hopefulness and optimism that can make us more humane.

So to return to the opening question—how do we define great American novels?

So many provide defining examples that narrowing to a list of 10 feels dangerous: I know too many good ones will be left off the list. So let’s think of this as a starter list – 10 American novels that in some meaningful way explore the American idea as it is so beautifully defined above by the Atlantic’s editors.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride 

McBride’s National Book Award winning novel leaves the reader laughing through bitter tears as he imagines John Brown’s story through the eyes of a young slave Brown rescues/kidnaps.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. Narrated in the collective “we,” the novel tells the varied stories of Japanese “picture brides,” so named because they were sent to America to marry men they knew only from their photos, which were often as inaccurate as the men’s claims about their lives.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Repressed passion between a Massachusetts man and his sickly wife’s pretty young cousin leads to ironic tragedy times a million billions.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s gorgeously written classic explores the beauty and peril of the American dream through the rise and fall of Jay Gatsby in 1920s New York.

Passing by Nella Larson

In 1920s Harlem, a tenuous reunion between two old friends—one of whom is passing as white including to her racist husband—builds to a tragic climax in this difficult and important novel that confronts the anguish and rage racism cultivates.

Harvard Square by Andre Aciman. Two Middle Eastern immigrants on very different paths briefly connect in this lyrical, absorbing novel about “the American dream.”

The Beginning of Everything by Robin Schneider

At the end of his junior year in high school, tennis standout Ezra Faulkner (the first of many literary references) is forced to reinvent himself after a car accident shatters his leg.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie 

Alexie’s autobiographical novel follows Native American teenager Arnold Spirit, Jr. as he makes the painful decision to transfer from the Spokane Indian Reservation’s high school to an all-white one in Reardon, Washington.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin

Martin funny, sweet, and sassy novella about an L.A.-based artist and the two men she cares about manages to be manages to be hopeful about the American ideal of reinvention and creating the life we want without being saccharine.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Tartt transforms the singular journey of Theo Decker, who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing but salvages a priceless work of art from the wreckage, into a sweeping epic about reinvention and the power of community, love, and art to sustain and inspire us.

Help me fill out the list: What are your picks for great books about the American experience?

2 Replies to “The American Idea in 10 Great American Novels”

  1. This is a really interesting post, and a very interesting list. RESPECT for not choosing only the expected classics – this is a great way to share more American voices and viewpoints. And thumbs up for including Sherman Alexie (I love his writing)! Woo-hoo!

    Thanks also for the history of The Atlantic Monthly – I had no idea about its ilustrious past!

    Your book list has left me with some new entries on my list, and a new appreciation for the idea of “the great American novel”, because it really could be anything, couldn’t it? I guess anything that shows some viewpoint from an American and by an American, and as your list shows, there are so many of those.

    As for America’s motto, living in Europe, I often think of it as “Let’s make things better!”, as opposed to Europe’s (at least central and southern Europe’s) “Savor tradition”. I don’t mean we don’t have American traditions, but I think the American spirit, from pioneers buidling homes and towns, to conveniences most people consider standard, like air conditioning, is to make things comfortable and easy for everyday life. In Europe, it’s often a struggle to convince people that, for example, having two bathrooms in a house instead of one might be a good idea. Things like this are catching on more and more with the newer generations, but it’s taken time and you’ll still find some resistance. This is how I know I’m an American. As much as I love history and many traditions, I also have no problem using new technology or ideas to improve my everyday life, as quickly as possible.

    Thanks again for this great post, and have a happy 4th of July (using the a.c. if you need it)!

    1. Thank you, Alysa. Sharing more American voices and views was my intention. 🙂 I thought of 10, then couldn’t believe I hadn’t put To Kill a Mockingbird on it or The Age of Innocence. These kinds of lists can get so out of hand so quickly. It’s impossible to be definitive. But I definitely wanted to draw attention to writing about American today as well.

      Also, I agree with what you say about Southern Europe. My experience of Greece has been similar, right up to the attitudes of younger generations. Optimism, hopefulness, and sense of possibility are, for me, so American. When I think of Greeks who have emigrated to the US and been very happy, it’s usually because they possess these qualities and could enjoy the fullest expression of them in the US. At the same time, I do believe there are cost and benefit. Without history/tradition, we can lose a sense of grounded-ness and have a false sense that progress is a continual march forward and be somewhat naive. But when we’re too buried under history/tradition, we can lose a sense of agency. So ideally, an interplay exists.

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