Monday, May 29, 2006

Summer Reading and the American Novel

Powerline has created a "Greatest American Novel" poll:

We've selected 21 contenders for the title of all-time best American novel. The list will no doubt provoke disagreement; it is, pretty much by definition, arbitrary and capricious. We tried to select candidates based on literary merit. Politics and sociology were ignored. Here is the list:

Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Melville, Moby-Dick
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
Heller, Catch-22
Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
Nabokov, Pale Fire
Roth, The Great American Novel

I don't see any glaring omissions, although a reader of their's chastised them for neglecting Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. I think I would have included some James Fenimore Cooper (despite Twain's distain) likely The Prairie or Last of the Mohicans. Cooper's flowery and rambling prose are no worse than Melville or Dickens and he touches important themes: individaulism, conservation, and competing cultures while celebrating the beauty of the continent.

Still, Cooper can not compete with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Fahrenheit 451 and The Long Goodbye ultimately are hindered by their genres although they are as finely written as Mockingbird. I enjoy both hard boiled crime noirs and speculative/science fiction but many people don't and would find it as difficult to read past the conventions of either as they would the snowstorm of words in Moby Dick or Age of Innocence.

1 comment:

WhidbeyIslander said...

Oh dear. You've all passed over Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. Lonesome Dove is the greatest "Western" novel of all time. And the Western is one of the U.S.'s contributions to World Literature.

On this I cannot remain silent!