The elusive Great American Novel. You’ve heard the term. What does it mean to you? A masterful book by an American author? A story that tells a relatable tale to any American? A novel that holds a mirror up to current American culture with precision?
A few months ago I read an article in the New York Times called “Why There’s No ‘Millennial’ Novel.” The main argument, it seemed, was that America has become such a progressive and diverse country that there is no single voice that can speak for an entire generation. The author, Tony Tulathimutte, first argues that “the ‘voice of a generation’ novel never existed to begin with,” and then asks the question, “why did we ever pretend novels by straight white guys about straight white guys spoke for entire generations?”
This is a gross oversimplification. The Great American Novel exists.
During the second semester of my junior year at the University of Michigan, I took a class from Jeremiah Chamberlin called Rust Belt Narratives. It seemed appropriate for a student interested in both literature and the Midwest. Over the course of the semester we read books that explored the industrial cities in the Rust Belt and their histories, triumphs and downfalls. These were the cities that I knew, such as Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
I have to hand it to Professor Chamberlin, the books he chose for the course were thought-provoking. One in particular spoke to me. It was a debut novel from a relatively unknown author. I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first, with its stream-of-consciousness style, but as I dove deeper into it, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust proved to be an exceptional work.
At its core, American Rust tells the story of several characters in the crumbling fictional steel town of Buell, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of the declining manufacturing industry in the United States. There was something more to it, though. It created an empathy for the characters, as if you were reading a nonfiction book about what used to make America so great. It was heartbreaking and at the same time mesmerizing.
Less than a year after that course, I heard that Meyer was publishing his second book, The Son, a multi-generational epic that traces one family’s history from 2012 back into the mid-nineteenth century. The book explores the “creation myth” of America, as Meyer puts it, in telling about the anglo conflict with Mexico and the Comanche, as well as the coming to power in the Texas oil industry.
I had high expectations for this second book. It did not disappoint. All it did was go on to become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. There was so much detail, but unlike many novels where the detail seems to serve only for convincing the reader that the author actually did research before writing, this detail never distracted from the story. You felt like you understood what life was like living in Texas in the early twentieth century. You understood what it was like to be part of a Comanche tribe in the mid-nineteenth century. You understood the blessings and struggles of a family graced with fortune and inflicted with pain. It told, in a nearly 200-year history, what it takes to live the American Dream and what comes after it’s been achieved.
So what constitutes a Great American Novel? It isn’t an exact science. General consensus sees it as an American novel that accurately captures and examines a unique American cultural experience. Novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird have long been considered Great American Novels.
I would like to add two novels to the list: Philipp Meyer’s American Rust and The Son. There is a depth to his novels that cannot be ignored. He captures the place. He captures the people, and the culture, and the language, and most of all the important issues that have helped make America — for better or worse — what it is today.
Good luck on novel number three, Mr. Meyer.
Now, I don’t believe setting the goal of writing the next Great American Novel is particularly productive for a writer. After all, it’s not like a certain number of criteria can be met and therefore your work is deemed worthy. At the end of the day, the distinction is still a matter of opinion. But for those authors who have made the dynamic list, we should all tip a cap to the insight, passion and talent with which they wrote.