Has the "Great American novel" already been written? If you think so, what is your choice and why?
James Baldwin's Another Country (1962) is certainly one of the great American novels.
It is superbly written and allows readers to get inside the minds of many different kinds of Americans.
It first appeared in a deceptively plain and unassuming cover that belied its power.
Another Country is set in Greenwich Village, New York in the 1950s.
It portrays many intense themes such as adultery, bisexuality, and interracial relationships that were taboo at the time of its release.
Baldwin split his time between Paris and New York and finished the book in Istanbul, which helps us to understand what he meant by "another country" with reference to the US.
Baldwin's point of reference was distanced twice both by time spent living overseas as well as time spent living in a state of alienation as an African American.
Baldwin was covering the growing Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
, but wanted to dig deeper into the fabric of multicultural American society in Another Country.
The main characters are a jazz drummer named Rufus Scott and his nearest and dearest: sister Ida, best friend Vivaldo, mentor Richard and his wife Cass, same-sex lover Eric, and opposite-sex lover Leona.
Rufus starts to abuse the emotionally fragile Leona to the point where she has to enter a mental hospital back in the South.
He commits suicide by symbolically jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
Most of the book shows Rufus' friends and family members trying to come to terms with his tragic death, which obviously has much to say about the American experience.
Baldwin called Rufus "the black corpse floating in the national psyche," and he is meant to be seen as a Christ figure.
Vivaldo, who emerges as the book's main character, begins relationships with both Ida and Eric.
I appreciated how Baldwin tried to make readers understand his motives rather than just using these scenes to shock or titillate.
Baldwin himself is clearly reflected in the characters of Rufus, Vivaldo, and Eric
The struggle for love amidst many social obstacles is all too familiar to modern Americans in this age of globalization.
The Royal Wedding between the UK's Prince Harry and the USA's Meghan Markle has brought many of these same issues to the forefront over 50 years later.
Perhaps the idea of "another country" cannot be attained–but if racism and sexism are indeed failures of love, then that is the obvious starting point.
This idea made a powerful impression upon me as an adolescent.
I consider Another Country to be a modern classic.
It compare favorably to F.
Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby for characters, themes, images, and hypnotic "jazzy" writing style.
To this day I have yet to read a better critique of American race relations either as fiction or non-fiction.
I’m going to vote for Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key.
” I’m sure you haven’t read it.
First off, it’s written in the late 1920s/early 1930s, when so many great authors were typing away.
This was an inspirational period.
Second, it’s not really a detective novel, unlike Hammett’s famous “Maltese Falcon” and his other books.
It has a fast-paced, no-nonsense style with lots of plot and no inner turmoil — unlike European-inspired books.
It just feels like a jazzy, American, pragmatic tale.
It deals with the very American political party system and its corruption, and a protagonist who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.
He’s not a detective but a gambler who is appointed by a corrupt political boss — who controls the DA — to investigate a murder — of the boss’s daughter’s suitor.
And all signs point to the boss as the murderer.
There’s gunplay, there’s drinking, there’s a lot of dialogue with bad street grammar and lots of political intrigue.
It’s the story of America told in a very American way by a great author.
I think this book could be “The Great American Novel” — more than “Gatsby” or “Catcher” or “Huck Finn” or whatever other book is trendy in English 105 classes.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
It wasn’t the first to be written in the first person, but it was the first and still the greatest attempt to get into the soul of an everyman, especially with race as scaffolding.
And there is an analog: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, again an everyman who is a no man, because he is black.
A more recent choice would be another “everyman” novel: the 4-volume Rabbit novel by John Updike.
A rival choice would be Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.
Or Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.
I always approach such a question with a certain amount of skepticism.
With that being said, if the ‘great American novel’ has already been written I would argue the best candidate is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957).
This novel, written during the Pax Americana, captures the quintessential American spirit in a single work.
The Beats were the authentic counterculture before such a notion became popularized (and bastardized) in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the novel, Kerouac captured the spirit of adventure and curiosity as he travelled across the country.
“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-by.
But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.
” -Jack Kerouac On the Road