Author Topic: What is the greatest American novel?  (Read 3536 times)

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Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #40 on: June 06, 2017, 04:21:05 AM »
Moby Dick does not deal with race and slavery which is the core of America and Huck Finn - which makes it great.  You can't really call something the greatest American novel if it does not deal with the core issue of our culture.

Well, that is an argument.

Of course, there is arguably a tension between the great and the parochial.
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Offline Brian

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #41 on: June 06, 2017, 04:30:06 AM »
I was bored by the Updike I read (and interestingly nobody has named any of his, I think) and of Roth's I have not read enough (mainly Portnoy's complaint which is not a contender, IMO).
I am not enthusiastic about that whole postwar generation (Updike, Roth, Bellow, DeLillo, Mailer, etc.) - cited by David Foster Wallace as the Great Male Narcissists and "probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV" in his takedown review of a late, failed Updike novel. I suspect that, except for the very best of their work (and, thanks to Trump, The Plot Against America, which now is an even more electrifying read), these writers will eventually be set aside as generally pretty dull. It doesn't help that many of them are misogynist and a major theme of their work is the alleged coldness and inaccessibility and temptation of women.

Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #42 on: June 06, 2017, 04:35:53 AM »
[...] I was bored by the Updike I read (and interestingly nobody has named any of his, I think) . . . .

I've enjoyed a number of his short stories, but I have not succeeded in finishing either of the novels I started to read.

Separately, maybe this should go to the Unpopular Opinions thread, but 6 days out of 7 I think that Life on the Mississippi is a better book than Huck Finn  0:)


I should not propose it as The Greatest, but in the Honorable Mention spirit of much of the present discussion: Richard Brautigan, perhaps either Trout Fishing in America or In Watermelon Sugar.
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Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #43 on: June 06, 2017, 04:37:22 AM »
I am not enthusiastic about that whole postwar generation (Updike, Roth, Bellow, DeLillo, Mailer, etc.) - cited by David Foster Wallace as the Great Male Narcissists and "probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV" in his takedown review of a late, failed Updike novel.

I share your lack of enthusiasm.  It's a good thing for American art that the post-war symphonists acquitted themselves rather better.  Probably it helped that Music is the abstract art.
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
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Offline ritter

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #44 on: June 06, 2017, 04:48:04 AM »
My late father (who, mind you, was quite the phlio-American, having gone to college in Oklahoma and later lived in New York City for many years), used to quote this bon mot of some Spanish essayist (Ortega perhaps, but I cannot for the life of me find the source): "The American novel has gone from its promising beginnings straight to its decadence, without ever having reached its zenith" .  ;D

On another note, Spanish critic Carlos Boyero (in an article in El Pais) is baffled by the quest for "the great American novel". You don't usually have people asking about the "great English", "great French", "great German" novels... Why should a novel being "American" be such a defining quality?
« Last Edit: June 06, 2017, 04:58:26 AM by ritter »
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Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #45 on: June 06, 2017, 05:20:08 AM »
There is something curiously . . . self-conscious about the exercise, isn’t there?
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Offline ritter

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #46 on: June 06, 2017, 05:29:11 AM »
There is something curiously . . . self-conscious about the exercise, isn’t there?
Or....parochial? (*runs for cover*)
« Last Edit: June 06, 2017, 05:50:27 AM by ritter »
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Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #47 on: June 06, 2017, 05:30:24 AM »
(* chortle *)
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
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[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
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His only competition was with himself. — Françoise Gilot

Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #48 on: June 06, 2017, 05:33:33 AM »
"The American novel has gone from its promising beginnings straight to its decadence, without ever having reached its zenith" .  ;D

That’s really an interesting idea, there.
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
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[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #49 on: June 06, 2017, 05:36:16 AM »
Separately, maybe this should go to the Unpopular Opinions thread, but 6 days out of 7 I think that Life on the Mississippi is a better book than Huck Finn  0:)

I seem to recall thinking the first half of Life on the Mississippi was the very best of Twain, but that the second half of the book lost the momentum.

Offline Cato

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #50 on: June 06, 2017, 05:45:42 AM »
I share your lack of enthusiasm.  It's a good thing for American art that the post-war symphonists acquitted themselves rather better.  Probably it helped that Music is the abstract art.

Amen!  0:)

On another note, Spanish critic Carlos Boyero (in an article in El Pais) is baffled by the quest for "the great American novel". You don't usually have people asking about the "great English", "great French", "great German" novels... Why should a novel being "American" be such a defining quality?


There is something curiously . . . self-conscious about the exercise, isn’t there?

Amen again!   0:) 0:)

Transcending time and space: does the story resonate in spite of those factors?

Of course, time and space are always involved: one can consider not only the time and space of the story, but also the time and space of its creation, along with those of the reader's.  Nevertheless, if the story breaks free of its roots, then you might have something!

Moby Dick does that, as does some of Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, S. J. Perelman and Flannery O'Connor (the latter two known mainly for short stories: Perelman wrote no novels, but Wise Blood is O'Connor's candidate here).


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Offline BasilValentine

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #51 on: June 06, 2017, 05:46:08 AM »
I am not enthusiastic about that whole postwar generation (Updike, Roth, Bellow, DeLillo, Mailer, etc.) - cited by David Foster Wallace as the Great Male Narcissists and "probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV" in his takedown review of a late, failed Updike novel. I suspect that, except for the very best of their work (and, thanks to Trump, The Plot Against America, which now is an even more electrifying read), these writers will eventually be set aside as generally pretty dull. It doesn't help that many of them are misogynist and a major theme of their work is the alleged coldness and inaccessibility and temptation of women.

Your list of the "whole postwar generation" leaves out one of the most important authors, William Gaddis. DFW read his work. Has anyone here?

Offline Jo498

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #52 on: June 06, 2017, 05:54:59 AM »
The quote I recall is clearly miso-american and does not refer to literature only; roughly: "America has gone from a barbaric state to decadence without achieving the high cultural state in between" (and Ortega seems a likely suspect as a source).

I tend to share the idea Boyero seems to be expressing. I think great, or even only pretty good books should transcend the subject matter and background culture to a considerable extent and I think many manage to do that. Moby Dick would be a failure if it was restricted in its artistic scope by being about whaling.
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Offline bwv 1080

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #53 on: June 06, 2017, 06:08:15 AM »
Without falling on jingoism, the idea of an 'American' novel as a work of art implies that it illuminates and helps define what it means to be American.  Everyone knows what it means to be German or French, but the US is a seemingly hopeless tangle of contradictions.  I would argue that the only 19th century novel to come close to giving us an idea who we are is Huck Finn. Sure the ending is perhaps trite, but that is part of the genre conventions the book follows and subverts. Similarly, Jim's character begins as pure minstrelsy but Twain subverts that as well, all the while staying within the convention.  Twain is too good to try to really write from Jim's POV, rather he is a mirror against which is reflected  a vicious dissection of white attitudes on race.  In reality the book is dark enough to compare with Cormac McCarthy, but the darkness is obscured behind its adherence to popular conventions.  This is not a flaw, its what makes the book great.   
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Offline k a rl h e nn i ng

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #54 on: June 06, 2017, 06:09:55 AM »
Without falling on jingoism, the idea of an 'American' novel as a work of art implies that it illuminates and helps define what it means to be American.  Everyone knows what it means to be German or French, but the US is a seemingly hopeless tangle of contradictions.  I would argue that the only 19th century novel to come close to giving us an idea who we are is Huck Finn. Sure the ending is perhaps trite, but that is part of the genre conventions the book follows and subverts. Similarly, Jim's character begins as pure minstrelsy but Twain subverts that as well, all the while staying within the convention.  Twain is too good to try to really write from Jim's POV, rather he is a mirror against which is reflected  a vicious dissection of white attitudes on race.  In reality the book is dark enough to compare with Cormac McCarthy, but the darkness is obscured behind its adherence to popular conventions.  This is not a flaw, its what makes the book great.   

’Tis a great book, no quarrel there.
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Offline bwv 1080

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #55 on: June 06, 2017, 06:11:33 AM »
The quote I recall is clearly miso-american and does not refer to literature only; roughly: "America has gone from a barbaric state to decadence without achieving the high cultural state in between" (and Ortega seems a likely suspect as a source).

I tend to share the idea Boyero seems to be expressing. I think great, or even only pretty good books should transcend the subject matter and background culture to a considerable extent and I think many manage to do that. Moby Dick would be a failure if it was restricted in its artistic scope by being about whaling.

So what is the counter-example - the country that achieved the high cultural state against which the US falls short?
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Offline Jo498

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #56 on: June 06, 2017, 06:47:15 AM »
I think the point of the joke is rather the timescale of the American development. Say for France one has 800 years of high culture from Charlemagne to Louis XIV, the apex in the 17th and 18th century and decadence afterwards. Or, if the quote is really from Ortega: Spain struggling for about 600 years with the Reconquista, followed by a golden century and decadence.
In such terms the quote about the US was premature in the 1930s (again, assuming, it stems from that time) because the US was still on the rise (both in political power and cultural influence).

But it also expresses that for virtually all European intellectuals in first half of the 20th century, be they conservatives like Ortega or progressives like Adorno or something in between like Huxley, the American popular culture, mainly Hollywood movies were the epitome of fluffy, brainless decadence. They really detested American popular culture and were horrified at its spread throughout the world to the apparent detriment of traditional European high culture. Think of "Brave New World" with the "feelies" (when Huxley wrote it "talkies" were the newest rage) giving cheap thrills but Shakespeare locked up in the safe.

As frontier America was probably still quite "barbarian" in the 19th century, there is almost no space for a plateau of high culture on the scale of 17th century France, late 18th century through 1914 Vienna and the likes.
(Of course this is unfair and denies the considerable achievements of Poe, Melville and other 19th century American writers. But jokes usually aren't fair and balanced.)
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Parsifal

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #57 on: June 06, 2017, 06:58:58 AM »
I am not enthusiastic about that whole postwar generation (Updike, Roth, Bellow, DeLillo, Mailer, etc.) - cited by David Foster Wallace as the Great Male Narcissists and "probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV" in his takedown review of a late, failed Updike novel. I suspect that, except for the very best of their work (and, thanks to Trump, The Plot Against America, which now is an even more electrifying read), these writers will eventually be set aside as generally pretty dull. It doesn't help that many of them are misogynist and a major theme of their work is the alleged coldness and inaccessibility and temptation of women.

I don't think Roth's best work falls victim to this pitfall to the same extent as the other writers you mention.

Offline Brian

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #58 on: June 06, 2017, 07:16:02 AM »
I don't think Roth's best work falls victim to this pitfall to the same extent as the other writers you mention.
I'm a little prejudiced because my first Roth was Sabbath's Theater, but Plot Against America really is fantastic, especially if you forgive the wishful-thinking plot machinations that bring about the ending, which I do. Which Roth do you suggest as his best work?

Parsifal

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Re: What is the greatest American novel?
« Reply #59 on: June 06, 2017, 07:26:15 AM »
I'm a little prejudiced because my first Roth was Sabbath's Theater, but Plot Against America really is fantastic, especially if you forgive the wishful-thinking plot machinations that bring about the ending, which I do. Which Roth do you suggest as his best work?

I sort of like the way Sabbath's Theater skillfully luxuriates in the narcissism and self-absorption you sense. I wouldn't say it makes it the "great American novel," though. But the Plot Against America is one of the greats, along with American Pastorale and The Human Stain, which I stuck in my list above.

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