Do We Have a Great American Novel?
Although J.D. Salinger had previously written short stories for The New Yorker, he wasn’t widely known until “The Catcher in the Rye” was published on July 16, 1951. Curious literary sleuths found a few interesting leads. Drafted into the U.S. Army in his early 20s, Salinger had participated in the Normandy invasion and had fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Later, it was learned that Salinger had carried chapters from “The Catcher in the Rye” manuscript in his pack when he waded ashore on Utah Beach. After the fighting ended, he was briefly hospitalized for what was then called “battle fatigue,” which may help explain his later behavior.
Yet even before the war, some Ursinus College grads would remember a transitory student clad in a black chesterfield with a velvet collar tramping around campus bragging that he was going to write the Great American Novel. That phrase was about as dated as Salinger’s chesterfield coat, but when “The Catcher in the Rye” appeared in 1951 some book critics thought he’d delivered on his boast.
In academic circles, the phase “Great American Novel” is credited to a now-forgotten writer named John W. De Forest. Writing in The Nation magazine three years after the end of the Civil War, De Forest called for a single sweeping narrative that would explain where the United States had been and where it ought to be going.
Was this an as-yet unwritten masterpiece? Or did it already exist in America’s literary canon? De Forest seemed to be of two minds on this question. Although he specifically rejected the romantic literary novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne and James Fennimore Cooper, he did nominate “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a possible claimant to the mantle of Great American Novel. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel was certainly a worthy candidate. Published 16 years earlier, in 1852, it was already a classic.
What De Forest didn’t know was that soon Mark Twain would be at work on a much better book, on the same theme. “By and by,” Twain wrote his agent in 1875, “I shall take a boy of twelve and run him through life in the first person.”
Twain knew this boy couldn’t be Tom Sawyer; for all his skill as a politician, Tom lacked the empathic nature that would be a requirement of the protagonist of the Great American Novel. But Twain didn’t know who it would be, so after starting his project, Twain set it aside for seven years. So is “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which finally appeared in December 1884, the Great American Novel (or “G.A.N.” as Henry James puckishly called it)?
Many people think so, although let’s pause here to acknowledge that the very idea that one book can tell America’s entire story is a ridiculous idea.
That said, the list of books bestowed the unofficial G.A.N. title over the centuries include “Moby Dick,” written a decade before the Civil War, “The Virginian,” “My Antonia,” “Ethan Frome,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Citizen Kane,” “All the King’s Men,” “Lonesome Dove,” “Beloved,” and many more.
I’d personally lobby for inclusion on the list two books set in the American West, though they are not westerns, precisely. These contenders are Wallace Stegner’s 1972 “Angle of Repose,” and the more recent “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson. A few years ago Time magazine put a contemporary writer, Jonathan Franzen, on its cover with the headline, “Great American Novelist.”
Regular readers of this note might wonder why only one baseball book was mentioned in my litany. (Why not “Shoeless Joe” or “The Natural”?) I suppose their omission is Philip Roth’s fault. You see, he wrote a baseball novel, and titled it -- with delicious wit -- “The Great American Novel.”
The protagonist in Roth’s very good book is named Luke Gofannon. He’s a great ballplayer, if a bit of a dummy, a now-familiar character in American movies and film, the archetype being Ring Lardner’s fictional big leaguer Jack Keefe.
Luke Gofannon is no wordsmith, but Philip Roth gives him one of the best soliloquies in baseball history, fictional or real. It begins when his girlfriend, Angela Whittling Trust, asked Luke if he loves her more than a stolen base, a shoestring catch, a letter-high fastball, and a home run. He passes that test, but then she makes the mistake of asking him what he loves most in the world. It takes Luke until dawn to come up with the answer, which he provides in a single word. It’s not, of course, the word she longs to hear, which is her own name.
“Triples,” he says.
Angela presses him, and Luke describes the thrill of hitting a triple. Smacking the ball hard enough, watching the fielder chase it to the fence, racing into second knowing you aren’t stopping there, sliding hard into third, knocking the third baseman akimbo, standing up on the bag to dust off your uniform, and hearing the roar of the crowd:
“Yep,” he said, running the whole wonderful adventure through in his mind, his eyes closed, and his arms crossed behind him on the pillow beneath his head, “big crowd…sock a triple…nothing like it.”
And that is from “The Great American Novel,” at least one version of it.