For centuries, authors have attempted to write the Great American Novel – a work that encapsulates the American experience – a rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger, red white & blue tome put down in black & white.
But can a single novel adequately explore the hopes, dreams, irony, sincerity, levity, gravity, disappointments and triumphs of an entire people?
I say no.
But perhaps two can.
A Schizo Nation
Americans like winners. It appeals to our national conceit; we relish victory.
But what gets less ink, however, is that we respect losers. Noble losers, that is – people who, despite the crush of circumstance and bad luck, persevere – those who don’t know, or refuse to accept, when they’re beaten. The Rockys of the world.
This bipolar blend of champion and principled failure defines American mythos.
The Great American Novel must address this contradiction – which is why, naming a single Great American Novel may be impossible. Two great novels, taken in concert, however, get us closer.
The Great Gatsby – The Hero & His American Dream
Jay Gatsby loved a girl who was everything he was not – well-bred, educated, wealthy. Believing the popular American narrative that he could be “anything he wanted,” Gatsby set off to make his fortune. Upon returning with his bootlegging millions, he finds beloved Daisy unhappily married and living out the bland boredom of the country’s patrician upper crust.
But, for Gatsby, Daisy is more symbolic than actualized. “Her voice is full of money,” Fitzgerald tells us. And, in a country that prizes dollars over all, that makes her perfect – a breathing incarnation of American success. You too can have a girl like this, if you only work hard enough…
Ultimately, however, Fitzgerald peels the ersatz glamour off this pair of superficial lovers. Through narrator Nick Carraway, we recognize that the American Dream is as ugly as it beautiful… which is pretty damn American all on its own.
The excesses and extravagances of the 1920s that created Jay Gatsby’s wealth are the very ones responsible for the Great Depression of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
The Grapes of Wrath – The Noble Failure and the Dark Side of the Dream
All too often, destruction is the by-product of success.
In Steinbeck’s harsh indictment of the capitalist system, Tom Joad is an ex-con who violates parole by journeying with his family to California in search of a better life. After a tumultuous trip, however, the promised land of the Sunshine State proves to be more of a wasteland: devoid of opportunity, bereft of hope.
But amidst poverty, hunger, demoralization and death, the Joad family – and especially Tom – abides.
Like all things created in principle before actuality, qualifying to be the “Great American Novel” is an exercise in hindsight (definitely) and futility (possibly). There can be no settled answer – and as all art is subjective, no “right” one either.
But taken in tandem, The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath cover a wide swath of the American experience – exploring the thin veneer that separates those who have succeeded from those success left behind.