The Greatest American Novel

I’ve started rereading Dreiser’s The American Tragedy. I wonder how many times I’ve read it so far. Definitely more than 10.

I first read it when I was 7 or 8, I’m not sure. Then I reread it in Russian many times. And the first book I bought when I came to the US was a cheap paperback copy in English. I’m thinking it will last me a couple more readings, after which I’ll have to get a new one because it will fall apart completely.

If I had to explain America to students very far away – say, Ukraine – who only need the basics, I’d use this novel and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And that would be enough.

Not that there aren’t other great American novels. Obviously, there are and I probably read all of them, except for some postmodernist crap I will be tortured with in hell. But they are not as complete. Take Grapes of Wrath, for instance. It’s a brilliant novel but it has nothing like the scope of Dreiser’s. This one has the factory workers, the farmers, the wealthy bourgeoisie, the Evangelicals, the lumpenized gig workers, the Midwest, the East Coast, the criminal justice system, and so on.

If anybody knows American novels I haven’t read that aren’t postmodernist or fantasy, I welcome suggestions. And yes, Beloved is obviously postmodernist. But she’s a genius so she pulled it through. Curiously, I don’t like anything else either Morrison or Dreiser wrote. I don’t hate their other stuff but I wouldn’t reread it unless somebody paid me to do it.

16 thoughts on “The Greatest American Novel”

  1. // This one has the factory workers, the farmers, the wealthy bourgeoisie, the Evangelicals, the lumpenized gig workers, the Midwest, the East Coast, the criminal justice system, and so on.

    You almost made me want to reread it too.

    There is one question though. Dreiser wrote many decades ago. Haven’t “the Midwest, the East Coast, the criminal justice system” changed during this time? If one wants to understand US today, would imagining the Midwest and the East Coast of the past help?

    Haven’t read “Beloved.” Once tried something by Morrison but the style put me off.

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    1. I’ve been thinking where the wokes are in Dreiser, and then I realized: it’s Dreiser himself. He’s part of the crowd that started it all.

      I think that today the descriptions Dreiser gives of the Midwest and the East Coast are more relevant than 20 years ago. The East Coast is once again the center of prissiness, puritanism and censoriousness in the country.

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  2. Have you read any Upton Sinclair? His It Can’t Happen Here has become popular in recent years with the anti-Trump crowd but I would recommend his Elmer Gantry. It deals with a morally compromised but oddly charming evangelical minister. You might also like his Main Street, which deals with a woman trapped in 1920s domesticity. Think of Sinclair as a liberal version of Ayn Rand and, in fact, she was a big fan of his work.

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    1. How can you even ask? 🙂 He was very popular in the USSR. A great author. Americans write best when they do realist writing. Straightforward, unmessed with, powerful.

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  3. While it has nothing like the scope of An American Tragedy, I reread The Great Gatsby on a cross country plane flight a few years ago and think that it holds up as a legitimately great American novel.

    I think it gets ruined for a lot of people who were forced to read it in high school when they were 16 and too young to appreciate it. Wait a minute, who am I kidding? No one is forced to read real books in high school anymore, are they?

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  4. Any of James Albert Michener’s books about the United States: Hawaii, Centennial, Chesapeake , Texas & Alaska. They are all good but I am a fan; have read everything that he wrote.

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    1. Never heard of this writer before to be honest. But I just looked him up on Amazon, and I love this kind of books. Edward Rutherford wrote Sarum in a similar style.

      Very interesting! Thank you.

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      1. When I was in high school, I went on a James Michener binge. I particularly like his Space book. It has the advantage of a more contained narrative. Most of his books read as a series of short novels that all take place in a particular geographic area over time. His was the kind of voice that we are seriously in danger of losing. He was a classical liberal, who did not shy away from talking about racial injustice (his wife was a Japanese American who was interned) but who still appreciated the American experiment.

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        1. ” I went on a James Michener binge”

          Before I went to Spain for the first time (first time out of the US) a friend at work gave me his non-fiction Iberia, which is more a bunch of random memories though there are a couple of okay points here and there….

          I leafed through his novel Poland after my first trip (to the people’s republic) and it was kind of laughably awful with all the typical cliches (and what I could recognize even then as American projections)..
          I also glanced at Chesapeake (which seemed a bit more interesting).

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  5. I’ve just finished reading it for the first time (thanks for the post, by the way, I rarely comment on your books posts but I read quite a bit of what you recommend), and maybe that’s a stupid question, but who’s the 50-year-old woman in the ending chapter? The elderly couple, the spinster in her mid-twenties and the child are obvious, but the 50-year-old woman apparently resembles the younger one enough to be taken for her mother?

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    1. I’m so so happy to hear this! Introducing good people and good books to each other is one of the purposes of my life.

      It’s definitely an interesting question about the two new women. I’d assume these are people that the family picked up in their travels. At first one might assume that the young woman is Esta but since these are mother and daughter we realize that Esta abandoned the boy and went her own way.

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