All the time I was growing up, I kept hearing of writers wishing to write the Great American Novel—as if it were hovering in our future. It actually became something of an obsession with many. Sorry to disappoint, but I think the Great American Novel was written in 1851 by Herman Melville. It is called Moby-Dick, or The Whale. To date, I have read it three times, and each time was a revelation to me.
Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Proust, and Jane Austen, Melville was a highly inconsistent author. If you read Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (1849) or The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade (1857), you are dealing with a folk philosopher who is interested only in somewhat uninteresting bon mots. He did write some great short fiction, such as “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853); “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” (1854); “Benito Cereno” (1855); and finally “Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative)” (1892). Of the other works I have read, they run the gamut from interesting to “Why Was This Written?”
On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1819, Philip Hoare wrote a fascinating article for The Guardian entitled “Subversive, Queer and Terrifyingly Relevant: Six Reasons Why Moby-Dick Is the Novel for Our Times.” You can find it here.
There have been many other American novelists whose work is near great. I am thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe (though he wrote only one unfinished magnificent novel in The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym), Henry James, and William Faulkner.
I am not trying to discourage my fellow countrymen from trying their own hand at the Great American Novel, but I think that before long the medium of the novel will no longer be as important as it once was. And then, a major consideration, who will still be around to read it?