The Great American Novel

June 30, 1996

THE SUN SOUGHT GUIDANCE ON WHAT TO RE-READ ON THE FOURTH: This year the United States of America will have been around for 220 years. From all that time, in your judgment what book has come closest to earning the title "The Great

American Novel"? In three sentences or less, why?

Ronald Kozlowski

Anne Arundel County Public Library director.

"My Antonia" by Willa Cather showcases the struggles and triumphs of the last large wave of European immigrants in their quest for freedom, free land and a future for their children. The novel embodies all the classic conflicts - man vs. nature, man vs. man and man vs. self.

Madison Smartt Bell

Author of eight novels, among them "All Souls Rising," which garnered nominations for the Booker Prize and Pen/Faulkner Awards. He teaches creative writing at Goucher College.

There is no single Great American Novel, though there may be a plural number of them. That being the case, this year I would choose "The King of Babylon Will Not Come Against You" by George Garrett - a rumination on 50 years' worth of American political and cultural life, by turns knee-slappingly funny, bitterly satirical and genuinely tragic.

Katharine Weber

Author of the novel "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear," for which she was selected by Granta magazine as one of the Northeast's best young novelists.

"Pudd'nhead Wilson" by Mark Twain deserves the title "The Great American Novel." Not only is it Twain at his most witty and sardonic, but it is astonishingly modern in structure with an alternate second half that anticipates and outstrips most contemporary experimentation with narrative form. Most important "Pudd'nhead Wilson" skewers racial prejudice, the single most corrosive element in American society for all of our 220 glorious years.

Gregory Kane

Sun columnist

My choice for the Great American Novel would have to be Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." No other work matches it for quality of writing, its universal theme of self-discovery, its superb depiction of even the most minor characters. Several chapters could - and at least one has - stand alone as short stories.

Laurelynn Kaplan

Goucher College associate professor of English and Jane Austen specialist.

Joseph Heller's "Catch 22," a mythic tragic comedy peopled with entrepreneurs, militarists, chaplains, whores, protesters and archetypal Americans named Yossarian, Major Major Major Major, Milo Minderbinder, Lieutenant Scheisskopf and Chief White Halfoat. In this loopy confrontation between innocence and experience, the Old and the New Worlds, men and women, authority and rebels, Heller makes readers ask convoluted questions (Who is Spain? Why is Hitler? When is right?) and see everything twice. The Good War may be over, but Snowden's secret message continues to resonate against the blight of urban landscapes: "The spirit gone, man is garbage."

Joan Mellen

Author of 13 books, including several biographies, books examining American culture and one novel, "Natural Tendencies." She is also a frequent contributor to these pages, writing reviews and an occasional column on novels.

By one reckoning there are two Americas, East and West, or as one of our best critics put it, "palefaces" and "redskins." The great paleface novel is "The Golden Bowl" by Henry James, as American as peach pie even if it is set in Europe. The great redskin novel is, of course, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," simultaneously a mirror into our innocence and our corruption. Both of these novels tell us who we are.

Marvin Thomas

Howard County Library director.

J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye." To me this book caught the culture of the times for a young person in the late and early 1950s. Not only do we see this book as a coming of age for Holden Caulfield, we also see his awareness of the phoniness and his way to do battle with private wars of spirit and at the same time not have outward conflicts with society. I felt that Holden lived in the same environment and world that I did but he was able to articulate his moments more naturally and with sensitivity and compassion. Yes, there was Huck Finn and Nick Adams, but Holden was part of my world at that point in time.

John Carroll

The Sun editor and senior vice president and Pulitzer Prize board member.

In the Spirit of the times, I propose Great Novels for many Americas: "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, for women; "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, for African-Americans; "The Adventures of Augie March" by Saul Bellow, for Jewish-Americans; "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan, for Chinese-Americans; "The Sound and The Fury" by William Faulkner for Southern Americans; "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand for conservative Americans. And so on.

The opportunity for consensus has passed, and former English majors who still tout "Huckleberry Finn" or "Moby Dick" can count on ever fewer dinner invitations.

Paul Lukacs

Loyola College English Department chair.

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