A flatlay of covers of Great American Novels

Great American Novels. Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

The Great American Novel is, without a whisper of doubt, literature's most elusive (some even say mythical) beast. For 150 years, since the novelist John William De Forest first coined the term, the argument over what constitutes a GAN has rumbled on and on.

For De Forest, the job of the GAN was to “paint the American soul” and provide a “picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence". For Norman Mailer, it should "seize the temper of the time and turn it". For Lionel Shriver, rather more cynically, it must “capture the nation’s zeitgeist … a massive doorstop of a book that implies a thunderous message and all-encompassing world view ... always written by a man.”

Of course, capturing the “essence” of any nation is like capturing a colony of rats in a single trap. Plus, in an era of cultural as well as economic globalisation, what does “American” even mean nowadays? For that matter, in the age of Donald Trump (or “post-Trump” now), reality TV and fake news, the word "fiction" itself seems to have more than one meaning.

Whichever way you skin it, the Great American Novel has come to represent a figurative literary yardstick of what defines America in a given era. There is no definitive list, no stone-set criteria for what constitutes a GAN, just opinion.

But, at the very least, it should be a fabulously written story with a wider comment on what it means to be American. Or, as heavyweight critic A. O. Scott put it, it is a “hybrid … crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism.” It should, in other words, get under the skin of the American Dream and feel about for its vital organs.

So, in the spirit of feeling about in the dark, here are 10 of our favourite contenders.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

The thrilling tale of one monomaniacal sea captain and his quest to kill the giant white whale that chewed off his leg.

Moby Dick is a story first about oil and the violent pursuit of the wealth it brings at all costs. Then it's about greed and vengeance, arrogance and the futile attempt to control chaos. Read today, and it could even be viewed as a metaphor for America's post 9/11 foreign policy, as the novelist Stephen Kinzer argued in 2008.

“For generations, it has been considered a masterpiece of world literature,” he wrote, “but now can it be seen as an eerily prophetic allegory about 21st-century America.”

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

After the American Civil War, when the author John William De Forest set out to find a novel that would help reunite the nation, while placing it at the centre of world literature, he could find only one book that came close.

It was Harriet Beecher Stowe's story of slavery and its agonies that struck more than a chord, rather a symphony of emotion in pre-Civil War America, becoming the second biggest-selling novel of the century, beaten only by the Bible. In giving a human voice to the enslaved, it pushed slavery into the foreground as the nation's defining national issue, and helped pave the way for the abolitionist movement.

The book had such an influence on the national conversation at the time that Abraham Lincoln himself, upon meeting Stowe at the dawn of the American Civil War, famously remarked: "So this is the little lady who started this great war."

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

The Civil War was long over by the time Mark Twain picked up a pen, but racism still divided the nation. And this story of a country boy who helps a runaway enslaved man escape along the Mississippi River captured hearts across America.

But it wasn't just the story's message of compassion and human rights that spoke to readers; the slang words and accents that Twain deployed brought his menagerie of characters startlingly to life in a way few had done before. It spoke both to Americans, and for a brighter future.

Ernest Hemingway famously declared in 1935: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.' It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

This needs no introduction. Nor, really, do its GAN credentials. F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece about the delusion of decadence in the age of excess been hailed as “the greatest of Great American Novels” by more than one heavyweight tastemaker.

That's because it nailed the unbridled hedonism of the Jazz Age perfectly and presciently. How, back then, was anyone to know the music was about to stop and the lights come up? That America would soon be left, empty flute in hand, stumbling about the sticky dancefloor of economic depression with no idea where to find the exit.

Fitzgerald knew it. And The Great Gatsby proved to be his crystal ball: nothing lasts forever... not even an American Dream.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1925)

“[I am] now reading the great American novel (at last!),” wrote the writer Edith Wharton to a friend in 1926, “and I want to know … if you know the young woman [who wrote it], who must be a genius.”

The genius in question, of course, was Hollywood screenwriter Anita Loos, whose novel about a far-smarter-than-she'd-have-you-believe “flapper” (a New York party girl of the 1920s) who bounces from sugar daddy to sugar daddy like a full-time job was fast becoming the second biggest-selling novel of 1926.

It wasn't just a great read (James Joyce, his eyesight already failing, is said to have “reclined on a sofa reading Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for three days”). With the kind of acid wit and irony few fusty critics of the time believed a woman could muster, it skewered a patriarchy obsessed with looks, sex and money, positively reframed the image of free-wheeling female youth, and helped to define America's Jazz Age for ever.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

By 1939, as the world teetered on the precipice of another great war, John Steinbeck was livid at the capitalist greed that, as he saw it, had ripped the soul out of the American Dream.

So he wrote The Grapes of Wrath to hold up a mirror to this dark chapter of American history.

The book's portrait of a family torn apart by poverty and desperation in the Great Depression – with its gorgeously tooled sentences and huge, hurting heart – effectively put America on trial for, as New Yorker critic Clifton Fadiman wrote, “the slow murder of half a million innocent and worthy American citizens”.

It became a klaxon for human rights upon its publication, won Steinbeck the Pulitzer, and shot him up literature's Mount Olympus. "I can't think of another American writer," later wrote the playwright Arthur Miller, "who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country."

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)

Few novels have had such a profound impact on racial politics in America than Ralph Ellison's masterpiece of literature about a man grappling with an America so consumed by fear and prejudice that his Black identity makes it impossible for anyone to see or understand him. So he retreats underground, where he makes his home and struggles with what Ellison called "the beautiful absurdity" of modern identity.

Dark, defiant, and uproariously funny, it rang out like a wolf's howl for disenfranchised Black Americans who still felt ignored by mainstream culture. But more than that, it offered a portrait of Black identity, racism, politics, history and manhood that no book had done before. “No one interested in books by or about American Negroes should miss it, ” wrote The New York Times in 1952.

Its impact was so profound that when Book Week polled literary critics for the greatest GAN since the end of the Second World War, this was their choice.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

A main task of the GAN is to confront the problems that define a nation. And yes, this was a novel set a hundred years before it was written, about the lingering ghost of slavery and the painful legacies of the past. But it was – still is – a novel about the timeless question of liberty and what it means to be born “free” in the United States.

In 2006, the New York Times Book Review asked authors to nominate “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years”. Beloved – about a woman who escaped slavery only to be haunted by the traumas of her past – was the undisputed champion.

Its GAN credentials were probably best summed up by the historian Paula Giddings who, upon news that Beloved had won the Pulitzer in 1988, said: “The great American novels have to deal with the meaning of oppression and love – and black women are at the eye of that storm. Beloved is a great American novel.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011)

Less a novel than a post-modern collage of interweaving stories, Jennifer Egan's epoch-surfing masterpiece dances through time and place – from the 1970s San Francisco punk scene to suburban New York in the 1990s to the 2020s (the future!) – in an unforgettable pageant of pure, uncut, high-grade Americana.

It is a reverberating satire about love, life, thwarted ambition, regret, hope, family, success, failure, the music industry, materialism, capitalism, the American celebrity industrial complex and, above all, the remorseless march of time (aka the titular “goon”).

It provoked a cyclone of critical and commercial praise that swirled around it's release, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and a reputation as one of the great American satires of the early 21st century.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (2013)

The Flamethrowers broke the mould of the American novel, according to Salon co-founder Laura Miller, “not only because it is written by a woman but also because its central character is a woman".

In most Great American Novel lists, she wrote, men have always played the role of representing the American experience because “men are allowed to stand for the entirety of a national identity or for humanity itself, but women are only supposed to stand for womanhood, if in various flavors.”

Not Reno, the blazing centre of this scintillating story of a motorbike-loving artist trying to make her way in the 1970s New York art scene, via the far-left uprisings in Italy and the dust-plains of America's mid-west.

It's a wild-ride of a novel that, as per The New Yorker's James Wood, “ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures”. It is, in short, a heady exploration of femininity, fear and all-American aspiration that steamrolled the American literary landscape.

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