Some years ago (2010) when I was teaching Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz in upstate New York, I put out a survey to everyone in the English Department. On a single page stuffed into their mailboxes, I posed the question: “What are the three most important American novels?” I tossed the question out to faculty, grad assistants and staff to see what they’d come up with. I’ve always been fascinated with how people list things and how they rank subject matter from best-designed automobiles to best woodsy walks. I once asked a Creative Writing class to name two things they would never eat on a pizza, and then write about it. A prompt for a poem, story, or memoir can come from anywhere, and often most insightful when it comes out of nowhere.
“What are the three most important American novels?” I first made a rule that the respondent could not include Moby Dick. I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that Melville’s classic would appear somewhere in the top three on most of the lists. I think this was a good assumption asking an English Department; but I wanted the list the broaden. And, of course, being an English Department, my question was met with additional questions, the most often asked was, “What do you mean by ‘important’?” This was a valid question, and it made me think about what I was asking. I came to understand that I was not asking, “What was the most popular American novel?” or the most successful or the novel that made the most money. I was asking what were the three most “important” American novels: those that defined an age, shifted the country into a new direction (literary or cultural), or had the staying power to be read generation after generation, with each new reader or re-reader discovering some new thought about who they were as individuals, as Americans or about their human experience. My favorite response was, “I don’t teach American literature…” (Ah, Academia…)
The responses were varied, interesting and thought provoking. I created a rather arcane grading system (again, this is Academia…) in which I gave three points for first place; two points for second place, and one point for third place. I then created an arcane data base that looked more like an abacus, hand-written with squiggles, arrows and notes. Some respondents added a few words about their choices. Here is the final tally. In first place:
The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald (9 votes with 20 points: 4 first place; 3 second place; 2 third place).
I think this is interesting in the light of Gatsby now falling into the public domain, with even more editions coming out, day by day it seems. (I still hold onto my Scribner Library copy: the gray cover with the green (!) and white bars with black lettering. I re-read the book a few years ago; it holds up well. It’s become somewhat of a museum piece in my opinion, but I think it captured the age in which it was written (1925) and helped to launch the style and language that helped define the modern American novel. It certainly influenced several generations of writers (and readers) of American literature and showed the world what we write about and how we write it. I also want to note that the novel in the Scribner edition is 180 pages long. In our current trend of the long-winded novel, a few of which may in the future end up on the most important American novel list, it’s good to read a tight, well-crafted under 200-page work that remains at the heart of the American literary canon.
So—without fear of being sued, Lightwood presents, The Great Gatsby:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
I’ll stop there. It’s a strong opener and one that we can ponder today. In the next 200 issues of Lightwood, we could reach the end. I won’t give a “spoiler alert” here, but you may want to read the rest and see if it fits into your top three most important American novels. And then see how your own list changes over the years.
And for those curious, here’s more from that “most important American novels” list. And it’s a curious list from 2010:
2nd place: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
3rd place: The Invisible man by Ralph Ellison
The list continued with:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
The Scarlet letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
(Musing #1) This leads me to: Would Faulkner be on this list today? Perhaps, but which book? He did have a huge impact on writers and readers of the American novel. But has the American literary canon changed in both popular culture and in academia? Will some major American authors fade to the background to be rediscovered at a later date by a later generation. Melville’s Moby Dick was all but forgotten at the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th, but now, love it or hate it, it’s a centerpiece of the American canon. One thing that may have helped its spouting rise to the surface was the 1930 Random House edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent. Another lift was the 1960s “back to the land utopian values” and the reading of Thoreau (Walden) and Emerson’s Essays. Back to my early schooldays (daze?), we read a very abridged version of Moby Dick. It was in a dog-eared volume with three other American classics. This will show you how abridged it was! That condensed version related much of the story but not the important whaling chapters (the part that many skip—but don’t, as this is the grand cosmic metaphor of the whole book). I believe it takes a reader with some life experience to truly immerse oneself into books as these. So, if you are one of these people, leap into the classics. You’ll have a friend for life.
(Musing #2): And where do the classics fit into one’s reading? I sometimes think that teaching the classics to middle school, high school and undergraduates is pointless and even fruitless. This is a dark cloud that passes over me from time to time but then thankfully leaves. My next thought is, younger readers (ages 12-20) have to start somewhere. And perhaps a small portion of them will want to revisit those classics that were jammed down their throats early on. I remember like many of you, (I hope), reading George Eliot’s Silas Marner in 8th? Grade. The only thing I remembered was “Eppy in the toehole” [sic]. It wasn’t until I was over 50 that I reread this layered, interesting and compassionate novel, and Eliot’s shortest. I was captivated, and it led me to a George Eliot-fest. They are all worth reading, (Even Romola? Maybe…) but I would also like to suggest the audio books of Eliot’s works read by Juliete Stevenson, an amazing actor who understands not just what Eliot was saying but how it could be interpreted with all of its powerful drama and social satire. She even captivates the listener with Eliot’s drier social commentary.
(Musing #3) Here is a quote about F. Scott Fitzgerald from Ann Douglas’s insightful book, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920’s: a book I recommend. “Fitzgerald employed 450 ‘time words’ in The Great Gatsby (1925), by Matthew Bruccoli’s count; the words ‘time,’ ‘moments,’ ‘minutes’, ‘hour’, ‘day’, ‘week,’ ‘month,’ ‘year,’ ‘watch,’ ‘clock’, and ‘time-table’ appear over and over, making the novel resonate with the excitement and melancholy of those days of those who live by the clock and the calendar. ‘Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it?’ Daisy asks Nick in one of her haunting gusts of enchanted flirtatiousness. “I am a ghost now,’ Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up essays, ‘as the clock strikes four.’”
The books are waiting for you, on the page, device or audio. They continue to tell us about who we are, where we’ve been and even where we might be going. You don’t have to start with Gatsby; you’re starting place is your own. And when it’s just you and the book, there’s no timeline and no tests, no end of semester push. But reading with another person or a book group can be helpful. However you do it, these literary journeys could now be more meaningful than ever.
Laurence Carr is a publisher of Lightwoodpress.com. He invites you to look at the many articles, reviews, literature and artwork in the magazine.