The Dream of the Great American Novel

This is one of the 210 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

    This novel is a complex narrative about Thomas Sutpen, a poor white man who rises to power in the South, aiming to create a dynasty that would rival the old aristocratic families. However, his ambitions are thwarted by his own flawed decisions and the overarching racial and societal tensions of the era. The story is not told in a linear fashion but rather through a series of interconnected flashbacks and narratives, offering different perspectives on the same events. The book explores themes of family, class, race, and the destructive power of obsession.

  • The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

    "The Adventures of Augie March" is a novel set in Chicago during the Great Depression. The story follows the life of Augie March, a poor but spirited boy growing up in a broken home, as he navigates his way through life. The narrative explores his various jobs, relationships, and adventures, as he constantly seeks his identity and place in the world. His journey is marked by a series of encounters with different people and experiences, each shaping him in unique ways.

  • American Pastoral by Philip Roth

    This novel tells the story of Seymour "Swede" Levov, a successful Jewish-American businessman and former high school athlete from Newark, New Jersey. Levov's happy and conventional upper middle class life is ruined by the domestic social and political turmoil of the 1960s during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, which in the novel is seen through the eyes of the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, a budding writer who idolizes the Levovs. The novel portrays the impact of this turmoil on Levov and his family, particularly his rebellious daughter who becomes involved in revolutionary political activities.

  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

    This classic novel explores the dark side of the American Dream through the story of a young man who, despite his humble beginnings, aspires to climb the social ladder. He becomes involved with two women, one wealthy and one from a working-class background. His ambition and desire for status lead him to commit a crime that ultimately results in his downfall. The novel is a stark examination of the destructive power of unchecked ambition and the moral compromises people are willing to make in pursuit of wealth and status.

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison

    This novel tells the story of a former African-American slave woman who, after escaping to Ohio, is haunted by the ghost of her deceased daughter. The protagonist is forced to confront her repressed memories and the horrific realities of her past, including the desperate act she committed to protect her children from a life of slavery. The narrative is a poignant exploration of the physical, emotional, and psychological scars inflicted by the institution of slavery, and the struggle for identity and self-acceptance in its aftermath.

  • The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

    The book follows the ambitious and cunning Undine Spragg, a beautiful Midwestern girl who marries her way into New York high society. Undine's insatiable desire for wealth, status, and comfort leads her through a series of marriages and divorces, each time climbing higher on the social ladder. However, her ruthless pursuit of success and disregard for social norms ultimately leave her feeling empty and dissatisfied. The novel offers a critique of American society and its values during the early 20th century.

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Set in the summer of 1922, the novel follows the life of a young and mysterious millionaire, his extravagant lifestyle in Long Island, and his obsessive love for a beautiful former debutante. As the story unfolds, the millionaire's dark secrets and the corrupt reality of the American dream during the Jazz Age are revealed. The narrative is a critique of the hedonistic excess and moral decay of the era, ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

    The book follows the Joad family, Oklahoma farmers displaced from their land during the Great Depression. The family, alongside thousands of other "Okies," travel to California in search of work and a better life. Throughout their journey, they face numerous hardships and injustices, yet maintain their humanity through unity and shared sacrifice. The narrative explores themes of man's inhumanity to man, the dignity of wrath, and the power of family and friendship, offering a stark and moving portrayal of the harsh realities of American migrant laborers during the 1930s.

  • Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

    Set during the end of World War II, the novel follows Tyrone Slothrop, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, as he tries to uncover the truth behind a mysterious device, the "Schwarzgerät", that the Germans are using in their V-2 rockets. The narrative is complex and multi-layered, filled with a vast array of characters and subplots, all connected by various themes such as paranoia, technology, and the destructive nature of war. The book is known for its encyclopedic nature and its challenging, postmodernist style.

  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

    Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and Reconstruction era, this novel follows the life of a young Southern belle, who is known for her beauty and charm. Her life takes a turn when she is forced to make drastic changes to survive the war and its aftermath. The story revolves around her struggle to maintain her family's plantation and her complicated love life, especially her unrequited love for a married man, and her tumultuous relationship with a roguish blockade runner.

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    The novel follows the journey of a young boy named Huckleberry Finn and a runaway slave named Jim as they travel down the Mississippi River on a raft. Set in the American South before the Civil War, the story explores themes of friendship, freedom, and the hypocrisy of society. Through various adventures and encounters with a host of colorful characters, Huck grapples with his personal values, often clashing with the societal norms of the time.

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    The novel is a poignant exploration of a young African-American man's journey through life, where he grapples with issues of race, identity, and individuality in mid-20th-century America. The protagonist, who remains unnamed throughout the story, considers himself socially invisible due to his race. The narrative follows his experiences from the South to the North, from being a student to a worker, and his involvement in the Brotherhood, a political organization. The book is a profound critique of societal norms and racial prejudice, highlighting the protagonist's struggle to assert his identity in a world that refuses to see him.

  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville

    The novel is a detailed narrative of a vengeful sea captain's obsessive quest to hunt down a giant white sperm whale that bit off his leg. The captain's relentless pursuit, despite the warnings and concerns of his crew, leads them on a dangerous journey across the seas. The story is a complex exploration of good and evil, obsession, and the nature of reality, filled with rich descriptions of whaling and the sea.

  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

    Set in 17th-century Puritan Boston, this novel tells the story of a woman who conceives a daughter through an affair and struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. She is forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her dress as a sign of her adultery while her lover, a revered local minister, remains unnamed and unpunished. Throughout the book, themes of sin, legalism, and guilt are explored.

  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

    This renowned novel provides a harsh critique of American slavery through the story of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave. The narrative follows Tom as he is sold and transported to the harsh South, encountering a variety of characters, both kind and cruel. The novel powerfully explores themes of faith, the immorality of slavery, and the concept of humanity, ultimately contributing to the abolitionist cause and leaving a significant impact on the American perception of slavery.

  • U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos

    The U.S.A. Trilogy is a series of three novels that chronicle the lives of various characters in the first half of the 20th century in the United States. The narrative intertwines the stories of twelve characters as they navigate the societal changes and upheavals of the era, including World War I, the Great Depression, and the rise of Hollywood. The author uses a unique narrative technique that combines traditional prose, newspaper-style headlines, biographies, and stream-of-consciousness writing to paint a vivid picture of American life during this period.

About this list

Book, 16 Books

Writer Lawrence Buell discusses the primary contenders for the title of the "Great American Novel".

Added about 9 years ago.

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