On the Fourth of July it only seems appropriate to talk about The Great American Novel. Books as varied as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom have all been considered for the title of Great American Novel. (Personally, I can see strong arguments made for Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and My Antonia by Willa Cather.) It doesn’t seem like the title ever gets handed out though.
The obvious reason is that the American experience is so wide, so varied, that the books listed above can’t hit on every American’s experience. Since there is no quintessential AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, no book can be said to contain it. Especially as times change. Once upon a time Uncle Tom’s Cabin could’ve had a good argument going for it…but today the language is dated and the storytelling so melodramatic that the landscape narrows too much.
Kerouac’s novel On the Road has been mentioned with the books listed above as a contender for The Great American Novel, and while I haven’t made it all the way through the book yet, I see that argument clearly. In fact, having read and loved several of the books mentioned as the Great American Novel, On the Road is quickly becoming my personal favorite for that title.
Why? It has all of the flaws of the previously listed books. It can’t possibly encapsulate the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. The narrator is a 1950s White Boy, after all.
1. On the Road avoids being about a single region of the United States like Gone with the Wind, The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Age of Innocence, My Antonia, etc. (New York and the South seem to have placed some big claims on being All-American, huh?) The reader of On the Road, being a road trip, is flung from New York to Denver via Chicago, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming in just the first five chapters. It literally and figuratively moves all over the map. The traveling element (which dominates Huckleberry Finn and Grapes of Wrath, by the way) is a HUGE part of the American experience. I can name less than a handful of people – Americans – in my own experience who have not crossed multiple state lines. Roads dominate our landscape…more so now than when Kerouac was writing.
2. Kerouac’s main character, Sal, runs the gamut of class standing. Class is one of those topics that pops up again and again in American Literature. (Examples already listed: Age of Innocence, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, Invisible Man, Freedom, Great Gatsby, The Jungle.)At least in the opening, Sal seems to navigate class distinctions fairly well. He’s just as comfortable hitching a ride with two university students as two railroad tramps. When he arrives in Denver, his buddies set him up in a decked-out apartment, but he doesn’t mind drinking or partying in the questionable side of town.
3. Probably the biggest argument for On the Road being the Great American Novel is that it doesn’t flinch from talking about things that we still don’t always discuss openly – but are there nevertheless. Kerouac brings out a whole slew of topics that are woven through the American tapestry: drugs, music (specifically jazz and bop), sex (pick a gender, any gender), fast cars, open spaces, political affiliations (yep, Carlo Marx is a character), and even apple pie with ice cream. It is all in there, and it’s all in just the first five chapters or so.
The biggest issue that hasn’t come up yet is race. Since White Boy is the narrator, I don’t know what attitude will come up: good/bad/indifferent. But Huckleberry Finn, Beloved, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man all come at this topic from dramatically different perspective and I can’t imagine that a guy – a white guy who navigates different classes – would travel across the U.S. and not present/talk about/creatively expound upon the topic of race. It remains to be seen.
So, The Great American title is still basically up for grabs. But I do think Kerouac’s novel should be slotted towards the top of the list.
Happy Fourth of July everyone! Have a safe and happy holiday. Don’t eat too much apple pie.