It used to be that aspiring writers wanted to write the Great American Novel. That was never my goal, if for no other reason than that I believe it's already been written. If you asked me which specific novel holds that title, I'd have to admit that I'm not sure. Indeed, dozens of novels have been nominated for that honor by a score of people more literary than I. Many of them, while good, don't do it for me, and while I may not be able to point to one and say, "This is the Great American Novel," I have managed to narrow down my personal choice to two.
That sounds like it should have been a tougher task than it was. At least, I think so, but the criteria that I think is important does limit the choices.
First, it has to have been written by an American, so Rudyard Kipling doesn't qualify, but Edgar Allen Poe does.
Second, the story must be something that is uniquely American. If it could be tweaked just a little and set somewhere else, I'd have to disqualify it.
Unofficially, my third criteria is completely arbitrary because it's important to me that the novel is one I like and admire. This eliminates books like Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter (can you say bor-ring?) and Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (which in my experience, men love. Women? Not so much.)
My first choice, Gone With The Wind, doesn't seem to appear much on short lists even though it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. I tend to wonder if people are too much influenced by the movie. In the book, Scarlett has a quality that doesn't translate well to the film. Somehow, Mitchell managed to convey that Scarlett faced a world that bore little resemblance to the one she'd been reared for. As she's written, one can't help but admire her ability to keep from being crushed by terrible adversities. Sadly, in the movie, she comes across as a spoiled southern belle. If you haven't read the book, it's an amazing read. And the Civil War? How much more of an American setting can you get?
My second choice is also set in a uniquely American time and place. In the pre-civil war south, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn not only tells a story of high adventure but puts forth a moral without being preachy. An added bonus is watching Mark Twain's mastery of writing dialect. Anyone who's tried to write dialect knows it's easy to overwhelm the reader with difficult dialog, but Twain's use of dialect only makes Huck's world more realistic. In the hands of a lesser talent, it would quickly have alienated the reader. Huck Finn also suffered adversity. Having been banned from school libraries time and again by politically correct pundits who don't understand that Twain was teaching an anti-slavery lesson, it has displayed a tenacity few books ever achieve.
Both books have withstood the test of time. Neither has ever been out of print. Both have things to teach us about our humanity that are as relevant today as when they were printed in 1936 (GWTW) and 1885 (AHF).
It probably shouldn't be any surprise that both authors also fascinate me.
I do think some of my awe of Margaret Mitchell is that she wrote this one single novel though she lived 13 more years after its publication. What would possess someone to write something with such grand scope the first time out and then not write anything more? Then again, anything she wrote after GWTW would have to be anticlimactic, wouldn't it? Still, that wouldn't have stopped most authors.
As for Mark Twain, how many authors, living or dead, are as recognizable? Crusty, nearly curmudgeonly, admired for his often acerbic wit even now. His life was a mixture of good fortune, bad business decisions, and tragedy. He feels like a relative who lives through family stories of his colorful ways rather than a stranger who's life has no overlap with mine. One of my favorite Twain quote is: My books are water; those of great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water. I wonder if he'd be surprised to know we're still drinking from his well more than a century later.
Those are my nominations for the Great American Novel. What are yours? Tell me why.