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The "Great American Novel" is the concept of a novel that most perfectly represents the spirit of life in the United Statesmarker at the time of its writing. It is presumed to be written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. It is often considered as the American response to the tradition of the national epic.

The phrase derives from the title of an essay by American Civil War novelist John William DeForest, published in The Nation on January 9, 1868. More broadly, however, it has its origins in American nationalism and the call for American counterparts to the "Great English Writers." It is an ideological call for American cultural distinctness, and identity.

In modern usage, the term is often figurative and represents a Holy Grail of writing, an ideal to strive towards, and is a source of inspiration. Aspiring writers of all ages, but especially students, are often said to be driven to write "the Great American Novel." It is, presumably, the greatest American book ever written, or which could ever be written. Thus, "Great American Novel" is a metaphor for identity, a Platonic ideal that is not achieved in any specific texts, but whose aim writers strive to mirror in their work.

An alternate usage is in reference to actual novels. Although the title is not a formal award, it is considered to be a prestigious title for a novel, and is thus seen as a worthwhile goal for writers to attempt to achieve.

Though the term is singular, many novels have been given this title over time. In fact, few will claim there is one single Great American Novel. The earliest contenders for this title are Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Other important and often cited novels include F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road.


  • Brown, Herbert R. "The Great American Novel." American Literature 7.1 (1935): 1-14.
  • Knox, George. "The Great American Novel: Final Chapter." American Quarterly 21.4 (1969): 667-682.

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