Core Humanities 203 can be a lot of things. It is a class on the United States Constitution. It is a class on the Nevada Constitution. It’s an American History class. It’s a Nevada History class. It’s a Great Books class. It’s Literature Class. It’s a Philosophy class. It’s a Religions class. It’s an Art History class. In fact, depending on the institution and the instructor, this class can cover just about anything in the American or Nevadan past, even if every section taught has some commonality in what must be taught.
The American Novel could be a class in itself, and even many classes. There are many sub-genres of the novel, and each might be a semester-long class, just as there are different eras in American literary history, and each might be a class on its own.
To complicate things further, in 1868, John William DeForest wrote an article in The Nation that coined the phrase: The Great American Novel. It was in his eyes “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence” and he argued that “this task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially—in the production of a few outlines.” DeForest argued that while a number of “great” American novelists had done good work, no one had in fact truly captured the depth and breadth of American life in a single “Great Novel.” The closest anyone had come was Harriet Beecher Stowe with her Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and even that really didn’t cut it.
In the century and a half since, many people have fallen out of love with the very idea of “The Great American Novel,” partly because the idea is too broad and all-encompassing, and partly because the very concept of the novel has moved beyond the 19th century realism that DeForest aspired to.
People still argue about whether there has been a “Great American Novel.” Books that have been put forward with varying degrees of success include (in chronological order of publication):
The Last of the Mohicans (DeForest clearly thought this was nonsense!)
The Red Badge of Courage
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Call of the Wild
The Great Gatsby
The Grapes of Wrath
Catcher in the Rye
To Kill a Mockingbird
Freedom: A Novel
All of these have strong followings, and all of them have reasons they aren’t really “The Great American Novel.” Some people have even argued that the very idea of “The Great American Novel” as defined by DeForest is impossible: no single novel can capture all of the diverse and varied aspects of the American Experience. I’m inclined to agree with that assessment, but where does that leave us? Do we, as some have, argue that the most specific, quirky, and personal novels are actually “The Great American Novel,” since the Big Picture is unknowable and unproducable, but the specific, the quirky, and the personal in a single instance can become a symbol for the larger American Experience? If so, does Jack Kerouac’s On The Road make the grade? What about Hunter S. Thompson’s more psychedelic and edgy take on the crazy road trip (and a novel set mostly in Nevada!): Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Or do we have to look at more serious and more broadly applicable examinations of diversity like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street? Can we even argue that “The Great American Novel” is a real thing, and not an artificial and theoretical construct of a long-dead 19th century novelist who later published novels that looked a lot like his own criteria for “The Great American Novel”?
Obviously, there is no “right” answer, like so many other questions in the humanities. Rather, there are clearly some “wrong” answers, but it’s the question that is important, and it is important to question the question.
There are so many notable novels in American literary history that it would be pointless to try to write assignments for all of them, or even to name all of them. Rather, what I have attempted here is what I have done elsewhere: I have provided several examples of a template for a novel assignment for Core Humanities 203, allowing instructors to use the idea and the template to craft assignments for their own choices of “The Great American Novel”, or just great American novels for their classes. Alternatively, you can feel free to take all or part of these existing examples and use them for your classes.
There is a dearth of good material on the novel in most American history textbooks, and there are almost no textbooks written specifically for CH 203. Moreover, as instructors move to online OER textbooks, they are even less likely to assign novels that students must buy separately. So, most instructors make their way through CH 203 without ever assigning a complete novel, or exposing their students to the rich experience of reading, discussing, and writing about such a complete work. I myself often assign four novels over the course of CH 203, ranging from a colonial novel to something from the late 20th century, with something from the 19th and early 20th centuries sandwiched in between. The precise choice of texts varies, and depends on the lineup of other readings as well as what might be topical and useful for my students at the time when I assign texts. I try to assign books that meet as many as possible of the following criteria:
Affordable in price
Readable and interesting
Relevant to main themes in the course
Significant in American literary history
Diverse in authorship
Based on those criteria, I keep coming back to two books by women authors who capture powerful and significant aspects of the American Experience. Willa Cather’s My Ántonia was an amazing hit when it came out and made Willa Cather a star overnight in 1918. People were impressed with the book’s lack of a traditional novelistic plot, astounded at its focus on working class characters struggling in a Nebraska frontier town, and delighted with the realism of its characters and its intense readability. Cather quickly fell out of fashion, but her book captured both the spirit of 19th century frontier life and a yearning for something new in the American novel at the end of World War One. Over a century later, it is still fresh and exciting. It is also available in a Dover Thrift edition that is practically free when you consider the cost of printing and shipping. The Primary Source background sheet below can serve as a full assignment or as a template for producing assignments for other novels of your choice.
Sandra Cisneros’ breakout novel, The House on Mango Street, is in some ways similar. It has no traditional plot; it focuses on young working-class women; it is highly readable; it captures something special about the soul of America and about everyday life; its main characters are immigrants or children of immigrants. It’s a page turner, it’s sold over six million copies, and it is still affordable: $7.49 in paperback as of this writing.
Both novels are fascinating studies in psychology, in human nature, and in specific historical and geographical settings: the Great Plains of Nebraska in the late 19th century and the barrios of Chicago in the late 20th century. Do look over the assignments and if you haven’t read the books, for under ten bucks you can get a new copy of both of them. Consider using them in your courses, but also consider adapting the assignments below to novels of your own choosing. Assigning a complete novel or even more than one to your survey class on American history and culture will add richness and depth to your students’ experience, and will help them to deal with larger, more complex works.
DeForest’s Essay on “The Great American Novel” (1868)
A 21st Century Article on the Ideal of the Great American Novel
100 Best American Novels by David Handlin on “The American Scholar”
It’s on the Phi Beta Kappa website and written by an honors student, so you know it’s good! Spoiler alerts: My Ántonia is #46 and The House on Mango Street isn’t on the list. So, obviously wrong! But the list is still fascinating and well worth examining and arguing about.