What qualifies as the Great American Novel? These 7 books make the cut.

3 Minutes Read

Want to know what books earn the title of “Great American Novel,” and which American authors qualify? According to Dr. Joseph Luzzi, a graduate of Yale and Comparative Literature professor, several American novels fit the bill. In his presentation, Dr. Luzzi discusses Huckleberry Finn, The Sound and the Fury, Beloved, Catch-22, American Pastoral, and more.


A see-through American flag in front of a bookshelf full of books.
The Story of America in 7 Books


What does it mean to be “American”? 

What are the books that have had the greatest impact on U.S. history and culture? 

How can fiction illuminate the hard truths of American life?


A map of the U.S. by author and literature in each place.


The term “The Great American Novel” was invented over 150 years ago, and states that a qualifying American author must express, “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.”

The Literary Quest for that one book that can encapsulate the complexity and diversity of American life within its pages is an old one that "officially" began in 1868, with the publication of John William DeForest's essay "The Great American Novel" in the Nation.

According to DeForest, such a novel would capture "the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence," no small task for a country as varied and multicultural as the United States, whose "literary map" contains an astonishing array of different voices and different writing styles.

A smiling Toni Morrison adorns the cover of her celebrated work, Beloved.

Classic American novels, such as Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury,  Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as contemporary titles like Beloved and American Pastoral are often thought of as candidates for the Great American Novel - all for their own unique representations of the American experience.

The list of works that are often considered contenders for the "GAN" or Great American Novel includes such masterpieces as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird; one could also add more recent works like Toni Morrison's Beloved as well as Roth's American Pastoral. In their very different ways, each of the above titles captures something defining and representative about the American experience. More than that, each probes enduring questions, even crises, about what it means to be "American" in a range of contexts, from Fitzgerald's and Roth's unsparing anatomy of the American Dream to Lee's and Morrison's harrowing accounts of the brutal legacies of slavery and racism.

A black and white image of a man with a moustache from the 1900s


Various American authors have had differing ideas on what defined the American spirit.

DeForest praised works like Uncle Tom's Cabin that did a better job than others of creating this eminently "American" form; but ultimately he concluded that "this task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel" has yet to be realized.

Here's a typically trenchant quotation from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral on issues related to the national condition:

"You wanted Ms. America? Well, you've got her, with a vengeance – she's your daughter! You wanted to be a real American jock, a real American marine, a real American hotshot...You longed to belong like everybody else to the United States of America? Well, you do now, big boy, thanks to your daughter. The reality of this place is right up in your kisser now...Americaamok! America amuck!"


Dr. Luzzi’s presentation, Professor Joseph Luzzi on the Great American Novel, examines several classic American novels to gain a deeper understanding of the American character. 

What does it mean to be “American”? What are the books that have had the greatest impact on U.S. history and culture? How can fiction illuminate the hard truths of American life?

This fascinating presentation will lead audiences through the world of American literature, as we explore how masterpieces ranging from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and more, reveal the characters and conflicts of the American spirit.



Dr. Luzzi (PhD, Yale) is a professor at Bard College, who’s published many articles, authored five books, and recently he founded The Virtual Book Club, an online reading community.

Joseph Luzzi (PhD, Yale) who is a Professor of Comparative Literature and Faculty Member in Italian Studies at Bard College. Luzzi taught previously at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in The New York Times, TLS, The London Times, the Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and on National Public Radio.

Dr. Luzzi’s awards include a Yale College Teaching Prize, Dante Society of America Essay Prize, and Wallace Fellowship at Villa I Tatti, Harvard’s Center for Italian Renaissance Studies. He is the author of five books and recently created The Virtual Book Club: an international community of readers dedicated to exploring major literary works past and present.


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