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America’s Greatest Novelist?

Today is the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tomorrow is William Faulkner’s.
Some say Fitzgerald is the greatest American novelist, or at least that THE GREAT GATSBY is the greatest American novel. And some say Faulkner is the greatest. What say you?

Discussions - 21 Comments


Why is Twain not on your list?

America has not produced much great literature, certainly not like England, Ireland, or France. America, especially in recent years, seems more adept at endless materialism and making bombs. But regardless, I'd put neither. Twain, perhaps. Eliot for 20th century poet. Faulkner is good, but becomes tedious. F Scott Fitzgerald is superficial. Moby Dick might be the best American novel. But all of these pale in comparison to greats like the Iliad, Aeneid, Beowulf, Divine Comedy, Henry IV or King Leer.

I don't think any American novelist can touch Charlotte Bronte.

As far as literature is concerned, Fitzgerald gets my vote. At least I believe his prose were the most beautiful, and I'm always partial to beauty. Twain, though, is probably best overall. He didn't have the un-American aristocratic tendencies of Fitzgerald, which gave Twain a hopeful (ergo American) feel while Fitzgerald's best work was tragic. I'm not a fan of Faulkner at all, though I haven't tried reading him for many years.

Please people, snap out of it! Sure Fitzgerald was great, and Faulkner and Bronte and Twain and lots of other, I'm sure, great writers. But really, the greatest American novelist? Hemingway by a country mile (or even ten miles).

I'm with Bede - I'm looking forward to the new translation of the Aeneid coming out in paperback this fall, and as the weather passes into winter, give me a warm fire and a Scotch with Beowulf, Sir Gawain, Homer, and the like. Hemingway and Fitzgerald are probably not invited. Fifteen years ago was probably enough.

Opines tiger: Please people, snap out of it! Sure Fitzgerald was great, and Faulkner and Bronte and Twain and lots of other, I'm sure, great writers. But really, the greatest American novelist? Hemingway by a country mile (or even ten miles).

E.B. White knew better. In a letter to John Updike, White said of Hemingway's writing, "A lot of the time it reminded me of the farting of an old horse."

And old, tired horse.

Absalom, Absalom! is the greatest novel of the 20th century.

You are correct Bede, that when you stack up 300 years of American letters (I throw in colonial American) that it does not stand up to, say, the entire western canon.

Twain is the greatest American novelist in that he is consistently readable and clever, and he is quintessentially American. Let me throw in an honorable mention for Willa Cather, who has not been mentioned.

Is not All The King's Men the great American novel?

Years ago, (1970's) I was a bell hop/bus boy in an old New England Inn. E.B. White stayed at this Inn for a few days, and visited the Library in our village. When he signed out some books, the librarian read his signature and said,

"Oh, E.B. White. We have books here by a man with the same name, but he died."

While R.P. Warren and Fitzgerald may turn a prettier phrase, I like Hemingway's combination of muscle and brevity.


How nice to agree with you . . . well, almost. Bronte is breathtaking in her insights to the human soul. The way she tells the story of Jane Eyre's girlhood--through the eyes of a child struggling to think like a woman--is masterful. I have never seen anyone capture the frustration of childhood better.

Still, I think Austen beats her for the sheer scope of her work and--though less sweeping in its emotion--it is grander and more satisfying to the whole of the soul for that reason.

But for the benefit of the boys who persist in the foolish assumption that this is "female literature" I will say that Mark Twain gets my nod as the best American novelist. And, in some ways, his genius almost creates its own category as Shakespeare's does. I just finished reading his collected short stories and I must say it was astonishingly good. As for Hemingway . . . I like E.B. White better and I love his quote about him. Even so, I did enjoy reading "The Sun Also Rises" while in Spain and I think "The Old Man and the Sea" is as good as any introduction to serious literature for young people. I remember noticing that there was something serious and important about that book when I was in high school--that there was something that made it somehow different and better than the pap I had been reading up till then. I can't comment on either Faulkner or Fitzgerald. I could never finish any of their books . . . though I watched and hated the movie version of The Great Gatsby. Maybe I should try again? If Lawler thinks it's that good, perhaps I will.

Oh, John Schaff has a great point. Willa Cather should be mentioned. I can't believe I forgot about her as I was trying to think of an American female writer who at all compares with Austen and Bronte. As I didn't remember her, I was wondering if there was something particularly masculine about all great American literature. But she may be the exception that proves the rule--as she is not exactly an exception. Anyone else?

One mere mention of Melville? Moby Dick is a towering, untouchable giant.

I would also be remiss as my father's son not to at least throw Conrad's Lord Jim into the consideration pile.


If you haven't read Shirley, you haven't read C. Bronte at her very best. I cannot agree with you about Jane Austen, though. Charlotte Bronte wouldn't have agreed either. She once said that you can't find one syllable of poetry in Austen's novels. She said a good deal else besides. This is from her reply to George Lewes, after he advised her to study and revere Austen's work:

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written Pride and Prejudice or Tom Jones, than any of the Waverley novels?

I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I had read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses....

Now I can understand admiration of George Sand ... she has a grasp of mind which, if I cannot fully comprehend, I can very deeply respect: she is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant.


Shirley, is very good. But it doesn't compare with Jane Eyre in my mind. It's probably been 15 years since I read it but I would be curious to know why you think it is better. I don't think I can go a year without at least digging into Eyre. I have seen this quote from Bronte before and I understand what she means by it and I think I even understand why she says it. But, much as I love her, I think she is wrong. I don't think she read Austen as she deserves to be read. There is sagacity and profundity in the kind of observations that Austen chooses to make. And there is just as much said in what she chooses not to say. She does not dwell in the emotions as Bronte does--and I sometimes think that makes them even more powerful in Austen's work. There is profundity in a well-drawn-out description of events that allows you to feel them as they ought to be felt. And that feeling can be more powerful and less tyrannical than one imposed by an author.

I piss in the mother's milk of Hemmingway.

"The rule is perfect; in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane."-Mark Twain.

That being said I should probably offer up a toast to babies...for my literary tastes are neither high nor refined. But I have friends in low places... where the whiskey chases my blues away... American Authors that I like: Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind and some of the other work put out by TOR particular David Drake who is incredible. When it comes to writting world building and characterization fiction americans are dominant. I also love Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis and Tolken...but I am talking about americans ok?...I also like James Swain's Grift Sense and the Hardy boys are classic...When it comes to writting classic detective series americans are unsurpased. Naturally I also think Ayn Rand should get some credit for being phenomenal especially in Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and We the Living. I also think Rand makes some outstanding points in the Romantic Manifesto which is her philosophy of literary criticism if you will.

This is an interesting List Notice that the board reflects something closer to what you experts elevate Fizgerald and Faulkner in the top 10...while my preferences are more clearly shown by the "readers" who rank 4 works by Ayn Rand in the top 10...

JL: Ayn Rand bores me to tears, but I heartily agree with you that American detective writers are much better than the competition--unless you count Dorothy Sayers--who is just as good in the ordinary ways and in, in a feminine way, much better. Still can't read Tolkein--although now that my daughter has requested it I suppose I'll have to suck it up.

Herman Melville: Moby Dick is an unmatched single work of American literature.

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