It has been over 50 years since the publication of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and more than 80 years since the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
Although these books were written long before I was even born, their message still had an impact on me. And both, by most standards, can be considered “great American novels,” although the term itself has a wide, subjective definition.
In the last century, great novels were produced as a reaction to the times. They were a reflection of, or a retaliation to, American life. John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” published in 1939, depicts the struggle of an American family during the Great Depression. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960, deals with race relations in the South, at a time when racial tensions were high. These novels touched and enraged much of our nation and still do, all these years later.
However, it seems possible that many of the future great novelists of America will be lost in the throes of technology. While the advent of computers and the Internet makes recording and receiving information more accessible, it has decreased the importance of the printed word. How likely is it then that the next great American novelist will get swallowed up by a celebrity gossip blog?
Times in America are still changing and at a faster pace than ever before. Our country is engaged in a war in a foreign nation. What may be the most important election of our lives is fast approaching, with change as one of its biggest platforms for candidates across the board. Currently, there is more than enough societal fodder being provided for someone, somewhere to produce a great novel in reaction to modern times.
Lately, those reactions seem to be in film, instead of print. In some cases, it seems like film has taken the place of written literature. Today, movies can have the same universal message as many great novels did in the past. Movies have also become a more appreciated and understood art form, while books have been pushed to the side. It is much easier to name 10 great American films of the last 25 years than it is to name 10 great American novels.
This presents another problem: If a new great American novel is written, who is going to read it?
That being said, many novels are not popular at the time of publication. There may be a novel already written that will, in the future, achieve great status. The works of Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy for instance, are the forerunners in the race for the next great American novel. It is also noteworthy that novels by both of these authors have been adapted into critically acclaimed films. But neither of these authors are young, so is there any promise for the future of American literature?
I cannot resign myself to the idea that all of the great novels of American fictional literature have already been produced. There are still thousands of stories, waiting to be written. I can only hope that the result of the changing world around us provides the muse for the next great American novel.