In honor of Independence Day, here are ten randomly selected novels or short story collections that, in my view, qualify as Great American Novels:
1) The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
2) The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe
3) The Road to Wellville, by T.C. Boyle
4) Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (interrelated short stories)
5) The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (and his collected short stories)
6) The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
7) Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis (or Main Street, or Arrowsmith, or Elmer Gantry)
8) Collected stories of John Cheever
9) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
And I just can’t say the term “Great American Novel” without including
10) Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
in the same breath.
I know, I left out a lot of great ones, either because I haven’t read them, because I have read them and I didn’t love them, because I arbitrarily decided to limit this list to ten, or because I read them but temporarily forgot about them. So put your own lists in the comments! Other lists of great novels from U.S. and other writers are here and here.
The Canadian counterpart to our Independence Day, Canada Day, was July 1, just a few days before our most important holiday. Formerly known as Dominion Day, it commemorates the Canadian confederation of the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia with the Province of Canada, which, according to the Wikipedia entry, was at the same time divided into the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has some great programs available on podcast; one I particularly enjoy is The Next Chapter, with host Shelagh Rogers, which focuses on Canadian literature. Though the website doesn’t currently reflect it, the June 28, 2010 podcast featured, among other matters, an interview with Ryerson University professor Randy Boyagoda about a survey course on American literature he teaches in which his students compare American and Canadian literature. Boyagoda noted that both countries share some significant characteristics, including division, as in native/settler differences, racial differences, landscape differences, and (more so in Canada’s case) language differences. He said the two bodies of literature, however, are fundamentally different. He and his students identified vitality, liveliness, argument, ambition, and immodesty (his words, not mine) as some characteristics that apply generally to American literature and not generally to Canadian fiction. The U.S. and American literature emphasize the individual, whereas Canada and its literature focus on the collective, he and Rogers agreed.
My American feathers ruffled when Rogers took a swipe at a Walt Whitman quote, and by implicit extension at the U.S., as “arrogant,” nor did I care for the adjective “immodest,” but the segment, which begins about 23 minutes into the podcast, was thought-provoking. What are the differences between AmLit and CanLit, and why are there differences, given our geographic proximity and similarity of cultures? Is our literature more “vital” than Canadian literature? I haven’t read enough of the latter to be able to opine, but it’s certainly true that our literature is better known throughout the world than Canadian lit.
The Literary Review of Canada has a list of 100 great Canadian books that you can download in .pdf form, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood, who’s generally acknowledged as, along with Alice Munro, possibly the greatest living Canadian fiction writer and who has a couple of books on the list. (I’ve enjoyed some of Atwood’s books and agree that she’s a fine writer, but the gratuitous snide remarks about the U.S. she seems to delight in making at every opportunity, at least on the podcast interviews I’ve listened to with her, are offensive to me and disincline me to praise her overmuch. Can’t she say something positive now and then about the U.S., especially when so many individuals and institutions in our country have so generously praised and supported her talents and work? Certainly, criticism is healthy, and the substance of some of her criticisms may have merit, but when she feels she must criticize, can’t she confine it to a policy or policies and not expand it to belittling our whole nation?)
Here are some Canadian novels and a short story collection that I’ve enjoyed:
1) The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, by Wayne Johnston
2) Street of Riches, by Gabrielle Roy
3) Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
4) Island, by Alistair MacLeod (short stories)
I have read more CanLit, but not more that I thought qualified as Great Canadian Novels. Still, I’m planning on expanding my CanLit experience. Two generally acknowledged great Canadian works on my perpetually unwieldy and growing reading list are Robertson Davies’ “The Deptford Trilogy” and Margaret Laurence’s “The Stone Angel.” Also on my list are Elizabeth Hay’s “Late Nights On Air” and Don Hannah’s “Ragged Islands.” I don’t know whether I’ll like them, of course, but what I heard about them on CBC podcasts intrigued me enough to purchase used copies of each. Also, I’m currently giving Lisa Moore’s 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner, “Alligator,” a second chance after it failed to draw me in some months ago.
Happy Independence Day to all of us Americans, and Happy (belated) Canada Day to all Canadians. Which of your favorite Great American or Great Canadian Novels did I leave out, and what’s on your reading list this Fourth of July?