What's Greater than Gatsby?

Princeton HaircutPrinceton HaircutIt may sound unbelievable, but the other day one of my colleagues and I were discussing what the greatest American novel to emerge from the Twentieth Century is (there is probably a reason we all work in a library. . . ).

I proposed the question "is there any better novel written in the United States, in the Twentieth Century, than The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald?"

My colleague recommended I read some Edith Wharton, and perhaps then I will change my mind (though only perhaps). Another individual, pressed by the same question, was unable to provide a contrary opinion.

Rather than extol the many virtues of the Great American Novel, you should just read it yourself. And if you have read it, disagree, and have a better candidate -- please let me know.

Since the conversation, I've been asking other colleagues for an answer, and have gotten several good candidates: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, The Grapes of Wrath by Nobel Laureate Steinbeck, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by another Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, and Catcher in the Rye by that one recluse.

A couple recommendations I simply cannot abide by, but since it is all a matter of taste, I will include them here: something by Jack Kerouac and Catch-22 by the vastly overrated Heller. There are very few books I fail to finish, Catch-22 and On the Road were dismal exceptions. The original scroll of On the Road was at The University of Iowa when I was there, yet I managed to avoid seeing it. . .

Maybe it isn't the books, maybe it is me. Maybe someone who is a fan of either of these can explain to me what I am missing.

All in all, quite the list. And the library has them all. What other institution houses such treasures?


I think To Kill a Mockingbird belongs on this list, if not at the top!

Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, with it's tired desperation and loneliness surrounded by people, was always a better book than On the Road. It just didn't fit in as well with the one-dimensional image of Kerouac that the fans wanted to hold untouched in their minds.

Ahh, "Catcher in the Rye". The book no good homicidal maniac would be without. John Hinckley, jr, Mark David Chapman and Robert Bardo just to name a few.

I have to add Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I agree _completely_ about Kerouac. Overrated.

But Catch-22?! It has perfectly executed non-linear story telling (and there's a point to it, it isn't for the sake of whimsy). Single events seamlessly described from many points of view. Descriptions of the horror of war. The naivette of the young, middle-aged, and elderly. It's worth the read!

Listen to this guy's description I found using the AADL database The Literature Resource Center:

"The critical reputation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is a curiosity. The book is often praised, even celebrated, yet most critics are still puzzled by such basic matters as the structure of the novel. Friends and foes alike tend to agree that the novel is hilarious but also that it is repetitious and essentially formless. Norman Mailer [see excerpt above] speaks for all those who share this view when he says 'like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere. One could take a hundred pages from the middle of Catch-22 and not even the author could be certain they were gone.' As it happens, the author is rather certain that he would notice. Heller has said that Catch-22 'is not to my mind a formless novel. If anything, it was constructed almost meticulously, and with a meticulous concern to give the appearance of a formless novel.' Heller's remarks may seem defensive or at least exaggerated, but a close examination of Catch-22 confirms that the book is as meticulously structured as Heller claims. Indeed, the book's more puzzling features—its bewildering chronology, its repetitiveness, its protagonist's belated change of heart—all fit together to advance Heller's radical protest against the modern social order. What appears to be formless chaos is in fact a brilliant strategy to expose not only the worst excesses of the modern bureaucracy but also the complacent acceptance of this system on the part of everyone involved, including Heller's readers. The structural complexity of Catch-22 thus embodies Heller's meaning more thoroughly than even his admirers have been willing to suggest."