What is the greatest American novel? That question is just annoying because novels are so subjective, don't you think? I had a philosophy professor one time who just came over from Scotland; a very learned man, very intelligent. He told me he taught at a university in the United States for two years before coming here, and while there he befriended an English professor. He asked this English prof just that question, and was referred to Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. My Scottish prof then said that this English teacher is an idiot. I was surprised and asked why he would say that, to which he answered, "Have you read it?". I didn't read the book proper at that time and had to say no. He curtly answered, "Read it". I did years later, but always remembered that puzzling conversation.
Moby-Dick is widely considered to be the greatest American novel as well as one of the most important books ever written. I have a huge problem with this honorific label, and am well aware academics will come gunning for me if I say anything elsewise. But, hey, I've always taken Academic's gobblygook as a suggestion, not necessarily the truth---got myself into a lot of trouble at university because of that, but that's another story.
Herman Melville is one of the greats, don't get me wrong. His novels TYPEE, and BILLY BUD,SAILOR are absolutely wonderful, beautifully written with universal appeal. His short story BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER is an excellent little tale. And MOBY-DICK is a fascinating, beautifully written novel which takes on themes of human strengths and weaknesses with a powerful persuasive style. My favorite scene is the one where the captain of the other whaling boat pleads with Ahab to abandon his search for Moby-Dick and help him look for his son who was washed overboard and is somewhere out in the ocean---time is of the essence. Ahab declines, the captain curses him and moves on. It's brilliant! It's like the gods have sent Ahab a test which he has ultimately failed and therefore is propelled to his doom. The cost of blind, evil obsession. Good stuff!
BUT, (here it comes), this novel is filled with useless, repetitive, erroneous, often silly, extremely boring, information on whales and whaling. It does go on and on. Some reviewers have said that Melville is saying this as Ishmael in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, but I say you really don't know this, he could be serious. Any way you look at it, all this "fill" is not needed and should have been discarded immediately if Melville had a good editor, in my opinion. I think it is this that greatly demeans the importance of this novel.
Also Melville somewhere around the middle of this epic breaks into just dialogue in a play-script kind of way. I really like this, it brings out variety in narration and a different point of view. BUT he doesn't finish it or wrap it up; it just gradually reverts back to prose again. I always thought that if he was going to attempt this original style he should put an effort into creating a short play which could possibly be taken out of the novel itself to be performed. That would be quite amazing, but he didn't do that. So what was the point of the dialogue written in this style?
He also borrows heavily from Shakespeare, but that's OK, Shakespeare borrowed from everybody. There are other things also, but I'll stop picking on Melville. Besides, killing whales doesn't jive with this century's sensibilities, it's not nice. I really like whales.
So, MOBY-DICK as the great American novel? Nah, not in my befuddled mind. MOBY-DICK as one of the best books ever written? Yes. However, it needs heavy editing. I could do that. That would be huge fun! If anyone reading this wants to pay me to edit MOBY-DICK for publication, please phone. My rates are cheap.
Oh, by the way, the opening line of MOBY-DICK---Call me Ishmael---is the most famous opening line and the one known by most people of all of literature. I would edit that out, of course---redundant (just kidding).
I'm going to submit my choice for THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain as the greatest American novel. But there's troubles here too---from the outside.
So, Huck Finn next.