Ah, The Great American Novel. It’s a phrase that’s tossed around, and is almost a cliche in some literary circles. However, there seems to be a lack of consideration for genre fiction or children’s literature. Discussions about genre snobbery aside- (the idea that Little Women is not great because it’s enjoyed by little girls is ludicrous) the idea of a singular Great American Novel is quite silly.
The United States of America is diverse. From the sunny desert roads of California to the chilly atmosphere of Chicago- it’s population of hundreds of millions guarantees a diversity of opinions and backgrounds. Can a book really capture that? An American may find Lolita to reveal the dark underbelly of American culture, whilst another may be grasped by The Grapes Of Wrath. My point being, what someone finds to be the ultimate American classic won’t be shared by others. What strikes me about alot of nominations for the ‘great American novel’ is that they deconstruct the idea of ‘greatness’ in American culture. Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road breaks down not just the suburbs, but the mere concept of the American dream. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho deconstructs grand wealth, gender dynamics and violence. Deconstruction and being caught up in meta-concepts looks to be more appealing than the honesty and moralizing sense that’s often found in children’s literature (more on that later).
That’s why discussions about the Great American Novel have fundamentally turned into something cynical. While not every book reflects this, a vast majority of discussion about American literature that gets critical focus does. Children’s literature on the other hand- which is frequently dismissed by critics- is far from cynical. It’s obviously imaginative- from Where The Wild Things Are (written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak) or Bridge To Terabithia (Katherine Paterson) and is less focused on deconstruction. Instead, there is an emphasis on values and ideals. Just as Little Women aids the development of young girls into adulthood (as well as teaching them the value of charity and kindness), it’s important to remember that children’s literature is meant to be educational. It does not merely play a role in the linguistic development of a child, but also their morals and beliefs.
Children’s Literature can be deceptive in its cleverness when it addresses morality. A favourite example is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which avoids cliches and has the guts to make its characters flawed and to craft a universe that is far from simple. On first glance, it’s a morality tale about learning to not be a cowardly lion and to be brave. However, revisiting it as an adult I was struck by the insight on humanity, one’s connection with home, and the process of discovery. Whilst the argument I’m constructing is that children’s literature is educational, that’s not the only thing it is. It’s also hilarious, brilliant, smart, reflective, honest and insightful.
So… what is the great American novel? Well, let me nominate Little Women for your consideration. It deals with American themes (that to be fair, are also universal)- the American Civil War, the role faith and goodness plays in our lives, the importance of charity, family and sisterhood as well as the discovery of love. It’s also an ode to the power of that each individual has to inspire and craft meaning in their lives. I remember reading Little Women and being inspired by Jo March- not merely because of her bravery, her strength and intellect but because she was incredibly human and flawed. It’s an honest yet still sympathetic reflection about the individual. The historical backdrop of the American Civil War adds to the melancholy the characters feel.
Despite the tragic moments in the novel, Little Women is ultimately about hope and acceptance. It believes that you can achieve great, inspirational things. Little Women offers hope even when it seems bleak, and for that- I have no problem ranking it above many so-called ‘Great American Novels.’ Whilst there is a place of cynical, deconstructive literature- there is also a place for well written, hopeful and intelligent children’s literature as well.
Children’s Literature fills me up with hope when I consider the future of the American novel. Sure, it’s easy to be critical of the Young Adult tropes, or despise the many fairytale revisions- but I fundamentally believe that children’s literature believes in the power of words, that you can make a difference and that children are a force of goodness.
If you’d like to buy Little Women (which I highly recommend you do!), check out this link.