The phrase “Great American Novel” was first coined by author and Civil War veteran John William De Forest in an essay he wrote in 1868. He was attempting to describe works of fiction that portrayed, with “full-bodied realism,” the American experience. The challenge was, and continues to be, that there is no single way to be an American.
Americans may be as old as Herman Melville’s Ishmael and as young as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. They may throw lavish parties like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby or carry the mark of their shame like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of a family who recently immigrated, while Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine explores the intertwined fates of two Ojibwe families with ancient ties to the land.
Here, we’ve collected quotes from 18 beautiful novels regarded as worthy of De Forest’s moniker. Each of these books tells a piece of our story as a nation, and as we read them, we gain insight and perspective into the people who make up this eclectic and complex country.
Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.
— Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”
Society is like this card game here, cousin. We got dealt our hand before we were even born, and as we grow we have to play as best as we can.
— Louise Erdrich, “Love Medicine”
But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon.
— John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”
I do not wish any reward but to know I have done the right thing.
— Mark Twain, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.
― Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”
It’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.
— Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
To the untrue man, the whole universe is false — it is impalpable — it shrinks to nothing within his grasp.
— Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter”
But if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.
— Junot Díaz, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”
Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.
— Don DeLillo, “Underworld”
Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.
— Cormac McCarthy, “Blood Meridian"
Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”
Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.
― Toni Morrison, “Beloved”
A fellow is more afraid of the trouble he might have than he ever is of the trouble he’s already got. He’ll cling to trouble he’s used to before he’ll risk a change.
— William Faulkner, “Light in August”
If you have the guts to be yourself, other people'll pay your price.
— John Updike, “Rabbit, Run”
You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.
— David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest”
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.
— Sandra Cisneros, “The House on Mango Street”
Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.
― Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
As long as I could keep improving my mind, I figured, I was doing okay.
— Saul Bellow, “Adventures of Augie March”
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