What is the Great American Novel? Here’s a local writer’s pitch for ‘Gatsby’

Read any good books lately?

Any great books?

Any books that you might consider for the title Great American Novel?

It’s a frequent game in the book world, this Great American Novel contest.

I have never been one to participate. Writing books is hard enough and most writers are more focused on selling books rather than aspiring to an endlessly debatable title. There have been many Great American Novel lists over the years and they are as varied in their rankings as are the current Chicago mayoral polls.

But in grabbing and starting to read William Hazelgrove’s latest book, “Writing Gatsby: The Real Story of the Writing of the Greatest American Novel” (Lyons Press), I decided to find out who started this competition.

John William DeForest was his name and he coined the term in an essay he wrote in The Nation magazine in January 1868. The Nation is still around but DeForest has been buried under history’s dust. He also wrote novels but is now best known — if known at all — for initiating the great-novel game.

In his essay, he defined the Great American Novel as a work that gives “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” He did not think that such a book had been written, not even his cumbersomely titled “Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty,” published the year before his essay. He didn’t think more famous works such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” were deserving. But he did consider “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe to be “the nearest approach to the desired phenomenon.” He elaborated, writing that it “was a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait.”

In the more than 150 years since DeForest started all this, there have been hundreds of Great American Novel contenders and most lists include such writers, such usual suspects, as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, sometimes Chicago’s Saul Bellow, rarely Nelson Algren, very few women and never such bestselling authors as Stephen King or James Patterson.

Philip Roth, a justifiably acclaimed novelist, titled his 1973 book “The Great American Novel.” It is good but not a contender. But maybe it’s just a matter of time — you would think so if you watched ”CBS Sunday Morning” last Sunday or read a New York Times story last week, both about artificial intelligence and its ability to create “literature” — before ChatGPT or some other AI gizmo spits out the Great American Novel.

But enough. William Hazelgrove?

“I have been getting a lot of pushback from people who consider some other book to be the greatest American novel, but I expected that,” he said.

Like many others, he first read “Gatsby” in high school but returned to it when, after earning a master’s degree in history, he decided to become a novelist. As he went about that career, eventually publishing nearly a dozen, he “realized how much I did not learn in school so began reading or rereading all the classics.”

“I was struck over and over by the elegance of Fitzgerald’s writing,” he told me. “And even now, while much of Hemingway seems dated and stiff, ‘Gatsby’ continues to inspire in part due to Fitzgerald’s belief that it is possible to grab the American Dream, even while suffering its pitfalls.”

Hazelgrove eventually began writing nonfiction and, as I have written before, brings a novelist’s artfulness to his work, imbuing it with narrative force and enlivening and energizing his deep research. Among previous books on his every-filling nonfiction shelf are “Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson,” “Al Capone and the 1933 World’s Fair,” and “Sally Rand: American Sex Symbol.”

In his latest, he writes in his preface that “Gatsby” is “the greatest work of American fiction the world has ever known.” He then gives readers a typically well-researched and smartly written story that focuses on the 11 months between the summer of 1924, when Fitzgerald began writing his novel, and April 10, 1925, when it was published. You get a fine look at the writer before and after that writing interlude, on a booze-fueled journey from “one party to another and one hotel to another,” and will cringe at the self-destructive antics of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, a pair who came to define the Jazz Age in all its raucous energy.

The end of Fitzgerald’s life is particularly bleak. Hazelgrove writes, “When he died in 1940 there were copies of ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the Scribner warehouse. … The book had not gone out of print; worse, it didn’t sell. The final royalty statement sent to Scott in 1940 was for $2.10 for the sale of seven copies of ‘The Great Gatsby’ and nine copies of ‘Tender is the Night.’”

But Hazelgrove also writes that “Gatsby“ became a triumph of the artist over the philistine, the brilliant light over the darkness.” It started to become popular during World War II when the publisher donated free copies for soldiers. That contributed to a rediscovery and there have since been more than 25 million copies sold. The copyright expired in 2021.

Will reading this book compel you to grab a copy of “The Great Gatsby?”

It convinced me to read it for about the fifth time (Hazelgrove has read it 25 times). It is a terrific story and its ending was as haunting as ever: “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. ... And one fine morning ——

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

This is a great ending to a very good book and I’ll stand by that.

rkogan@chicagotribune.com