Post to the Host

Host Garrison Keillor answers your questions about life, love, writing, authors, and of course, A Prairie Home Companion.

Send GK Your Question »

A Higher Standard for Us All

July 17, 2008 | 34 Comments

I was appalled and became disoriented upon hearing you say that Faulkner wrote The Great American Novel. Which would that be? Aside from the fact that we all know Fitzgerald wrote The Great American Novel, I'm not aware that any of Faulkner's dirges have ever even been nominated for the position. I could forgive your naming Twain, or even Toni Morrison, but Faulkner!

Not only might I not listen again to your show, I've begun to doubt now that I've actually ever enjoyed any of them previously. Where you really an English major?

My only hope is that the good people of St. Paul (home of Fitzgerald, of course) will pummel you with new and used copies of The Great Gatsby until you come to your senses.

Walter B.
Austin, TX

This is the finest angry letter I've read in months and it sets a high standard for us all. I've read it over and over with great pleasure. I especially like the "and became disoriented" and the "begun to
doubt....that I've ever enjoyed any of them previously" which are truly original and raise the thing from the usual carping criticism to something like epistolary art.

As for The Great Gatsby, it has its moments, especially in the narrative of Nick Carraway, but the main guy Gatsby is an empty suit and his play for Daisy is rather shallow and adolescent. Dreiser did it so much better in Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Gatsby is still popular in high schools, for good reason, but we did a marathon reading of it here for FSF's centenary and it was sort of embarrassing. Ulysses it ain't. We're proud of him here but we're not deluded. (Gatsby is a slim book and so being pummeld with copies of it is like being pelted with marshmallows.)

Faulkner is such a master and I'd have to think hard about which one is the GAN—maybe Absalom, Absalom—maybe As I Lay Dying. I will try to re-read them this year and report back. Meanwhile, thanks for the letter. It made my day and my day is not so easy to make.


Dear Garrison,
I am utterly shocked and appalled at the literary taste of this epistolarian.Toni Morrison? Highly overrated. She's a diluted version of Bill Faulkner with a pinch of Ann Rice thrown in: nowhere close to the power of The Sound and the Fury or his short story "Barn Burning."
Gatsby has lovely graceful lines("the green light at the end of the dock") and a chilling vision of the Wasteland("the eyes of Dr. Eckleberg") that kind of stays with you.
I'm torn between Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises for the number one spot. Also in contention for me are Cather's My Antonia And Dos Passos's America.
I guess anyone's top ten list would depend on what America means to him personally. Therefore consensus is difficult if not impossible.
All my best
Martha Schipul
English Major

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I agree with you so much! I came to this country 15 years ago, and one of my finding was the astonishing fact that Faulkner is almost unknown to general reading population here. Whereas in my country (Russia) Faulkner is one of the most famous not just American, but World writers of all times. My dream was to read all his books in English, and I partly fulfilled it , by purchasing every book I could find. For me, if a foreigner like myself wants to learn about America he should start with Faulkner, and keep reading his books... well, always. I do appreciate many other American writers as well, don't get me wrong, but Faulkner is one of the few who really belong to the World.

Yuriy P.
N.Aurora, IL

I also enjoyed the letter from Walter in Austin but found it amusing that he questions your qualifications as an English major by asking "...where you really an English major?". Perhaps he meant to ask two questions in one.

GK, I agree with both your assessment of the letter (it was fantastic!!) and your recommendation of As I Lay Dying as a candidate for GAN. I would like to add Song of Solomon to the list of nominees, especially as Ms. Morrison received a pass from Walter B of Austin.

Thank you for being my Knight in Shining Standards!!

It is far better to be pummelled by Gatsby than by The House of Seven Gables, or other such. what determines tha GAM anyway. I have read several tomes that I personally believe might qualify.


Brilliant response. Thank you, sir.

Thank you, Garrison! Yes, Absalom, Absalom is the great American novel! As a southerner, I wept the first time I read the words of Quentin's Harvard roommate: "Tell me about the South. How do people live there? Why do they live at all?" These may not be the exact words, but all the tragedy of the human condition is captured in them.

There seems to be some confusion as to what the Great American Novel is, and isn't. Everyone probably has a favorite work in mind, and maybe more than one, when approaching this subject. I think, though, that we are missing the point here. The GAN is not one single book that stands out above all the others, first of all because this distinction is so subjective in nature, and second of all because what we are discussing here is, in actuality, a genre or literature. The entry on this subject in the Wikipedia hits it right on the head, characterizing the GAN as "the concept of a novel that perfectly represents the spirit of life in the United States at the time of its publication." In this light, we encounter a veritable pantheon of giants, not the least of which are John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Stephen Crane, Washington Irving, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. And, we would be remiss, indeed, if we did not give equal applause to the genius of Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, Edna Ferber, Ayn Rand, Mary Shelley, and the Bronte sisters. The next Great American Novel is just around the corner, with, hopefully, many more to come.

Poor Walter B.,

Just be thankful that Garrison had the time to answer your dribble regarding your selection.
Be happy and proud that your opinion was printed.

Schroeder, R.K.
Marquette, IA

Please forgive my ignorance, but just what is The Great American Novel? How can you tell the difference between great american novel and just an american novel? Is there a congressional committee that decides these things? Isn't Fitzgerald out of date? The movie was a boring period piece. Story and all. Who reads him other than English teachers anyway? And why many people prefer comics over some academic's idea of relevancy and enlightenment. This is another reason Americans prefer blissful ignorance over benighted literacy. Some clever young thing should write a book titled THE Great American Novel and put all that to rest. That crap should be turned into compost lest Rush seizes on the family fight as another reason why Liberals should be put into asylums.

Thank the Lord "Gatsby" isn't "Ulysses" -- an arcane tome of esoteric gobbledygook if ever I read one! Art, to me, is a "means of communication"; on that basis Ulysses is a failure. Fortunately, Gatsby is not!

It's not often one sees someone enjoying being insulted. What I enjoyed the most was the good writing. I am married to a journalism major who has taught this math major the difference between putting words down and writing. The quality of writing in the media today is sad, so it is nice to see people who do well at expressing themselves. Thanks.

Hemingway said that Huckleberry Finn was the GAN, but I suspect that was just because he was so jealous of Fitzgerald. In any case, I have to agree with Papa. I read HF for the first time at age 7, and it motivated me to build a raft in my backyard and start smoking a corncob pipe, for which I was soundly thrashed. But I continued to sneak off to the nearby banks of the Brazos, where I caught and fried a catfish and then enjoyed another good smoke. One of the high points of my life.
I even contemplated dragging my raft down to the river and setting off for the Gulf of Mexico. (Good thing I didn't, because the Brazos currents would have surely capsized my little craft, and then there was that dam at Possum Kingdom.)
I quit tobacco 32 years ago, but now, at age 57, I still enjoy rereading HF, and am now reading it to my sons, 7 and 10. I substitute "negro" for the "n" word. Twain truly captured the essence of America in a book that can be appreciated on many levels. And I doubt if anyone else could have made a character with a soul so pure--Jim--so believable.
Gatsby? Just another rich Yankee!

Gatsby just might be the most overrated novel in American letters. As I Lay Dying and Absolom squared are much better. Light in August is much better. The Sound in the Fury is much MUCH better. Heck, "A Rose for Emily" and "Barn Burning," though "only" short stories, are better.
I myself (your humble servant) have personally writ the Great American Novel-- several times, in fact. Very few people are aware of that fact.
And you, Mr. Keillor, being me incredible joy. I'll remember this exchange the next time somebody takes a shot across my bow.

Walter B. in Austin:

Based on your Higher Standard For Us All comments, "Where you really an English major?" Where?

Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion are my most favorite entertainment experiences that I enjoy every week.

John F.
Fort Worth, TX

I'm guessing the PHC Web people mistyped the "where" in Walter's letter. And let's not slam Walter too hard, here. I tend to agree that Faulkner's work is pretty dirgey. Why do you think the Russian guy likes him so much? Good luck with that mid-summer light reading, Garrison.

The GAN should reflect humor as well as pathos. Americans are pretty goofy, even though some of us try very hard not to be (and those, we can satirize).

I don't think the Brontes wrote anything "American," as they were English. I appreciate the attempt to get some females on the list, though. I'd vote for Margaret Atwood but she's one of those Canadian types ("Great North American Novelist"?).

I'm a Southerner (now living in St. Paul, MN) and I read all of Faulkner's novels many years ago. I love 'As I Lay Dying' -- it was Faulkner's favorite, too -- and I really enjoyed the Snopes trilogy -- 'The Hamlet', 'The Town', & 'The Mansion'.

I'm still surprised that GG was considered the second best novel of the 20th Century in a top 100 listing from a few years ago.

Another Southern writer I really admire is Walker Percy ('The Moviegoer', 'The Second Coming'). And his 'Love in the Ruins' is still one of the best titles to any novel.

Best wishes!
Joe Harbin
Saint Paul, MN

Hooray for Garrison for recognizing the Gatsby is a good read but not the GAN. Of course, I don't know what the GAN is. Maybe it's being written right now (wonderful thought.

John in Texas, Can you have a "most" favorite?


Actually, as any check of a reasonably-sized card catalog will tell you, the Great American Novel was written by Phillip Roth. Go Mundys!

I won't wax Roth further, or even Bellow, and re: Joyce, the kingdom of Heaven is in hand when reading such lovingly distilled Aquinas.



No English major here, but it's a great treat to see you Dawgs duke it out!

Dear Mr Keillor,

I have always been your secrete admirer (intellectually) for years. You dealt with that pretty negative angry letter so gracefully and civilly that I adore you both as an English major and a great person!
My biggest wish about your shows is someday I will listen to ALL of them. I will be so happy and I can feel that I am almost a native-born American. This world will have one more literate person as well.
I have so much to write to you but not tonight. Thank you for being my best role model in dealing with difficult people in life.

Good night,

Not sure myself as to which is the GAN, but as a native Mississippian and and English major, I appreciate your consideration of Faulkner for the honorific as quintessential American novelist.

And Karen, don't forget my former neighbor, Eudora Welty, when listing the female GAN contingent.

Garrison gets it right, it was an excellent letter. Were it not so, there it would not have spawn all of these comments in reply.

"Sound and Fury" was an awakening for me unsurpassed by any other novel about the south. And yes, "Barn Burning" is a master stroke, all the more so as it is a short story written by a man more given to the novel.

Huck Finn is a treasure to which I have returned more than once since discovering it at an early age.

But folks, where is a word for Heller and Catch-22. No, it is not situated on the North American continent but is truly about about "Americans" in that era (ever contemplate that the citizens of only one of many nation states on two continents named "America" have laid claim to that moniker?). As a young Marine just back from 19 months in Viet Nam when I read the book I discovered in Heller a kindred spirit whose insight and wit was a true comfort to a warrior weary not just of war but the hypocrisy of those who led the charge.

In that I live a few miles west of Austin and enter that zoo from time to time, I must watch my back - while Gatsby is a slim volume akin to mushrooms, Catch-22 is mighty hefty!

Johnson City, TX

Umm, Kerouac? Salinger? Heller? "On the Road" and "Franny and Zooey" are easily two of the most influential books in my life. I can understand them not winning the title of the GAN, but surely they should at least be mentioned...

Isaac Crawford

I know the discussion is about novels but I thinks we should include some of the great playwrights...Tennessee Williams, Thurber, Thorton Wilder. I think Mark Twain is one the great american novelists, Faulkner does remind me of a russian novelist, but his screenplays were tight, Fitzgerald was lyrical, Hemingway concise and to the point, and nobody has yet to mention any of Mr Keillor's body of work. There are so many books and so many different regions of the country, I don't see how one book can be considered the Great American Novel. By the way Philip Roth wrote abook called the great american novel but I think it was non fiction.

I would have been surprised to find consensus on such a subjective subject as the GAN but not to see Moby Dick in the mix comes as both a surprise and a disappointment.

Who in their right mind would pick the mindless drivel of Fitzgerald over the pure genius of Faulkner? No contest!

However, Melville was not mentioned, Can one really discuss the GAN without mentioning Moby Dick? Get Real!

Garrison Keillor, only mentioned in passing re the Great American Novel, as to his own works, takes the prize for me, with "Homegrown Democrat." Garrison is above all else, political and HD describes beautifully his take on what could be a better American society. From his extraordinary memories of his first teachers to how quickly fire departments repond in Democratic v Republican communities, should be required reading in these highly political times. robert ashley martin, san francisco, ca originally from Minnesota

That Faulkner has written the Great American Novel is not up for discussion in my opinion. Which one of his novels is the GAN? That is the question. I would have to say the Sound and the Fury is it. But, my personal favorite has to be As I Lay Dying. Faulkner like Shakespeare breathed life into a region and set a fictional humanity into motion for us. He deserves so much more credit that he is given.

Elizabeth Little
Houston, Texas

A higher standard --

Garrison, I agree with you that Gatsby is an empty suit. Most of FSF's characters are too shallow for me. Faulkner has a certain fascination for me when in the mood, but, Absalom, Absalom was tough going. I believe it is the longest sentence ever written. Even so, Faulkner's genius is worthy of respect.

Steve Hayes

From this side of the pond, where we know a thing or two about good writing ( Stratford upon Avon is just up the road), I'd have to agree with you GK that Faulkner is the beacon that shines out in American literature, but surely, you'd have to find a little space for Steinbeck and Mark Twain on that podium ?

Walter, it is one thing to say you may never listen to the show again. That is certainly your choice. But this one comment made you so angry that shows you thought you enjoyed in the past you can now declare to not have enjoyed?
Sorry Walter, but my degree isn't in English, it is in Physics. You are claiming to change the past and, however angry you may be right now, you cannot do that. You either enjoyed those shows at the time or you didn't. And since you refer to "any of them" something obviously kept you coming back for more.

All are good candidates, especially HK, in fact Twain may have been right at the time he said it, but I would put my money on All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. Forget both movie versions, neither of which does justice to one terrific story which is worthy of the title GAN.

While I agree that several of Faulkner's novels are roughly a 57 times better than The Great Gatsby (As I Lay Dying is probably my favorite), I also think "Faulkner's dirges" is HILARIOUS and so is "became disoriented." So my thanks to both Mr. Keillor and Walter B. for a discussion of American literature that gave me a laugh. That doesn't happen as often as it ought to.

English minor -- not sure that counts for much but it's the best I've got.

Previous Post:
« Midsommar Mix Up

Next Post:
Only a Diversion »

Post to the Host Archive

Complete Post to the Host Archive

American Public Media © |   Terms and Conditions   |   Privacy Policy