The Atlantic Magazine's The Great American Novels List Includes Professor Akhil Sharma's "Family Life"

Headshot of Akhil Sharma

Earlier this year, The Atlantic published its most recent list of "The Great American Novels." This list includes great American authors like James Baldwin, Judy Blume, and Ralph Ellison, well-known novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, and Family Life written by Duke English's Akhil Sharma, Adele Schiff Professor of the Practice. The Atlantic's list places Sharma's Family Life in the company of literary giants like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Richard Wright's Native Son, all of which delve into complex themes of identity, society, and personal struggle.

Over a century and a half ago, writer John William DeForest introduced the concept of the ‘Great American Novel,’ which he noted had not been written yet. The Atlantic has taken up this challenge in its ongoing effort to define this American canon. It describes American Novels as first published in the United States, focusing on the past 100 years. To ensure a comprehensive and informed selection, The Atlantic sought the input of expert scholars, critics, and novelists from the outlet and beyond for its “The Great American Novels” article. They compiled a list of 136 novels, including 45 debut novels, 9 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners, 3 children's books, and 60 works that schools and libraries have banned.

"Together, they represent the best of what novels can do: challenge us, delight us, pull us in, and then release us, a little smarter and a little more alive than we were before. You have to read them." - The Atlantic

Gal Beckerman, Senior Editor for Books, The Atlantic, describes Sharma's Family Life:

Book Cover for “Family Life"

"This short, gutting novel begins as a standard story of immigration, with the Mishra family's move from Delhi to Queens in the mid-1970s, but becomes a portrait of grief and its warping power. At the center of Family Life is an accident: The elder Mishra son, the confident, successful Birju, slams his head after diving into a swimming pool; brain damage renders him unable to speak or walk. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Ajay, Birju's younger brother, who is left to navigate a family that barely functions and parents who have seemingly lost the ability to love or, at least, really see Ajay and his pain. This sorrow circles around Birju, who lies inert in the family's home, as Mrs. Mishra brings healers to try to "wake" him and Ajay lies down next to his brother and shares his deepest secrets. In Sharma's story, America is filled with new challenges, but nothing as difficult as the country of sadness where Ajay and his parents find themselves wandering alone together." 

The New York Times selected Sharma's second published novel, Family Life as one of "The 10 Best Books of 2014." This autobiographical novel won the 2015 Folio Prize and the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award.

“The novel is called “Family Life,” and it is based on my own experience. The novel tells the story of an Indian family that comes to America in 1979 and, two years later, suffers a terrible tragedy.” – Akhil Sharma The New Yorker “A Novel Like a Rocket” (April 7, 2014)

Duke English congratulates Professor Sharma on having his talent and Family Life, acknowledged among revered classics and best-selling novels. Being included among these literary greats illustrates the writing talent that he combines with his teaching skills making him a worthy asset to the Duke English department.

Ways to view the “The Great American Novels” listing:

Goodreads listing of  "The Great American Novels" by The Atlantic

Reddit posting of The Atlantic’s “The Great American Novels”