Recommended Reading List: An American Literature Survey

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I’ve enjoyed posting themed reading lists here from time to time, and so I thought I’d try to make it a regular monthly feature. I’m going to start with a retrospective of fiction and poetry that I think represents the American experience over its history. These are the books that I would assign if I were teaching an American literature course, but I found them all entertaining reads, as well.

Anthology, American Gothic Tales – American gothic and the short story.

Michael Cunningham, The Hours – Contemporary American writing.

Emily Dickinson, Selected Poems – Pre-modernist poetry.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby – The myth of the American dream.

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections – The modern American dysfunctional family.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter Colonial America and Puritanism.

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 – World War II.

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises – Expatriate Americans.

Washington Irving, Rip Van Winkle – Early Americana.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Psychology and conformity in mid-20th-century America.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird – The great American novel.

Valerie Martin, Property – Slavery.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian – The American West.

Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter – The American South.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick – American Romanticism.

Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Stories and Poems – Birth of genre fiction, including horror, science fiction and the detective mystery.

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye – Coming of age in America.

Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels – The American Civil War.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – The Antebellum South.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass – The American experience in poetry.

Notes: I realize this list is woefully incomplete. For instance, minority and immigrant writers are not at all represented, some time periods have been elided, and many great writers are not present. I wanted to keep the list short (20 books, if you count Twain’s two as one) and accessible, and I also limited it to my absolute favorites. But I am hoping it will spark some discussion and suggestions from you for further reading. Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

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5 Responses to “Recommended Reading List: An American Literature Survey”

  1. Great list! I’m teaching an early American Lit course right now, which is a bit of a drag since I don’t like the early stuff that much. I would looooove to teach a more contemporary class where I could include books like The Hours. Great stuff!

  2. Thanks, maybe I gave you some ideas. Of course, I’m biased toward more contemporary literature.

  3. Good list–and I have been teaching American lit for almost 30 years. :) I blog about classics including Catcher and Mockingbird on you list…and have shirts celebrating these works. Love your passion for books!

  4. 4 Jackie

    Terrific list- great discussion topic, but hard to limit the list! What about Hawthorne (Scarlet Letter), Thoreau (Walden), Emerson (Self Reliance)? Not to mention great writers like Wendell Berry, Susan Sontag, Edith Wharton, Steinbeck, Marilynne Robinson, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Conner, Faulkner, Upton Sinclair….it’s like Sophie’s choice, which beloved do you part with? (OK, that’s hyperbole but you get my point.)

    Another interesting project would be to write a list of books that may be slightly lesser known, but when read together, might give the reader a sense of the American “experience” – Tim O’Brien, Lorrie Moore, Rick Bass, Barry Lopez, Mario Puzo…again, though, how could you edit it?

    It’s a big country – lotsa books :-)

  5. Jackie: I agree — limiting the list makes it more challenging and fun to put together, I think. I struggled with leaving off Steinbeck, O’Conner and Faulkner, who are also favorites, although it wasn’t so hard with Emerson and Wharton, neither of whom I really like.

    I like your idea of a lesser known list. That would be a very interesting reading project. To your suggestions, I might add Jonathan Lethem. I can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head, but that would be a fun list to compile.

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