Great American Novels…

I have been pondering American fiction for some time. I don’t really read very much of it, though actually when I had a look at my shelves the other day there were much more American authors than I thought. I guess really what I mean it that I haven’t read many of the ‘American Greats’ and when I have, with the exception of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, I have yet to be really bowled over by them. I didn’t mind F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ but it didn’t bowl me over like I was expecting at all. There are also some, ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ I am thinking of you, that I haven’t loved at all and have felt a bit silly for not doing as apparently the great and good think they are marvellous.

This week Thomas and I discussed American novels on the Readers (you can hear the episode here)  where I admit my favourite American novel is Peyton Place, a cult underground novel that if you’ve not read then you must.

So, as always I would like your help. What are your greatest American novels? What lesser known ones must be hunted down?

79 Comments

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79 responses to “Great American Novels…

  1. For me it would be underworld Delillo of recent times a real look at second half of 20th century America of recent books naked singularity is another epic in the American dream and justices system all the best stu

    • Are there any Delillo books that you would recommend in particular Stu? I have always been a bit nervous of his books. Isn’t it funny how we think some books are out of our depth to a point we avoid them, in this case because I think it will make me seem stupid.

  2. The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books ever. Having said that, I am not big fan of that list of important, 20th-century novels that one must read mainly because there are few (or none) women on them.

    I highly recommend you The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It is one of those forgotten classics in the cannonical list of American novels.

    • I have read both of those Elena. I liked The Bell Jar a lot more than The Great Gatsby which for some reason left me slightly cold.

      I think this list of the best books are very interesting, who makes all the decisions behind them after all?

      • I studied English and American literature and I am one of those annoying canon-contesters. Of course, the canon is great, but so is what is outside of it, mainly for the only reason of being so! I love women writers and they are not usually part of the canon, so… To each her/his own.

        I once had a terrible argument with a blogger who ONLY read classics (she had never read much previously) and I told her to get outside the American and English canon. Did not work at all. Her loss, I guess.

      • I am all for canon contesting. Though according to Matt at the bottom of these comments I am not allowed to contest the classics as I don’t know enough history to understand.

      • Oh well, poor us. We can only try.

  3. Kats

    Blimey, I think that post went out a bit too soon? 😉

  4. I think you should check out some of the African American greats like Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, etc. You should also check out William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Carson McCullers, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Hemingway, Truman Capote, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, etc. The list is long. I think you should pick 10 that interest you and give them a try. I’m not sure what you’re expecting but I think you should go into it not trying to expect anything in particular. Just experience it and see where it takes you.🙂

    • This. ^^^

      I was also going to suggest authors like Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. (And don’t forget Ralph Ellison.)

      My list could go on and on…

    • That sounds like a brilliant idea Didi. I have read one of Baldwin’s books, Giovanni’s Room which I didn’t love as much as I was expecting too. I have also read one of Morrison’s, Home, but I am not sure that is her best book though I liked it.

      I shall expect nothing but the unexpected.

      • For Morrison my favourites are The Bluest Eye and Beloved, however I did like Home. Baldwin I’m no expert yet but I did enjoyIf Beale Street Could Talk. Go Tell it on the Mountain I read too long ago to remember the story. I’m due to reread it and to give Giovanni’s Room a try soon too. You could also try Richard Wright’s Native Son.

      • Thank you for the recommends. With Morrison many people say Beloved is the best which makes me think I should work towards it. Would you agree? In which case I may go for The Bluest Eye next.

      • Yes it is short while being “meaty”. You could also try Sula too if you’re still not ready for Beloved, however I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it. What a masterpiece! When Morrison writes it’s like a photographer who takes a picture from all angles. It’s amazing! She really makes you feel a lot and her writing can be challenging.

      • Those are the ones I will try first. Thanks for the recommendations Didi. Much appreciated.

      • Can’t wait to hear what you think. Happy reading….

  5. Jen

    I didn’t like the Great Gatsby much, either. Some of my favorites: Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell; Sophie’s Choice, William Styron; East of Eden, John Steinbeck; All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren; Amos, To Ride A Dead Horse, Stanley Gordon West; A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry; The Secret History, Donna Tartt.

    • Gone With The Wind… I think that is a book for my retirement, though I feel as I know the film quite well I might not be fussed by it. Odd. Sophie’s Choice I simply must read though I think it will break my heart.

      I have read The Secret History, I am unsure about reading the Goldfinch though which is now on my shelves.

  6. I teach American Lit!

    Gatsby…eh. My two top favorites are East of Eden/Steinbeck and Invisible Man/Ralph Ellison. Chopin’s The Awakening is short but pretty wonderful. A more recent read would be The Known World by Edward P. Jones. It’s one of my top reads from the past several years. Toni Morrison is pretty fantastic, and Sula is one of my favorites. Also, if you haven’t read Middlesex by Eugenides, I’d highly recommend it.

    You also can’t go wrong with some Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett for American crime fiction.

    Do you like short stories? Because we have some really incredible short story writers – Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Andre Dubus.

    Ok, I’m sorry for rambling, but I do love American fiction.

  7. Really enjoyed listening to this podcast and agree with you about Peyton Place – I was pleasantly surprised! Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner is probably my favorite book, but his autobiographic novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain is also wonderful. I highly recommend East of Eden and the non-fiction Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, too. Willa Cather and Eudora Welty are also well worth reading.

    • Peyton Place is amazing isn’t it? I must read Return to Peyton Place actually. Crossing To Safety is a book I have on the TBR and want to read in the not too far of future, I might suggest it for Hear Read This when it is my turn to pick a classic. Willa Cather I must try too and Travels With Charley, so many books so little time.

  8. My faves (well, some of…)

    Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace,
    The Border Trilogy – Cormac McCarthy
    Beloved – Toni Morrison
    Gavity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon,
    Young Hearts Crying – Richard Yates,
    The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown.

    Tom.
    P.s. There must be loads of others I can’t think of right now.

    p.p.s :That last one’s a joke..

    • Dave Foster Wallace petrifies me. Petrifies me. Richard Yates is an author I really want to read. I think I have Easter Parade and Revolutionary Road.

      Dan Brown… is that to try and catch me out and see if I am paying attention😉

  9. Russell Gray

    The great American novel seems to mean something different for each of us. So, here are my suggestions.

    The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison : an easier read for her, but packs a punch
    A Lost Lady – Willa Cather : any Cather is great, but I think this one is up your alley
    The Awakining – Kate Chopin : easy to read
    Of Mice and Men – Steinbeck : stick to his short stuff, as he stays more on point
    ——–
    I am a huge Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy fan. Though it is hard to know where to start with them. But I would try All the Pretty Horses by McCarthy.

    But my funal plea is for Stoner, a truly perfect book. I read it this year and it rocketed into my top 5 favorites.

    Russell

    • Stoner is currently huge over here, it has been one of the most talked about books in the UK, looks like something similar is bubbling with Crossing To Safety too. I shall add all your other suggestions to my TBR Russell. Must read more McCarthy.

  10. Wallace Stegner is an excellent writer (esp. his “Crossing to Safety” and “Angle of Repose”). Steinbeck is powerful for the most part, and Anne Tyler writes domestic novels set on the East Coast for the most part. Chopin’s “The Awakening” is a super novella and forward-thinking for its time. (Set in Louisiana.) “The Wind” by Dorothy Scarborough is set in West Texas in the early pioneer days – it’s the story of a young woman sent from the East Coast (bastion of civilization) to West Texas and who has a tough time adjusting to the wide open space and the wind. Very good and reminiscent of “The Yellow Wallpaper” story…

  11. I’m not sure whether books should reach a certain age before they can be considered ‘Classic’ or Great but I really enjoyed Sir Hustvedt’ s ‘What I loved’ – which sees it’s art-critic narrator looking back on life and cleverly, but engagingly tackling big themes like love, death, art and family alongside other concerns such as what makes us perceive our own lives and families in a particular way at a particular time. At it’s heart is a great, gripping family narrative with fascinating, and well handled thought-provoking twist of sorts.

    Also highly recommend William Maxwell’s ‘So long see you tomorrow’ – a look back on a brief teenage friendship that is torn apart by a tragic event. A wise, elegiac, moving book about friendship and how events in your early years can shape the rest of your life.

    Of the usual suspects I think Moby Dick is well-worth persevering with if you have the time and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is perhaps the best American novel of all.

    • Hustvedt’s books have always interested me, but I have always decided against them and I am not quite sure why. The mention of art puts me off a teeny bit but only as I have read a few books with an art twist and they have fallen very flat with me, one was The Woman Upstairs.

      William Maxwell is one of the authors I should have read by now, bad Simon. Moby Dick is full of boats isn’t it. Boats and art are not my favourite subjects. Not that I am difficult to please at all😉

      • True, there’s no escaping boats in Moby Dick. Think the Maxwell is your best bet in that case. Another to mention – which may well have already been suggested – for sheer page-turning storytelling pleasure – Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

      • I might skip Moby Dick then maybe. Or else leave it till my retirement. I liked The Secret History a lot. I have The Goldfinch but am not so keen on reading it and am not 100% sure why.

  12. Ugh, “The Catcher in the Rye.” One of the most overrated books of all time, in my opinion. (Though I would give Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” a read–it’s very different from “Catcher.”) If you are going for more classic novels, I recommend Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” which is set in New Mexico, and “My Antonia,” about a Bohemian immigrant family in Iowa. I also love Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” and “The Pearl.” If you’re looking for something written more recently, I recommend Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.”

    A lot of people don’t like “The Great Gatsby” very much and I think it’s because every single one of us were forced to read it for school alongside the horrible “The Scarlet Letter” and whatever joyless Hemingway novel they decided to throw at us that year.

    • My mother agrees with me and you about Catcher, I have never understood why that is such a classic, I thought it was a bit of a yawn fest. Franny and Zooey weirdly I have heard rated very highly by some other people too that might be worth me dipping into. Cather is becoming a must read it seems.

      I have read no Hemingway, I am a heathen.

  13. I love Fitzgerald and am growing to love Hemingway. Although Moby Dick was a chore in parts, loved other bits, read for me, reading it has enlightened me to everything it went on to influence. Modern Americans I adore are Paul Auster and Annie Proulx, and Richard Russo. I particularly like books infused with ‘pioneer spirit’ too – Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage is a classic Western published in 1912(ish) and was wonderful, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson which I read last week was a little gem.

    • Richard Russo I have read and I actually really liked. I must try more of his. I will look up Grey and Johnson, though I am worried with all the horses I might not like westerns😉

  14. Anything by Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez, Lorraine Lopez and John Kennedy Toole. I would recommend Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut and A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole – you will love them both!

  15. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Gone with the Wind is a must and We have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  16. Have you read John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany? It seems like one that would be right up your alley. I was pondering more about what would be considered “southern gothic,” and kept coming up with short story writers: Flannery O’Connor (who I haven’t read a lot of, but will remedy soon) and Shirley Jackson. Still trying to come up with novel titles for this genre.

    • Susan, I resisted Owen Meany for years. But so many people with such varying tastes kept recommending it that I finally picked it up (back in 1996!) and I not only ended up loving it, but it had a pretty big impact on my life at the time as well.

    • Ooh if you think it is right up my alley then I will definitely try it. I think I have A Widow for a Year in the TBR but would need to check that, which means sorting it out and making the spread sheet I lost all over again😉

  17. I’m not well versed enough in American novels myself, but I certainly agree with the Of Mice and Men, Vonnegut and A Confederacy of Dunces suggestions! The Sun Also Rises is another gooden. Fear and Loathing or On the Road if you’re a fan of the beat generation (I’m not). Beloved by Toni Morrison, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Appointment in Samarra, Revolutionary Road, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gone with the Wind, The Color Purple.🙂

  18. sharkell

    I second a couple of recommendations from others – The Colour Purple by Alice Walker is an amazing book as is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Middlesex by Jeffrey Euginedes. I also enjoy anything by Cormac McCarthy, Ann Patchett and Anne Tyler.

    • In Cold Blood is genius (I nearly said bloody genius there, oh dear) and just one of the best non fiction books I have ever read in my life. Ever. I want to try Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Anne Tyler is AMAZING, how did I not mention her?

  19. Edith Wharton is, as you know, amazing. I’ll also throw in a recommendation for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith which I’m not sure is an American Great but is a very American novel and a great book. Some more modern American books/authors that I especially admire: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (dysfunctional farming family in the midwest), Doc by Mary Doria Russell (a more personal look at Doc Holliday), and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (if you’re in the mood for something melancholy but beautiful). I seem to inadvertently be putting a plug in to check out all the female American authors:) Seriously, it wasn’t planned!

    • We are fully in tune with Wharton, in fact I now want to curl up with one of hers (as I have only read one so I have got quite a few ahead of me) right now. Sigh. Jane Smiley my mother likes a lot. Mary Doria Russell I think Ann Kingman really likes, so that’s two points for her. Marilynne Robinson I simply don’t get on with sadly.

  20. I thought Easy of Eden by Steinbeck was riveting.
    Other books of note – Middlesex (Eugenides), Gone with the Wind (Mitchell) and more recently The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Chabon)

    • I tried a different Chabon, because I thought that I would love his books yet I didn’t get on with it. I cant remember what it was called but I remember lots of people being murdered and being worried about what was going on in the cellar.

  21. Moby-Dick by a landslide! And Middlesex, for a modern novel.

  22. Alice Walker is fantastic, although I know the dialect in The Color Purple can be tough to read if you’re not used to the way it sounds. I haven’t read any of James Baldwin’s fiction yet, but his essays are spectacular. Also Angels in America for a play, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for nonfiction. But especially Angels in America.

    • I am not bothered by dialects I seem to plough through them. Kerry Hudson’s book was brilliant because of it as was Jenni Fagan’s and I have just finished Eimear McBride’s book which spins language on its head too. That was a long winded answer to saying dialect wouldn’t bother me wasn’t it?

  23. The Bell Jar is my favorite. I also really like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

  24. Kacy

    For Southern Gothic, a genre that I rather enjoy being a native-born Southerner, I highly recommend Flannery O’Connor. I love her collected short stories. Start with “Parker’s Back” or “The Displaced Person.”

    American novels I enjoyed: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; The Moviegoer by Walker Percy; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    More recent titles: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (although it is about North Korea) and Extremely Loud and Increadibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

  25. Col

    I wouldn’t know where to start in listing those I like the most – so I’ll go with the one I read most recently. I absolutely loved The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – I really thought it was good enough to be classed as a “great American novel!”

  26. I’m an American who tends to prefer Brit Lit, so I feel your pain. But, considering that 3 of your top 5 US books were by Southern authors (Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and Cormac McCarthy), and that you enjoyed Eudora Welty, may I suggest some Southern lit? I particularly adore Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is a great one, as well. For a modern offering, I’ve heard Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin is a great Southern mystery. Finally, on a slightly different track, Shirley Jackson might be a good choice, as she writes creepy books in the ilk of Susan Hill.

  27. Matt

    I’m unaware of your education, but perhaps the reason they never clicked is because you don’t understand what the authors are actually saying? American literature is deeply entwined with history, and if you don’t understand our history then it’ll go right over the reader’s head.

    I would state by reading Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” and some poetry from first and second generation puritans. Then educate yourself very thoroughly on everything Puritan and Trancendental.

    Fitzgerald was talking directly to early American authors in his novel. If you haven’t studied those, no wonder it didn’t click. In short, it was about the corruption of ideals the early authors wrote about. For lack of better words, some real shit was going down in “Gatsby” if you knew your history.

    I would start reading the American classics in chronological order starting with “The Scarlett Letter.” Moby Dick is arguably the first true American novel because Hawthorne still wrote in romantic structure, but later authors talk to Hawthorne more frequently so I would propose that his novel is the more important in terms of understand American literature as a whole.

    In short, our authors wrote about real world problems. You have to be deeply educated in our history or else it’ll make no sense.

    • I don’t see how your education should have an effect on my understanding the best authors can surely translate their stories and themes to anyone so I find that idea a bit pompous. I read avidly and thats an education in itself.

      Why would an author only write for other authors and not readers? Gatsby has worked the world over so again find that an odd stance on it. I know the history of the period in Gatsby and in Grapes of Wrath but that doesn’t mean I have to love them. They didn’t work for me, they do for many other people but I do think a lot of people follow the ‘oh its a classic’ line of thought without actually thinking about questioning it.

      Fiction is one of the ways we learn about history isn’t it?

  28. Pingback: May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes | Savidge Reads

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