I feel unAmerican to admit that I wasn’t a HUGE fan of classic American literature. It’s almost painful for me to read Steinbeck, and Hemingway with some of his titles underwhelmed, and don’t get me started on Nathaniel Hawthorne. Unfortunately, during my high school experience, those were the titles that my teachers loved to force feed during American Lit classes. Sophomore year almost killed me by reading nothing but Steinbeck and Hawthorne, almost to the point of that I wanted to put all classic American lit in a box and hide it away, never to venture that way again. That is until my grandmother handed me Red Badge of Courage and the complete works of Walt Whitman. And I learned not to stereotype… here are my favorite classic American works, and the ones I think you should read.

If you want to feel patriotic, pick up Walt Whitman. His poems invoke the birth of the United States, sometimes sad, sometimes hopeful, when I read Whitman’s poetry I became interested in American history, and the tragedy and sacrifice that our nation was founded upon.

“My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will”

Walt Whitman is America’s world poet—a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. In Leaves of Grass (1855), he celebrated democracy, nature, love, and friendship. This monumental work chanted praises to the body as well as to the soul, and found beauty and reassurance even in death.

Along with Emily Dickinson, Whitman is regarded as one of America’s most significant nineteenth century poets. (From Poetry Foundation)

I was never interested in the Civil War until I picked up Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. To me it was another war and in a series of wars that I had to learn about in school. As a teen I had no concept of what war really was. Until I read this book, which focuses on the humanity of war, and a character that isn’t a hero.

During an unnamed battle, 18-year-old private Henry Fleming survives what he considers to be a lost cause by escaping into a nearby wood, deserting his battalion. He finds a group of injured men in which one of the group, the “Tattered Soldier”, asks Henry, who’s often referred to as “The Youth”, where he’s wounded. Henry, embarrassed that he’s whole, wanders thru the forest. He ultimately decides that running was the best thing, & that he’s a small part of the army responsible for saving himself. When he learns that his battalion had won the battle, Henry feels guilty. As a result, he returns to his battalion & is injured when a cannon operator hits him in the head because he wouldn’t let go of his arm. When he returns to camp, the other soldiers believe he was harmed by a bullet grazing him in battle. The next morning he goes into battle for a 3rd time. While looking for a stream from which to attain water, he discovers from the commanding officer that his regiment has a lackluster reputation. The officer speaks casually about sacrificing Henry’s regiment because they’re nothing more than “mule drivers” & “mud diggers”. With no regiments to spare, the general orders his men forward. In the final battle, Henry becomes one of the best fighters in his battalion as well as the flag bearer, finally proving his courage as a man.

The first book that made me think. Really think. Bradbury made me fall in love with science fiction and taught me that looking to the future can be the greatest source of hope for the present.

Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.

At first I read Poe because I was a little goth, before that was a thing…and if you were kind of dark, and a bit introspective…well you had to read Poe. And then I really got Annabel Lee. {insert mind blown gif}

Poe’s stature as a major figure in world literature is primarily based on his ingenious and profound short stories, poems, and critical theories, which established a highly influential rationale for the short form in both poetry and fiction. Regarded in literary histories and handbooks as the architect of the modern short story, Poe was also the principal forerunner of the “art for art’s sake” movement in nineteenth-century European literature. Whereas earlier critics predominantly concerned themselves with moral or ideological generalities, Poe focused his criticism on the specifics of style and construction that contributed to a work’s effectiveness or failure. In his own work, he demonstrated a brilliant command of language and technique as well as an inspired and original imagination. Poe’s poetry and short stories greatly influenced the French Symbolists of the late nineteenth century, who in turn altered the direction of modern literature. It is this philosophical and artistic transaction that accounts for much of Poe’s importance in literary history. (From Poetry Foundation)

A bit confusing at times, Faulkner has been often imitated, but it usually turns into someone creating a big old hot mess. This isn’t a huge favorite, but reading Faulkner is an adventure….and that is always fun.

Absalom, Absalom! is considered by many to be William Faulkner’s masterpiece. Although the novel’s complex and fragmented structure poses considerable difficulty to readers, the book’s literary merits place it squarely in the ranks of America’s finest novels. The story concerns Thomas Sutpen, a poor man who finds wealth and then marries into a respectable family. His ambition and extreme need for control bring about his ruin and the ruin of his family. Sutpen’s story is told by several narrators, allowing the reader to observe variations in the saga as it is recounted by different speakers. This unusual technique spotlights one of the novel’s central questions: To what extent can people know the truth about the past?

A childhood favorite, Little Women was given to me by my mother, and I gave it to my little girl.

Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth–four “little women” enduring hardships and enjoying adventures in Civil War New England

The charming story of the March sisters, Little Women has been adored for generations. Readers have rooted for Laurie in his pursuit of Jo’s hand, cried over little Beth’s untimely death, and dreamed of traveling through Europe with old Aunt March and Amy. Aspiring writers have found inspiration in Jo’s devotion to her writing. In this simple, enthralling tale, Louisa May Alcott has created four of American literature’s most beloved women.

One of my favorites, and a novel I’ve read a few times, watched all the movies and cemented the love of the 20s in my mind.

The Great Gatsby is a novel by the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald. First published in 1925, it is set on Long Island’s North Shore and in New York City from spring to autumn of 1922.

The novel takes place following the First World War. American society enjoyed prosperity during the “roaring” 1920s as the economy soared. At the same time, Prohibition, the ban on the sale and manufacture of alcohol as mandated by the Eighteenth Amendment, made millionaires out of bootleggers. After its republishing in 1945 and 1953, it quickly found a wide readership and is today widely regarded as a paragon of the Great American Novel, and a literary classic.

Set in the POV of a dog, The Call of the Wild is also a childhood favorite of mine. I read this book and became fascinated with dog sledding, gold mining, and life in the West during the gold rush. (Nothing like the movie, read the book!)

Life is good for Buck in Santa Clara Valley, where he spends his days eating and sleeping in the golden sunshine. But one day a treacherous act of betrayal leads to his kidnap, and he is forced into a life of toil and danger. Dragged away to be a sledge dog in the harsh and freezing cold Yukon, Buck must fight for his survivial. Can he rise above his enemies and become the master of his realm once again?

I loved the movie, but the book is different. Different, but the same… I read the book after I read the movie and I can’t decide if that was a disservice to the book. Either way, it’s a good one to read, Capote in general is a great experience.

It’s New York in the 1940s, where the martinis flow from cocktail hour till breakfast at Tiffany’s. And nice girls don’t, except, of course, Holly Golightly. Pursued by Mafia gangsters and playboy millionaires, Holly is a fragile eyeful of tawny hair and turned-up nose, a heart-breaker, a perplexer, a traveller, a tease. She is irrepressibly ‘top banana in the shock department’, and one of the shining flowers of American fiction.

Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, is my favorite from the author.

A roman à clef about a group of American and English expatriates on an excursion from Paris’s Left Bank to Pamplona for the July fiesta and its climactic bull fight, a journey from the center of a civilization spiritually bankrupted by the First World War to a vital, God-haunted world in which faith and honor have yet to lose their currency, the novel captured for the generation that would come to be called “Lost” the spirit of its age, and marked Ernest Hemingway as the preeminent writer of his time.

2 Comments

  1. Lover Of Romance

    oh this is such a great list of books here!! Some of them I have read and some of them I plan on reading soon. Thanks for sharing this list, its always good to remember the vital american literature.

  2. Aj @ Read All The Things!

    I’ve read most of these. I think you picked out some good ones. I remember taking an American lit class in high school, and I was like, “Yeah, not going to read this stuff.” They did let us read Stephen King in that class, so that made up for it.