An Introduction To Classic American Literature In 20 Books

If you've ever wanted to get a good grounding in classic American Literature you won't go wrong with our list of 20 famous books. There is a mixture of poems, novels and memoirs which will open your eyes to many different areas and cultures in the United States. Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou and Mark Twain are just some of the classic authors we have included. If you have always heard people talk about characters such as Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty and Holly Golightly then these 20 classic American book picks are for you.

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If you've ever wanted to get a good grounding in classic American Literature you won't go wrong with our list of 20 famous books. There is a mixture of poems, novels and memoirs which will open your eyes to many different areas and cultures in the United States. Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou and Mark Twain are just some of the classic authors we have included. If you have always heard people talk about characters such as Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty and Holly Golightly then these 20 classic American book picks are for you.

Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man tells the story of a young, university black man who fights to succeed and thrive in a segregated society that won't acknowledge him as a person. Through a succession of recollections in the form of dreams and memories, Invisible Man, recounts the anonymous narrator's mental and physical journey from naïve ignorance to enlightenment and knowledge. 

The novel begins in the South of America (Greenwood, South Carolina), but the majority of the action takes place in the North (Harlem, New York) during the pre-Civil Rights era, when discriminatory laws prevented black Americans from having the same basic human rights as their white counterparts.

Ralph Ellison's 1952 book Invisible Man was made available through Random House. It discusses a number of the social and cultural obstacles that African Americans faced in the early 20th century, such as black nationalism, the connection between black identity and Marxism, reformist racial policies, as well as issues with individuality and self-identification.

The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson - Emily Dickinson

Since the early fragmented publishing of her poems, Emily Dickinson has earned enormous popularity and an ever-growing reputation among critics. She is nowadays acknowledged as one of America's greatest poets. The first three volumes of Emily Dickinson's poetry were released after her death in 1890, 1891, and 1896. She acquired the reputation in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, for being a recluse who rarely left her house.

Emily Dickinson was a skilled observer who tackled universal topics like the beauty of nature, personal identity, death and immortality. Her most famous poems include, '"Hope" is the thing with feathers', 'Because I could not stop for Death' and I'm Nobody! Who are you?.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn - Betty Smith

Five parts make up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, each of which focuses on a different time period in the early 20th century. This novel, which was published in 1943, chronicles the struggles of an immigrant family but focusses on Mary "Francie" Nolan. She is an impoverished but aspirational adolescent girl living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City.

It can be suggested that this narrative was based on the author's life because Betty Smith, is the oldest child of German immigrants.

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

American author F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby in 1925. In the novel, first-person narrator Nick Carraway describes encounters with mystery millionaire Jay Gatsby and Gatsby's fixation with getting back together with his ex-lover, Daisy Buchanan. The story is set in the Jazz Age on Long Island, close to New York City.

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner

William Faulkner wrote the  Southern Gothic book As I Lay Dying in 1930. It is consistently rated as one of the top novels of the 20th century and was Faulkner's fifth book.

Over the course of 59 chapters, the novel is recounted by 15 different characters. It tells the tale of Addie Bundren's death and her poor, rural family's struggle and motivations to carry out her wish to be buried in Jefferson, Mississippi.

Addie is present in the opening chapters of the book, although she is unwell. She waits by a window, expecting to pass away soon, and watches as her firstborn child, Cash, preparing her coffin. 

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou

The 1969 book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicles the young and formative years of American author and poet Maya Angelou. It is a coming-of-age story that acts as the first of a seven-volume series and demonstrates how personal courage and a passion for literature can help people overcome racism and tragedy. It is regarded as one of the most beautifully astute memoirs of a Black woman growing in the United States in the 20th century.

Maya Angelou skillfully brings back her youth in the 1930s American South with her grandma. She experiences the horrific trauma of being raped by her mother's partner and learns about the supremacy of the white people in the other area of her city.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe

The anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in two volumes in 1852, and had a significant impact on American ideas regarding African Americans and slavery.

The protagonist is an enslaved man who is portrayed as a virtuous and noble man. Tom saves the life of Eva, a kind young girl, while being taken by boat to the New Orleans auction. Eva's grateful father immediately buys Tom.

The novel's ultimate, overarching theme, is an investigation into the nature of Christianity and how Christian theology is inherently contradictory to slavery.

The Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger

American author J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was first serialised from 1945 to 1946 and then published as a book in 1951. Although it was written with adults in mind, teenagers frequently read it because of its themes of angst and estrangement as well as its condemnation of society's superficiality. The novel also addresses complex subjects including melancholy and sex as well as innocence, identity, belonging, loss, and connection. Holden Caulfield, the primary character, has emerged as a symbol of adolescent rebellion.

After World War II, a despondent 17-year-old  resides in a sanatorium in California. After his discharge within a month, he intends to go live with his brother D.B., an author and veteran who he resents for becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.

Slaughterhouse - Five - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

A science fiction-infused anti-war book by Kurt Vonnegut published in 1969. From his early years, through his service as an American soldier and chaplain's assistant during World War II, to the post-war years, it recounts Billy Pilgrim's life and adventures, with Billy periodically travelling through time. The main focus of the text is Billy's capture by the German Army and his survival as a prisoner of war during the Allied firebombing of Dresden, an ordeal that Vonnegut himself underwent while serving as an American serviceman.

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

American author Harper Lee wrote the book To Kill a Mockingbird  in 1960 and it became popular immediately. It is commonly read in middle and high schools in the United States. It recounts a lawyer's advice to his children while defending the actual Mockingbird, a black man wrongfully accused of assaulting a white girl. Harper Lee tackles the absurdity of adult attitudes toward race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s via the youthful perspectives of Scout and Jem Finch with enthusiastic humour. The tenacity of one man's fight for justice wounded the conscience of a town rife with prejudice, violence, and hypocrisy.

Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

American writer Joseph Heller wrote the satirical war novel Catch-22 in 1953. During the height of the Second World War, Captain John Yossarian, a hesitant US army bombardier, is marooned on a Mediterranean island. He spins deliriously while trying to hold on to his sanity and avoid dying on another futile assignment while navigating a maze of illogical rules and regulations. But with a cast of quirky, misguided, and plain mad comrades nipping at his heels and the twisted logic of Catch-22 playing in his head, he starts to doubt whether he will ever be permitted to return home.

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

The coming-of-age book Little Women was written by American author Louisa May Alcott. At her publisher's request, Alcott composed the book over a period of several months. It was first released in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. The book discusses domesticity, labour, and true love as its three main themes.

Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth endure the hardships and enjoy adventures in Civil War New England. Readers have applauded Laurie in his pursuit of Jo's love, cried over Beth's death, and fantasised about seeing Europe with Amy and old Aunt March. Jo's commitment to her writing has served as an example to other authors. Louisa May Alcott has created four of the most adored women in American literature in this straightforward, engrossing tale, both of which are included here.

East Of Eden - John Steinbeck

This enthralling, often brutal book is set in the rich Salinas Valley of California, chronicles the connected fates of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, whose generations helplessly recreate the fall of Adam and Eve and the toxic rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here, Steinbeck explores some of his most persistent themes and developed some of his most endearing characters, including the identity mystery, the enigma of love, and the deadly effects of love's absence.

Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell

Gone with the Wind is a novel by American writer Margaret Mitchell, first published in 1936. The story is set in Clayton County and Atlanta, both in Georgia, during the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Margaret Mitchell's stunning historical epic is an extraordinary story of love and tragedy, of a nation fatally split, and of a people forever altered. It is set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Civil War.  I t is the tale of the sassy soldier of fortune, Rhett Butler, and the beautiful and ruthless Scarlett O'Hara.

On The Road - Jack Kerouac

American author Jack Kerouac's 1957 book On the Road is based on his and his friends' cross-country journeys. With its characters navigating life amidst jazz, poetry, and drug use, it is regarded as a key work of the postwar Beat and Counterculture generations.

On the Road, features Sal Paradise and his idol Dean Moriarty, a traveller and mystic who is considered to be the living embodiment of  1950s underground America, jazz, sex, generosity, chilly dawns, and drugs. 

For Whom the Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940. It chronicles the tale of Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer who served in the Spanish Civil War as a member of a Republican guerilla force. He is given the task of detonating a bridge as a dynamiter during an assault on Segovia. He discovers the perils and fierce camaraderie of combat in the mountains. 

Breakfast At Tiffany's and Three Stories - Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany's, by Truman Capote, is a classic portrayal of the macabre cultural icon Holly Golightly and was first published in 1961. It was immortalised by Audrey Hepburn's brilliant performance in the film of the same name. It's New York in the 1940s, where the martinis flow from cocktail hour till breakfast at Tiffany's.

The anonymous narrator makes friends with Holly Golightly in the Fall of 1943. The two live together in an Upper East Side brownstone apartment in Manhattan. Holly (aged 18 to 19) is a former country girl who now lives in a New York café. As a result, she is jobless and survives by associating with wealthy men who take her to clubs and restaurants, pay for her meals, and buy her expensive gifts in the hopes that one of them will become her husband. 

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain

In his 1876 book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain tells the story of a little boy living up along the Mississippi River. It takes place in the 1840s in St. Petersburg, which is modelled after Twain's boyhood home of Hannibal, Missouri.

The novel is regarded by many as a masterpiece of American literature, despite being eclipsed by its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer lives with his half-brother Sid and Aunt Polly. Tom is forced to clean the fence one day as punishment after getting his clothing dirty in a fight. He skilfully gets his friends to agree to perform his duties in exchange for little mementos. He goes to the cemetery at night with Huckleberry Finn, where they see Dr. Robinson being murdered.

The Crucible - Arthur Miller

The Crucible is a 1953 play by American playwright Arthur Miller. The Crucible focuses on the discrepancies of the Salem witch trials and the excessive behaviour that might arise from dark impulses and hidden intentions. It was inspired by the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.

He concentrates particularly on the discovery of a group of young girls playing in the woods attempting to conjure ghosts. The girls decided to accuse other Salem residents of witchcraft rather than face harsh and inevitable punishment for their actions. Ironically, the girls got away with doing the same crimes they were being accused of by accusing others of them.

Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection by American poet Walt Whitman. Whitman spent the most of his professional life reworking Leaves of Grass, even though it was first published in 1855. Whitman continued to do so up until the time of his death.

His philosophy of life and humanity is celebrated in the collection of poetry, which also honours the planet and each person's place in it. Leaves of Grass focuses heavily on the body and the material world rather than on religious or spiritual topics. Its poems do not rhyme, and they do not adhere to established metre and line length guidelines. It has been described as the ultimate DIY project.

Classic American Literature - An Introduction To Classic American Literature In 20 Books

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