photo of booksI find most book lists rather silly and yet I read them, discuss them, and make up lists of my own.  Recently novelist Marianne Wiggins made a list of the “best” American literature. I’m not sure what she means by “best”–if she means that elusive and subjective ghost called literary quality I would have to take issue with her inclusion of Little Women.  If by “best” she means a combination of popularity and exemplification of certain aspects of American culture, then I agree that Little Women should go on the list, but I would also insist on the addition of many other books that aren’t there.  I also took issue with the books she chose to represent certain authors: What Maisie Knew instead or Portrait of A Lady or The Ambassadors? Of course, what does “American” even mean, considering the term covers Native Americans, WASPS, Jews, New England, New York, New Orleans, San Francisco Chinatown, and dozens of other peoples and places?  Okay, I’ll stop now. But here’s my list of the best American literature. Some books made it on this list on the subjective basis of literary quality, others because they were influential or illustrate some important elements of American culture (e.g., Little Women: Victorian piety and sentimentalism).

This list reflects not only my reading tastes and strengths but also my weaknesses, and I would like it if you would write in with your suggestions and objections. So comment away!

The General History of New England, Virginia and the Summer Isles by Captain John Smith (among other things, the source of the story of Pocahontas saving Smith’s life).

The Poems of Ann Bradstreet.

The Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin.

The Sketch Book by Washington Irving.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

The Ambassadors by Henry James (we can have the argument about whether he’s British or American later).

Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot (ditto).

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott FitzGerald.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

Absalom! Absalom! by William Faulkner.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

Slouching Towards Bethelehem by Joan Didion.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Collected Stories by Mary Gordon.

8 Responses to “Listmania!”
  1. Ellen says:

    No objections to any that you’ve included that I’m familiar with (can’t comment on the ones I haven’t read, of which there are many.) But there are a few I’d include, even on such a short list. Off the top of my head: To Kill a Mockingbird, something by Steinbeck and/or Jack London, maybe something by Vonnegut?

  2. Annmarie says:

    I too find book lists like Wiggins’ troublesome(and really she lost me with the inclusion of Joyce Carol Oates), but I find if I toss aside the title of the list “The Best of This” “The Quintessential That” and just look at the books, I am transported to the time and place where I read certain novels or scold myself for glaring gaps in my reading.

    As for your list Kevin, I found it thoughtful and beautiful, reminding me of how much I love American literature. I appreciate your inclusion of Death of a Salesman which I have always found to be profound in such a quiet way and the appearance of poetry so often tragically overlooked.

    I might have added a Willa Cather (My Antonia maybe) and a Richard Wright (Uncle Tom’s Children, although most people would say Native Son) as well as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (the most surprising piece of writing discovered during my college years). And I agree with Ellen on To Kill a Mockingbird.

    I would have switched the Salinger to Franny & Zooey, the Morrison to Jazz and I will trust you on the Faulkner. I have never been on board with Pynchon, but I know many who are. Overall a thorough and comprehensive list, thanks!

  3. Kim says:

    My favorite part of lists is my response: What on it have I read? What book would I add? What do I disagree with? What book do I want to look at again? What book shows up over and over? Lists are a great conversation starter.

  4. jeff says:

    I am very pleased at your choices on McCarthy and Morrison. Conspicuous by its absence is Moby Dick, although I suppose I am not the one to make a case for it. I notice we are not doing short stories, and I can understand that, but I might have insisted on some collection or another of Hawthorne (much as I like the Scarlet Letter, if you ask me, “Young Goodman Brown” is the proverbial bomb, and then throw in a few of the others, like “Ethan Brand” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter”), and then there’s Poe. I’ve never been a big fan of his poetry (although “Annabel Lee” is perhaps under-rated among the literati), but his short fiction is superb: not just the usual suspects like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but also, say, “The Gold Bug.”

    Also, if we’re doing poetry, I know others might go for Whitman or something, but I think I would want to argue for Sharon Olds’s The Dead and the Living.

    And finally, where’s the Philip K. Dick? I suppose I would probably say VALIS, but a case could easily be made for Ubik or A Scanner Darkly.

  5. jeff says:

    Oh, and Red Harvest. Seriously. I know you’ve already got Chandler, and The Big Sleep is a good one, but Dashiell Hammett goes to town in this book.

    Oh, shoot. Now that I’m thinking of it, Jim Thompson has been so pervasive in (mostly bad) films, that something of his ought to be included, particularly since he is such a good writer (much, much better than you would think from most of the movies). I would say The Grifters, probably, or After Dark My Sweet, both of which were turned into good movies.

  6. Kevin says:

    Thanks all for your responses.

    Ellen: I actually I haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird, and haven’t read any London, Steinbeck or Vonnegut since high school–they honestly didn’t even occur to me.

    Annmarie: I’ve never read any Willa Cather. As for Carson McCullers, I didn’t want to make this list too top heavy with Southerners.

    Jeff: I *did* include Moby Dick. I’ve never actually read any PKD (or Hammett) and I just don’t get Poe. He doesn’t work for me.

  7. jeff says:

    Oops. There’s Moby Dick. What I get for posting in a hurry. :-)

    Well, now you have your reading list of Hammett (although you ought to include The Maltese Falcon if you’re doing it right) and PKD. Life could be worse.

  8. Kathleen says:

    These lists always upset me–favorites are left off, books I can’t abide are included, gaping holes in my education are revealed–it’s all too much. My biggest gripe, though, is that they are so often composed entirely of books that have been canonized, if you’ll pardon the pun, by academia. That’s why I’m thrilled to see Little Women here; your criticisms of it are not off the mark, but this book meant so much to me as a child that I can’t look at it with any objectivity even today and still read it (and weep over it) about once a year.

    I think the definition of “great” should include “a pleasure to read,” which, I contend, is not really that much more subjective than “great.” On my list, Huck Finn makes the cut. Moby Dick most definitely does not. I’ll second (or third or fourth) the inclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird, throw in Slaughterhouse Five and A Prayer for Owen Meany, and raise you the Edith Wharton novel of your choice.

    Thanks for making a stab at this! It’s hard to create and easy to criticize, and I bet you find every book on that list a pleasure to read. I’m going to have to give Faulkner another chance…

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