I 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.