American literature is a story of expanding frontiers. Our expert interviews will lead you through the full range of literature, from the early days of the American republic to the defining moments of 9/11. The diversity of America is revealed in its literature.
The story of America is not one of a manageable unified nation, says novelist and critic David Hering. It may, however, be the story of America’s dream — which is why many of the best American novels have a distinctly dreamlike quality. He picks out five of the best American novels of the 20th century, from 1905 through to 1987.
In the novels of the 19th century, the United States comes alive with all its contradictions and complications. Nathan Wolff, a professor of English at Tufts and author of Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age, introduces us to his picks of the best 19th-century American novels, including two works of historical fiction and a memoir that influenced the novel form.
Albeit an object of satire and overreach, the ‘Great American Novel’ remains a vital concept in American literature, encouraging writers to capture the essence of national culture and history, argues Lawrence Buell, Professor of American Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. He talks us through the origins of the phrase and nominates five novels as contenders.
South Asian Americans are too often treated as sidekicks or even suspects in national narratives. Wajahat Ali recommends five fantastic novels by South Asian American authors, and makes a compelling case that for the United States to succeed as a multi-racial democracy, “it is key that people pick up the pen to tell America’s full story.”
In 1993, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to American novelist Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” Here, literary scholar Marilyn Mobley—Professor Emerita of English and African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University and a former President of the Toni Morrison Society—introduces her work, from the best novel to start with to the essays she published just before her death in 2019.
Philip Roth was one of the great contemporary American novelists. He wrote about what he saw when he looked in the mirror, even when he didn’t like it, and claimed his only real interest was writing about what made him feel uncomfortable. Roth’s literary biographer, Ira Nadel, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, talks us through Philip Roth’s novels and explains why they’re worth reading.
It was a golden age for American culture, a flourishing of Black literature, music and the arts that exploded in the 1910s and lasted through to the Great Depression. It was focused on Harlem, the area of New York City above Central Park, but its origins and its impact were much, much broader. William J. Maxwell, Professor of English and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, recommends some of the best books on the Harlem Renaissance.
Today it is celebrated as one of America’s great novels, but when it came out, Moby-Dick was received with little acclaim and none of the commercial success of Herman Melville’s first book, Typee. Here, Hester Blum, Professor of English at Penn State, introduces the 19th century American novelist and recommends which books to read by and about him.
Where to start with the novels of the American writer William Faulkner, chronicler of the Old South and winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature? Here, Faulkner scholar Ahmed Honeini of Royal Holloway, University of London, recommends the best books by and about the man who tried to capture “the agony and sweat of the human spirit”.
‘The authors of these five books are people who came to New York for freedom – not so they could get rich, but so they could be free to pursue their interests and live their lives the way they wanted.’ New Yorker par excellence Fran Lebowitz recommends the writers who best capture her immutably mutable city.
The author of the Tales of the City novel series, Armistead Maupin, tells us about San Francisco’s spirit of place, and the books that best capture the city’s sense of possibility and noirish feel. He recommends the best novels set in San Francisco.
An ever-growing body of authors are writing about the reality of what it means to be black in America, says Farah Jasmine Griffin, director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. Here she recommends five works of African American literature, from greats like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison to lesser-known gems by Ann Petry.
Emerson: The Mind on Fire
by Robert D Richardson
Emerson: Essays and Lectures
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson in His Journals
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joel Porte (editor)
Emerson in His Own Time
Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (editors)
One First Love
by Ellen Louisa Tucker & Ralph Waldo Emerson
Known to many of us as the American Transcendentalist champion of individualism and self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a much more soulful and sorrowful, brilliant but deeply contradictory thinker than we often give him credit for, says James Marcus, as he recommends the best books by – or about – Emerson.
“There’s a lot more diversity within Native American literature than many imagine,” according to Megan Tusler. The University of Chicago academic and cohost of the Better Read than Dead podcast recommends five fantastic novels which avoid “the authenticity shuffle” and demonstrate the range of literary production by American Indians.
With the help of a good anthology and a heaping dose of American classics, anyone can be converted to being a lover of poetry. Elisa New, Harvard scholar and host of the new PBS series Poetry in America, recommends her favorite American poets, from Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Bishop.
Though biographical sensation has often diverted attention from her work, Sylvia Plath remains one of the finest lyric poets of the twentieth century, argues Professor Tim Kendall, Academic Director of Arts and Culture at Exeter and author of Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study. Here, he recommends the best places to start (or return to) with Plath, from a fresh look at Ariel to illuminating an oft-overlooked, brilliant appendix in her unabridged journals.
Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays
by Edgar Allan Poe
The Detective Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: Three Tales Featuring C. Auguste Dupin
by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography
by Arthur Hobson Quinn
Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe
by Daniel Hoffman
Pym: A Novel
by Mat Johnson
You can’t turn on a television or pass an airport bookstore without seeing the influence of America’s most generative writer, Edgar Allan Poe. He orginated true life crime and detective fiction, sci-fi and horror story tropes, and wrote unforgettable poems. Poe expert Shawn Rosenheim, a professor at Williams College, recommends where to start with Poe, as well as the best books about his influence.
Amy Waldman reported on the aftermath of 9/11 for the New York Times, but when it came to writing a book about it, she wrote a novel. The Submission was hailed as one of the best novels to come out of the tragedy, including by the Financial Times. Here, she chooses some of the best literature inspired by 9/11, including novels, a memoir and a book of poetry.
As distinctions between traditional and avant-garde, central and marginal dissolve, poet and critic Stephanie Burt discusses some of America’s most exciting contemporary poets, who are speaking to and from diverse experiences and backgrounds – sometimes with a disco beat
From All The Pretty Horses to Blood Meridian to The Road, American novelist Cormac McCarthy (1933-2023) was a titan of literary fiction for his philosophical, violent, often deeply moving novels. Cormac McCarthy expert Stacey Peebles introduces us to the author’s oeuvre—and tells us that despite its apocalyptic bleakness, The Road is actually McCarthy’s “happiest book.”
The author of Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney, tells us what changed after 9/11 and which books best capture the ambition, romance and creativity of New York. He chooses his list of “essential New York novels”
Sports pundit Michael Carlson says baseball reflects an American ideal which is now an American fantasy. It works well as a metaphor for life, which may be why there have been so many good novels written about it
Paris in the 1920s was a creative melting pot, the haunt of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. The Yale English professor gives us a feel for what it was like to be there
F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, set during a hedonistic zenith before the Great Depression, has fresh appeal today as we face down our own crisis, says the professor of American literature
Modern America is a story of expanding frontiers, says bestselling author Simon Winchester. He tells us about five novels that shed light on the social history of his adopted homeland, from the late 19th century to the Great Depression.
Since its birth in the early twentieth century, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has become the most popular personality test in the world. Here, Merve Emre, author of the new book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, recommends five books that reveal how the language of ‘type’ has seeped into the marrow of American civic institutions and social life—from Fortune 500 companies to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.