Interviews by Francesca Mancino
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.
Modernist novels emerged as a reaction against modernity but, in their focus on inner consciousness, captured the experience of living life like never before. American writer and critic Michael Clune picks five of the best modernist novels from 1936 up to 2013. Modernist literature is still with us, he explains, because what it was reacting against is still with us.
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.
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”.