American literature is literature that has been produced in the United States and its preceding colonies. Prior to the formation of U.S. as a nation, American literature was hugely influenced by literature in Great Britain. Post American Revolution, writers in the United States started developing a style that was unique and distinctly different from that in Britain. William Hill Brown was among the first novelists to write a novel that is claimed to be the first American novel. In late 19th century, Mark Twain became a giant in not only American but world literature. His style changed the way Americans write their language. The United States produced some of the best known and critically acclaimed novelists of the 20th century including Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Experience in the Second World War was captured by American writers like Joseph Heller and J. D. Salinger in unusual and captivating novels while African American writer Toni Morrison achieved outstanding success in the second half of the 20th century by writing novels that explored black identity in the U.S. Here is our list of the 10 best American novelists and their most famous works.
#10 Jack London
Lifespan: January 12, 1876 – November 22, 1916
Deserted by his father, John Griffith London was raised by his mother and step father. At the age of 14, he quit school to escape poverty. He bought a sloop and became an oyster pirate, a person who engages in the poaching of oysters. After many experiences as a hobo and a sailor, he returned to Oakland and attended Oakland High School. At the age of 19, he entered the University of California, Berkeley. However, he had to quit after a year due to lack of finances. In 1897, London sailed to join the Klondike Gold Rush. His struggles there inspired his famous short story, “To Build a Fire”. Unsuccessful, London returned and decided to earn a living as a writer. Within a couple of years, he began to gain an audience for his fresh subject matter. Jack London went on to become an international celebrity and the highest-paid writer in the United States at that time. A pioneer of commercial fiction, he was also an innovator in the science fiction genre. His novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang are regarded as among the best works in adventure fiction.
- The Call of the Wild (1903)
- White Fang (1906)
- Martin Eden (1909)
#9 Joseph Heller
Lifespan: May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999
Son of poor Jewish immigrants from Russia, Joseph Heller graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941 and began work as a file clerk for an insurance agency. In 1942, as the United States joined World War II, Heller joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to the Italian Front, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier. After the war, Heller studied English receiving an M.A. at Columbia University in 1949. He then taught English at Pennsylvania State University (1950–52). In 1953, Heller began writing Catch-22, the work that would permanently etch his name in American literature. Set during World War II, the novel is widely regarded as one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. Heller wrote another six novels which sold well. However, they were inevitably overshadowed by the success of Catch-22. Heller also wrote an autobiography, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998), and his dramatic work includes the play We Bombed in New Haven (1968).
- Catch-22 (1961)
- Something Happened (1974)
- Closing Time (1994)
#8 J. D. Salinger
Lifespan: January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010
After brief periods at New York and Columbia universities, Jerome David Salinger devoted himself entirely to writing. His stories began to appear in periodicals in 1940. In 1942, Salinger was drafted into the United States army. During the Second World War, he saw combat with the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. He was present at Utah Beach on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, and the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. His most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, was partially published in serial form in 1945–1946 and as a novel in 1951. It was an immediate popular success and has since then been consistently rated as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. However, the success of “The Catcher” made Salinger reclusive due to the unwanted attention and scrutiny. He followed the novel with a collection of short stories titled Nine Stories (1953), which was critically acclaimed and helped shape writers like Philip Roth, John Updike and Harold Brodkey. The last work Salinger published during his lifetime was a novella titled Hapworth 16, 1924, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965.
- The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
- Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1955)
- Seymour: An Introduction (1955)
#7 John Steinbeck
Lifespan: February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968
John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. studied English literature at Stanford University though he left without a degree in 1925. He then traveled to New York City where he took odd jobs while trying to write. However, he failed to publish his work returning to California to work as a tour guide and caretaker at Lake Tahoe. The first novel of Steinbeck, Cup of Gold, was published in 1929. He first achieved critical success with Tortilla Flat in 1935. It was later adapted as a 1942 film of the same name. Steinbeck wrote 33 books in his career including 16 novels, 6 non-fiction books and 2 collections of short stories. His masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939 and went on to win the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1962, John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature for his “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” John Steinbeck is regarded as one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century. Several of his works are considered classics of Western literature and are required reading in American high schools.
- The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
- Of Mice and Men (1937)
- East of Eden (1952)
#6 Henry James
Lifespan: April 15, 1843 – February 28, 1916
A shy boy who was a book addict, Henry James was regarded as one of the most skillful writers of short stories in America by the time he was in his mid-20s. As a young man, he spent a lot of time in Europe and eventually settled in England, becoming a British citizen in 1915, one year before his death. James was a prolific writer. During the fifty years of his literary career, he produced a body of tales and novels that fills thirty-six volumes and an almost equal number of volumes of non-fiction prose. The later phase of his writing is regarded as the peak of his achievement. In it, he produced three of his most acclaimed novels: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). James is also known for his novella The Turn of the Screw, which is one of the most analyzed and ambiguous ghost story in the English language. James is regarded as a key transitional figure between literary realism and literary modernism. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911, 1912 and 1916. Many consider him to be one of the greatest novelists in the English language.
- The Turn of the Screw (1898)
- The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
- The Ambassadors (1903)
#5 Toni Morrison
Lifespan: February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019
Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. She went on to earn a master’s degree in American Literature from Cornell University in 1955. She taught English at the Texas Southern University from 1955 to 1957 and at Howard University for the next 7 years. Toni Morrison then switched her career to editing becoming the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York City. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. She achieved critical acclaim with Song of Solomon (1977), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1987, Morrison published her most celebrated novel, Beloved, which was a critical success and a bestseller for 25 weeks. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and was later adapted as a 1998 movie of the same name. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 for her novels that were “characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” Toni Morrison was the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.
- Beloved (1987)
- Song of Solomon (1977)
- The Bluest Eye (1970)
#4 F. Scott Fitzgerald
Lifespan: September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald had a turbulent personal life. Born in an upper class family, he fell deeply in love with Zelda Sayre in 1918. In order to marry her, he tried to get instant success but failed and Zelda broke their engagement. However, in 1920, he achieved commercial success with his first novel This Side of Paradise, and the couple married. In New York City, the Fitzgeralds quickly became celebrities, as much for their wild behavior as for the success of This Side of Paradise. In 1924, the couple moved to Paris where Fitzgerald started working on his third novel, The Great Gatsby. Released the following year, the novel sold poorly and attracted a lot of negative criticism. By the end of the 1920s, Fitzgerald descended into drinking and Zelda had a mental breakdown. Due to financial difficulties, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood and became a scriptwriter. He died of a heart attack in 1940, at age 44. At the time of his death, he believed himself to be a failure and his work forgotten. However, post World War II, The Great Gatsby gained in popularity. Today it is regarded as a literary masterwork and a contender for the title of the Great American Novel. Moreover, F. Scott Fitzgerald has become widely recognized as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century.
- The Great Gatsby (1925)
- Tender Is the Night (1934)
- This Side of Paradise (1920)
#3 William Faulkner
Lifespan: September 25, 1897 – July 6, 1962
William Cuthbert Faulkner came from an old southern family and grew up in Oxford, Mississippi. The young Faulkner was greatly influenced by the history of his family and the region in which he lived. He began writing poetry in adolescent. However, it was as a novelist that he achieved success. In particular, his set of novels set in his fabricated Yoknapatawpha County bought him fame and popularity. His 1954 novel A Fable won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award. He won another Pulitzer Prize for his last novel The Reivers (1962). Moreover, William Faulkner was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature for “his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”. He donated part of his Nobel money “to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers”, eventually resulting in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In 1998, three of his novels were ranked by the Modern Library on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century: The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying; and Light in August. William Faulkner is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, unmatched for his extraordinary structural and stylistic resourcefulness.
- The Sound and the Fury (1929)
- As I Lay Dying (1930)
- Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
#2 Ernest Hemingway
Lifespan: July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961
Ernest Miller Hemingway was raised in Oak Park, Illinois. During World War I, he worked as an ambulance driver, was wounded and had to return home. Hemingway worked as a journalist for a number of years before becoming a novelist. His first published novel The Sun Also Rises received mixed reviews but is now considered an iconic modernist work. He went on to produce some of the best known novels and short stories of 20th century American literature. His last major work in fiction, The Old Man and the Sea, won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is widely regarded as a 20th century classic. Hemingway also wrote a number of non-fiction works including Death in the Afternoon and A Moveable Feast. In 1954, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.” The modern writing style of Hemingway had a huge influence on 20th-century fiction. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of all time.
- The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
- For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
- A Farewell to Arms (1929)
#1 Mark Twain
Lifespan: November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known worldwide by his pen name Mark Twain, had an interesting life during which he worked as a steamboat pilot, served as a Confederate soldier, mined in Nevada, became one of the most prominent writers of his time, lost nearly all his money by investing in loss making ventures, recovered financially through his popularity as a speaker and then was marred by tragedy due to deaths in his family. Mark Twain’s first great success as a writer which brought him national attention was the short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. He then wrote The Innocents Abroad, which is one of the best-selling travel books of all time; and followed it with another non-fiction work titled Roughing It. He co-authored the novel The Gilded Age before writing the works for which he is most known: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, among the best known works in children’s literature; and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, referred to by many as the Great American Novel. Mark Twain is renowned worldwide as one of the most influential writers in the English language. Such is his influence in his nation that he has been called “the father of American literature”.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
- The Prince and the Pauper (1881)