American literature contains the body of literary works in English language produced in the United States. 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. Published in 1789, The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown is widely considered to be the first American novel. The second half of the next century saw some of the great American novels that continue to be widely read. These include Moby-Dick by Herman Melville; Little Women by Louisa May Alcott; and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Along with Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, produced in the first half of the 20th century, is often cited as the “Great American Novel”. Moreover, post World War II American novels Catch-22 and The Catcher in the Rye are generally regarded as masterpieces of 20th century literature. Here are the 10 most famous novels by American authors.
Author: Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was an African American writer whose best-selling work explored black identity in America. Among other things, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Beloved is the most famous work of Toni Morrison. It examines the destructive legacy of slavery through the story of a family of former slaves whose house is haunted by a malevolent spirit. The novel was inspired by the real life incident involving Margaret Garner, an escaped slave from Kentucky who fled to the free state of Ohio in 1856. However, Garner was captured again in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Apart from slavery and its psychological effects, the novel explores the themes of family and motherhood. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. A survey of writers and literary critics compiled by The New York Times ranked it as the best work of American fiction from 1981 to 2006.
#9 The Old Man and the Sea
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway was one of the leading figures of 20th century literature. The last major work of fiction by Hemingway that was published during his lifetime, The Old Man and the Sea is a short novel which tells the story of an aging Cuban fisherman named Santiago who is involved in a struggle to catch a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Real life fisherman Gregorio Fuentes is often regarded as the model for Santiago, the protagonist of the novel. The Old Man and the Sea was an instant success and won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was also cited by the Nobel Committee as a factor in awarding Hemingway the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. It has been adapted for the screen three times; continues to be popular; and is widely regarded as a 20th century classic. Though The Sun Also Rises is often rated as his greatest book, The Old Man and the Sea is undoubtedly the most famous work by Ernest Hemingway.
#8 Invisible Man
Author: Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison was a novelist, literary critic and scholar who is most famous for writing this masterpiece. Invisible Man is narrated by a nameless young black man who struggles to arrive at a conception of his own identity. Because the people he encounters “see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination,” he is effectively invisible. The prominent themes of the novel are racism as an obstacle to individual identity; the limitations of ideology; and the danger of fighting stereotype with stereotype. Invisible Man won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Invisible Man 19th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century while TIME magazine included it in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Author: Joseph Heller
In 1953, Joseph 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. The novel is set during World War II, from 1942 to 1944. It mainly follows the life of antihero Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier who desperately wants to not die during the war. A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations. Coined by Heller, the term has since been used in this context. Catch-22 examines the absurdity of war and military life; and it is regarded as one of the most significant works of protest literature to appear after World War II. Apart from critical acclaim, the satirical novel was also a commercial success. The Modern Library ranked Catch-22 as the 7th (by review panel) and 12th (by public) greatest English-language novel of the 20th century; while TIME magazine also included it in its list of top 100 English-language modern novels.
Author: Herman Melville
Herman Melville was a 19th century writer whose reputation grew only after 1919, primarily due to Moby-Dick. The novel is an epic tale of the voyage of the whaling ship Pequod and its captain, Ahab, who relentlessly pursues Moby-Dick, a giant white sperm whale that on the ship’s previous voyage bit off Ahab’s leg at the knee. It was first published in London as The Whale. The novel was a commercial failure and was out of print by the time Melville died in 1891. The reputation of Moby-Dick grew in leaps and bounds in the 20th century to the point that it is now regarded as one of the greatest American novels. It has since been adapted or represented in art, film, books, cartoons, television and comic-book format. The most famous among these is perhaps the 1956 film Moby Dick directed by John Huston. Moby-Dick has also achieved critical acclaim. Among others, famous English writer D. H. Lawrence called it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written”.
#5 Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Apart from being a renowned writer, Louisa May Alcott worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery and registered women to vote. Her best known work, Little Women, follows the lives of the four March sisters; Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy; and details their coming of age from childhood to womanhood. The novel is loosely based on the real lives of Alcott and her three sisters. As such it has been called semi-autobiographical. Little Women was an immediate success both commercially and critically. After its initial publication in 1868, Alcott wrote another volume which was published the following year. The two volumes were published together in 1880 as a single novel titled Little Women. According to prominent English critic G. K. Chesterton, Alcott in Little Women “anticipated realism by twenty or thirty years”. Little Women has never been out of print. It’s reported that approximately 1,000 copies of it are sold every month. It has been adapted for television, stage, film and musicals numerous times. In 2003, Little Women was ranked number 18 in The Big Read, a survey of the British public by the BBC.
#4 The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J. D. Salinger
Jerome David Salinger has been recognized as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His best known work, The Catcher in the Rye, details two days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield after he has been expelled from prep school. The novel was almost an immediate success and Holden Caulfield became America’s best-known literary truant since Huckleberry Finn. Moreover, The Catcher in the Rye quickly attained cult status, especially among adolescent readers. The novel still remains hugely popular selling more than 250,000 copies a year in paperback. However, “Catcher” was also controversial when it was first published due to several reasons including “excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language”. A 1979 study of censorship noted that it “had the dubious distinction of being at once the most frequently censored book across the nation and the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools”. The Catcher in the Rye features in several lists of greatest novels including those by Modern Library, TIME magazine and BBC’s survey The Big Read.
#3 To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
In 1959, Harper Lee finished the manuscript of her first novel, which was first titled Go Set a Watchman, then Atticus, and later To Kill a Mockingbird. On July 11, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was published by J.B. Lippincott Company. The book was an immediate bestseller and was critically acclaimed. It won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. There are more than 30 million copies of the book in print and it continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year. Despite dealing with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality, To Kill a Mockingbird is renowned for its warmth and humor. Moreover, the narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, has served as a hero for many readers for his integrity. The novel was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan. In 1999, To Kill a Mockingbird was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by the Library Journal. In 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one “every adult should read before they die”.
#2 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Author: Mark Twain
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”. This novel tells the story in first person of Huckleberry “Huck” Finn, a street urchin whose father is a drunkard. Huck Finn is a friend of Tom Sawyer. He has recently acquired some money and is learning to be a gentleman. One of the major characters in the book is Jim, an adult black slave who has fled. Throughout the story, Huck is in moral conflict due to the values he has been taught in society but he makes a choice of Jim’s friendship based on his own valuation. The novel is noted for being one of the first works by an American to be written in vernacular English; for its coarse language; and for its severely critical satire on established attitudes, particularly racism. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is regarded by many as the greatest American novel.
#1 The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald has become widely recognized as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. However, at the time of his death, he believed himself to be a failure and his work forgotten. The Great Gatsby, his magnum opus, depicts the narrator Nick Carraway’s interactions with mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and Gatsby’s obsession to reunite with his former lover, Daisy Buchanan. When it was initially published, the novel sold poorly and attracted a lot of negative criticism. However, there was a surge in interest in the novel during the Second World War and by 1960 it was selling 50,000 copies per year. In 1998, it was voted by the Modern Library as the best American novel of the 20th century. The Great Gatsby has sold over 25 million copies worldwide as of 2013 and annually sells an additional 500,000 copies. It is widely considered as one of the greatest works in English literature and, along with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is the foremost contender for the title of the “Great American Novel”.