Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Top 10 Favorite American Classics

In the wake of Independence Day, I thought I would list my top 10 favorite American works of literature. I was an English literature doctoral student in my former life, but these classics are not difficult to read. Some of them are a little long, I admit, but stick with them and you will not be disappointed! I promise!
If you are looking for a good summer read, I would highly recommend any of the books on this list.

(1) Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville.
Don't be scared. Trust me. Once upon a time, I vowed never to read this lengthy tome because of all the horror stories I had heard, and yet when I challenged myself to read it for pleasure, I could. not. put. it. down. Moby Dick, as you probably know, is about the mad Captain Ahab and his maniacal pursuit of a great white whale who destroyed his boat, bit off his leg, and possessed his soul. Where else will you learn about the various different types of whales and how to extract ambergris from whale intestines to make perfume?

(2) Little Women (1848) by Louisa May Alcott.
If you didn't read this classic as a child, you doubtless have seen either the 1949 movie version with Elizabeth Taylor or the 1994 film with Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder. Still, the book is a gem that every mother should read to her daughters because of the beautiful depictions of family love and devotion, service to others in the midst of poverty, and personal growth. When my girls get older, I intend to share Little Women with them because it has always been a personal favorite.

(3) Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser. Now if you aren't into classic literature, you may not have ever heard of this work, but it's one I would highly recommend reading and rereading. Sister Carrie is a rags-to-riches story in which a young girl leaves the country for big city life in hopes of making her fortune. Eventually, she finds success as an actress on stage only to realize that the American dream isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Yes, you might say it's a tad depressing, but Dreiser is a literary artist in his realistic depictions of urban life with all the dirt and filth and its effects on people.

(4) Heart of Darkness (1902) by Joseph Conrad. You might remember "The horror! The horror!" from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, but that line is straight out of Heart of Darkness. In this novella, Marlow, the pilot of a steamboat in the heart of the African Congo, transports ivory down river. However, when he receives the task of locating and bringing back a reputed ivory agent named Kurtz, Marlow discovers the dark side of human nature as he witnesses natives forced into servitude and even killed. I love the struggle of good and evil and how Conrad exposes our own propensity to violence against others.

(5) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain.
This novel is my all-time favorite piece of American literature because of its colorful characters--notably the Duke and the King--and humorous scenes that will have you laughing out loud. Still, Huck Finn presents a very serious critique of racism that was entrenched in American history at the time. Huck is a loveable character who you will desperately want to mother, and as he travels with Jim, a runaway slave, you can't help but root for them to make it to freedom. The moral conflict Huck faces regarding whether to turn Jim in or help him escape is resolved only after taking into account his friend's character and determining for himself that Jim was "white on the inside." If you have read Tom Sawyer and liked it, then you definitely need to give Huck Finn a shot. It's far better in my book!
(6) The Age of Innocence (1920) by Edith Wharton. Wharton became the first female to win the Pulitzer Prize, which she received for this novel. If you are a hopeless romantic, then you will love this book about a man who falls madly in love with a woman yet maintains both moral and societal conventions, remaining faithfully devoted to his wife and children even while the world around him suspects infidelity. It's a novel about controlling one's desires in order to protect family and preserve one's image and reputation even when the people who are protected are themselves hypocrites.

(7) Of Mice & Men (1937) by John Steinbeck. I remember reading this novella in tenth grade English and being struck by its controversial ending and my own emotional response to what I perceived as the unfairness of life. Again, the American dream is an important theme as two ranch hands and best friends, George and Lennie, seek to save enough money to buy their own homestead where they can live peacefully and follow their own desires, safe from the savage world. However, when this aspiration is shattered, Steinbeck shows that sometimes the American dream is not attainable.

(8) A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams.
Of course you have probably seen Marlon Brando in the excellent film version, but I would highly recommend going back to the original. The source. Williams' play captures the struggle between the Old South (Blanche DuBois) and the new industrial working class (Stanley Kowalski), and when the two collide, all violence breaks loose. "Ste-lla!"

(9) The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin.
An early feminist work that centers around Edna Pontellier and her desire to live her own life in a time (the turn of the century) and place (the South, specifically New Orleans and coastal Louisiana) that frowned on any unorthodox views of femininity and motherhood. Unlike the characters in The Age of Innocence, Edna acts on her impulses and desires, turning to art and self-expression and rejecting her societal duties. However, she soon discovers that her newfound freedom is not as liberating as she had thought.

(10) The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway.
An excellent short novel about the "Lost Generation," a term used by Hemingway to describe the youth who were deeply impacted by World War I and their decadent, immoral lifestyle. After reading this book, I was struck by the similarities between the post-WWI youth and youth today with their angst, disillusions about life and love and where to find true happiness, and general discontent.
I hope my list may inspire you to forgo the latest bestseller (that's here today and gone tomorrow) and instead dig into a timeless work of art. Trust me; you won't be disappointed!
What is your favorite American classic?
This post is linked to Top 10 Tuesday at Oh Amanda!


  1. Thank you for this list! I love your brief descriptions and look forward to reading these. I'm reading The Old Curiosity Shop right now and am enjoying it, but am always looking for my next meaty read. :)

  2. I love Of Mice & Men, such a great book, but I really disliked reading Sister Carrie!

  3. I need to read more of the classics. My husband, who is very well-read, owns most of these I am guessing. I should go and take a look. Thanks for the encouragement to read them!

  4. Christine, I must admit I haven't read much Dickens but I need to. I have a hard time getting into his writings, but I do appreciate a good piece of literature. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Delaney, I admit Sister Carrie is a bit long and pretty depressing. And I can't pinpoint now what it was that I really liked about the book, so maybe I should reread it. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Aiming4Simple, I'm just a literary snob. People are always recommending good fiction to me, but it's usually horrible. When you read really good writing, like Hemingway and Twain, it's hard to read a New York Times bestseller.