Within over four centuries, American literature forged its identity through paper and ink. It evolved amidst vast fields in the rural countryside and thriving city landscapes.
Despite being relatively young compared to the broader scope of English language literature, it was a matter of pride and freedom for American literature to break free from the motherland’s conventions.
Within a short timeframe, the United States’ historical and socioeconomic exceptionality as the first independent and recognized country in the Americas gave the works of its creative minds a unique perspective.
The following works are masterpieces in their own right. With a combination of innovation and accurate representation of what Americana entails, they are the crème de la crème when it comes to the United States’ creative output.
Without further ado, look at our picks for the Top 10 works of American Classic Literature.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Talking about American literature is talking about Harper Lee and her magnum opus. Regarded as one of the quintessential modern American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning work published in 1960.
The novel masterfully balances impactful social criticism and innocence by exploring a grim world through children’s eyes. The result is a poignant look at racial inequality that is nonetheless empathetic and heartfelt. It shows the worst of humanity but also the true power of kindness through one Atticus Finch.
The Great Gatsby
Beyond being just a novel, The Great Gatsby is a time machine that encapsulates one of the most fascinating eras in American history—the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age.
Ripe with luxury, hedonism, and the weight of Prohibition, it portrays and deconstructs the intricacies of the time. The central figure is the eponymous Jay Gatsby—his fruitful pursuit of money and fruitless pursuit of love.
A timeless piece, it provides an inside look at materialistic societies, the weight of human excesses, and a poignant criticism of the so-called American Dream.
The Catcher in the Rye
Perhaps one of the greatest first-person narratives of all time, The Catcher in the Rye explores the world of Mid-Century America from the eyes and mind of Holden Caulfield, a teenager who finds himself at odds with his perception of society.
As he wanders the streets of New York City, we see him struggle with growing up while fruitlessly seeking connections in what he perceives as an increasingly shallow world.
A magnificent piece of coming-of-age literature, The Catcher in the Rye allows us to witness teenage angst through Holden’s mourning of lost innocence and increasing loneliness.
The Grapes of Wrath
The true value of The Grapes of Wrath goes beyond its narrative significance or Pulitzer Prize—it gave a face, a voice, and a meaning to the tragedy of countless migrants during The Great Depression.
The story follows the Joads, a farming family from Oklahoma that seeks the American Dream in California after the Dust Bowl destroys their crops and livelihood. Soon enough, they realize their hardships are far from over.
Not a cheerful read but necessarily poignant, The Grapes of Wrath emphasizes the harshness of life for migrant farmers and rouses a critical outlook to society.
Set in the context of the American Civil War, Little Women follows the four March sisters, each representing a fundamental aspect of femininity that makes them strikingly different yet entirely devoted to one another. As they reach adulthood, they come to terms with their hopes, dreams, ambitions, and mortality.
Responsible for defining and codifying the All-American girl, there is no doubt that Little Women is the quintessential coming-of-age story for young women within classic American literature.
East of Eden
Ambitious and ripe with meaning, East of Eden is widely considered Steinbeck’s true magnum opus.
The book provides a generational saga involving two families—Hamilton and Trask—and endless Book of Genesis references. Intertwined in love, hate, hedonism, and self-destruction, the characters in the novel struggle to break free from the fate of their biblical counterparts.
Heavy with dark topics and subject matters, East of Eden studies the nature of good and evil, its origins, and the possibility of change.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain provides an affectionate satire of what boyhood looks like in a small town in the American Midwest. Far from portraying kids as angels or demons, the book showcases their innocent yet impish nature as they answer to the world around them.
Tom Sawyer is the archetypical all-American childhood hero, equal parts mischievous and good-hearted. A trickster who cleverly outwits others for his personal benefit during lighthearted adventures, his moral code drives him to take action in the face of true injustice.
The book’s direct sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is another must-read.
A tragicomedy with as many themes as events, Slaughterhouse-Five is as hard to summarize as it is to classify.
It is certainly anti-war, as it offers a realistic look at World War II’s bombing of Dresden. However, it is also science-fiction, as our protagonist’s alien abduction allows him to live without chronological order by jumping back and forth through time.
It is a philosophical study of life and death. A comedy. A discussion on nihilism. An allegory of PTSD. But perhaps, the easiest way to describe Slaughterhouse-Five is as a must-read.
The Bell Jar
A harrowing read and a glimpse at the author’s mind, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar follows Esther Greenwood’s slow descent into mental disarray, depression, and suicide attempts.
Her success as a professional and her ambitions are rigorously smothered by societal pressures of what womanhood and femininity should be like. Greenwood’s desire to forge her identity against expectations matches her brilliant talent and, tragically, her downward spiral.
She suffocates inside the trappings of society and her mind—the eponymous bell jar.
Poignant and ever-relevant, The Bell Jar is a portrait of womanhood, mental health, and the oppressive nature of patriarchy in mid-century America.
The Old Man and the Sea
A short and easy read, Ernest Hemingway’s magnum opus is simple in its narrative yet profoundly meaningful.
The Old Man and the Sea is exactly that: the story of an old, unlucky fisherman who decides to once again venture into the sea to achieve the catch of a lifetime. No significant stakes are at play—just a man past his physical prime but at a ripe young age in spirit.
A study on personal drive, courage, and respect, The Old Man and the Sea shows what it means to be a good man and the challenges of perseverance.
Of course, American classic literature is far more than just these ten works. Authors such as Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne created exceptional masterpieces that have become jewels in the crown of the English written word.
This list is an appetizer—a brief introduction to the vast, rich, and diverse world of American literature. A world we certainly encourage you to dive into head-first.
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