Whether you're just getting into reading as a hobby or you've been an avid reader for years, you're into literary tales or prefer genre fiction, there are some books that everyone should read.
The classic books of American literature are among those must-read books. Not only did they have immense influence over the development of writing, but they endure as stories beloved by many worldwide.
In short, Great American Novels explore American identities from throughout the country's history. Here are the classics of American literature that we consider essential reading!
18. The Scarlet Letter
Authored by Nathaniel Hawthorne
First published in 1850
279 pages — 3.43 on Goodreads
Famed English writer D. H. Lawrence may have had many controversial stances on literature, but every critic agrees with his statement that The Scarlet Letter is a "perfect work of the American imagination."
Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter deals with the concept of social and religious stigma, specifically with protagonist Hester Prynne having a baby out of wedlock in the 1640s.
The Scarlet Letter is written halfway between reality and a sort of dreamworld, further setting it apart as a wholly unique story of its time. Fun fact: The Scarlet Letter was America's first mass-produced novel!
17. Little Women
Authored by Louisa May Alcott
First published in 1868
449 pages — 4.14 on Goodreads
Little Women is extremely popular. The book has been successfully adapted into film three times (in 1949, 1994, and 2019) and it's gotten several pop culture nods (like in The Simpsons).
So, why is it so popular? Well, Little Women is a cozy feminist story about a family we wouldn't mind spending the holidays with, with lots of heart embedded within its pages.
From sisterly squabbles to terminal illness, Little Women is more than just a simple story. It's simultaneously uplifting and tear-jerking while exposing us to all kinds of emotional beats.
Louisa May Alcott based her hit coming-of-age novel on her own upbringing, setting her domestic drama against the backdrop of the American Civil War to much success.
16. The Grapes of Wrath
Authored by John Steinbeck
First published in 1939
479 pages — 4.00 on Goodreads
The Grapes of Wrath is one of those books that everybody read in school (or at least pretended to while doodling in the corners).
John Steinbeck ended up authoring many Great American Novels, including East of Eden and Of Mice and Men, but we're going with The Grapes of Wrath because this one's more than just a story.
Censorship boards were smashed with the Streisand Effect when they tried to ban The Grapes of Wrath in schools. (In other words, by trying to bury the book and make sure no one could read it, they ended up bringing far more attention to it.)
The Grapes of Wrath centers on a poor family during the Great Depression, and for some reason readers dubbed it pro-Communist propaganda at release.
In 1962, John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his naturalistic, straight-talking American novels that avoided the then-popular stream-of-consciousness narrative style.
Authored by Kurt Vonnegut
First published in 1969
215 pages — 4.09 on Goodreads
Slaughterhouse-Five (also called The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death by those who can be bothered to say it) is a sci-fi-infused anti-war novel that's partially based on the author's own life.
Kurt Vonnegut, who was a serviceman during the Second World War, uses his own experiences in a prisoner-of-war camp to shape and inform the surreal narrative of Slaughterhouse-Five.
The moralistic novel is told in non-chronological order by an unreliable narrator (possibly Vonnegut himself) who omnisciently watches the life of the time-traveling Billy Pilgrim.
14. The Old Man and the Sea
Authored by Ernest Hemingway
First published in 1952
96 pages — 3.80 on Goodreads
Ernest Hemingway is well-known for being a visceral, visionary writer with a terrible personality. He was an alcoholic egomaniac who preferred having fist fights over being a good father.
However, none of that detracts from the fact that he penned some of the best American novels ever written. Ernest Hemingway was a modernist writer who defied what we're taught in English class (e.g. don't use words like "nice" or "and" too much).
The Old Man and the Sea is regarded as Hemingway's best work. He wrote it in Cuba towards the end of his career, and as such it follows a Cuban man fighting off a marlin in the Gulf Stream.
Authored by Vladimir Nabokov
First published in 1955
368 pages — 3.88 on Goodreads
Despite receiving two film adaptations and a Broadway musical, Lolita remains a controversial novel to this day. Why? Because it's about a pedophilic professor who sexually abuses a 12-year-old girl.
Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov experiments with the erotica genre by combining it with modernism and an unreliable narrator. Some have even gone so far as to argue Lolita is a sarcastic novel-of-manners that was never intended as erotica.
Either way, Lolita is certainly an unusual book—one that Nabokov claimed to have no ultimate moral point to make.
12. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Authored by Ken Kesey
First published in 1962
325 pages — 4.20 on Goodreads
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was made into a five-time Oscar-winning film back in the 1970s (directed by Miloš Forman), which was filmed on-location in the very hospital featured in the novel.
Nurse Ratched and electroshock therapy aren't exactly conducive to treating mental illness, as Ken Kesey explores in his daring psychiatric critique.
Although Randle Patrick McMurphy is the protagonist of the movie version—feigning insanity to avoid prison time, played by Jack Nicholson—the book is narrated by "Chief" Bromden, who feigns as a deaf-mute.
Oregon State Hospital is still in use today, though hopefully its patients don't receive the same kind of treatment as in this story!
11. Uncle Tom's Cabin
Authored by Harriet Beecher Stowe
First published in 1852
438 pages — 3.90 on Goodreads
Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in two volumes in 1852, an era rife with racism, poverty, and Christianity in the American South.
Slavery was still a normal thing, but Harriet Beecher Stowe laid the foundation for its end through this poignant anti-slavery book.
Despite being a sentimental novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin doesn't shy away from the hard truths of slavery. Each character is a branch from the tree of Uncle Tom himself, who's depicted as a steadfast and almost saintly aging slave in Kentucky.
The release of Uncle Tom's Cabin stirred up a firestorm of controversy, praise, fear, and horror, until it was eventually used in the abolitionist case and (apocryphally) sparked the American Civil War.
10. On the Road
Authored by Jack Kerouac
First published in 1957
307 pages — 3.62 on Goodreads
Jack Kerouac is a huge name of the Beat Generation, which was an American counterculture that boomed in the 1950s and loved all things jazz, poetry, and sexual liberation.
Of all the Beat books to read, On the Road is the best one. It is, after all, the one that defined an entire culture.
Jack Kerouac's roman à clef features real figures of the Beat movement, including the iconic Allen Ginsberg.
On the Road will make you want to dance all night and hit the open highway as its crazy characters dart from California to New York to Mexico, sleeplessly driving on nothing but booze and drugs.
9. The Bell Jar
Authored by Sylvia Plath
First published in 1963
294 pages — 4.04 on Goodreads
Sylvia Plath was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (honored posthumously), whose life tragically ended at just 30 years old.
While she was alive, she wrote one novel that ended up a classic piece of feminist literature! Not just because it was written by a female, but for its themes of power and double standards back in the 1960s.
The roman à clef is semi-autobiographical as the protagonist Esther Greenwood mirrors Plath's own mental struggles.
Sadly, Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after The Bell Jar's UK release (published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas) and she never got to witness its success.
8. The Color Purple
Authored by Alice Walker
First published in 1982
304 pages — 4.26 on Goodreads
Unfortunately, when writing about American national identity, there's no escaping its dark history of racism and slavery.
Alice Walker confronts this truth, alongside themes of dual identity, in her epistolary novel set in the early 20th century.
The Color Purple follows young Celie from her teenage years right into her 40s, where she faces twice the oppression: as a poor, uneducated African-American girl in rural Georgia and in a West African village.
Its explicit details ended up getting the novel banned in many schools across the US. But given that most of the books on this list were also banned at some point, I'd say she was in good company.
7. American Psycho
Authored by Bret Easton Ellis
First published in 1991
399 pages — 3.81 on Goodreads
Most people know American Psycho as the cult classic horror movie, ironically starring British actor Christian Bale.
Director Mary Harron did a great job adapting the novel to film, but—like most book-to-movie adaptations—it doesn't fully capture the nuance and effect of its source material.
American Psycho is told from Patrick Bateman's point of view. Despite his polite, well-groomed businessman presence, Bateman is insanely neurotic and actually loves to chainsaw people.
Author Bret Easton Ellis used the serial killer archetype to critique American yuppie culture in this postmodern masterpiece.
Authored by Joseph Heller
First published in 1961
453 pages — 3.99 on Goodreads
Catch-22's structure is a bit all over the place. We're taken through different storylines in non-chronological order by an omniscient narrator. But it's worth reading as it uses free association, paradoxes, and circular repetition to poke fun at war.
Not to say that Joseph Heller is disregarding the tragedy that people face during wartime. Rather, he uses satire in Catch-22 to point out and denounce the madness of war itself.
To this day, Catch-22 is frequently cited as one of the most accurate presentations of war in literature.
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Authored by Mark Twain
First published in 1884
327 pages — 3.83 on Goodreads
Dubbed the "Father of American Literature," Mark Twain was also the creator of the mischievous Tom Sawyer as well as Huckleberry Finn.
Both young Southern boys have their own adventure novels, connected by the sequels Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, in which they both appear. But as a classic, Huck Finn ekes out the win.
Inspired by his own life growing up in Missouri, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a meditation on boyhood that changed the course of children's books forever.
The presence of the South is felt through its use of vernacular English (the first novel to use it entirely), local color regionalism, and entrenched racism (the stance of which is still debated today).
4. The Catcher in the Rye
Authored by J. D. Salinger
First published in 1951
277 pages — 3.80 on Goodreads
Holden Caulfield is cynical, angsty, depressed, and antisocial. Yet, many readers—especially young adults—can't help but relate to him.
Disappointed with the adult world, Caulfield finds his coming-of-age story a devastating task. Caulfield has since become an icon of teenage rebellion, used as the basis for many characters in film and literature (including Jake Gyllenhaal in The Good Girl).
Author J. D. Salinger originally published The Catcher in the Rye in serial form in the 1940s. Once it was novelized, The Catcher in the Rye began selling a million copies a year! Even Caulfield would be impressed.
3. The Great Gatsby
Authored by F. Scott Fitzgerald
First published in 1925
180 pages — 3.93 on Goodreads
Before Baz Luhrmann glitzed up The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio and a Jay-Z soundtrack, it was a classic 1920s romance novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was known for his exuberant works on the Jazz Age and regarded as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
A commercial disappointment when it was first published, The Great Gatsby is now Fitzgerald's most famous novel, offering a contemptuous view of the American Dream.
The naively ambitious everyman is let down while the rich "only ever get richer." The mysterious Jay Gatsby—a poor man faking as a rich one—is the only exception from this rule.
2. Moby Dick
Authored by Herman Melville
First published in 1851
654 pages — 3.53 on Goodreads
Moby Dick is now a milestone of the American Renaissance, but it didn't see success for at least seven decades after it published. In fact, Moby Dick was such a flop it went out of print!
It's funny since nowadays everyone has heard of Moby Dick, even those who have never read it (especially after the recent Oscar-win The Whale). The book about the white whale and... what's his name... Ishmael?
Herman Melville drew on his own experiences as a sailor in 1841 (as well as Shakespeare) when writing Moby Dick. It employs almost every literary device: poems, songs, soliloquies, stage directions, asides, and more.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird
Authored by Harper Lee
First published in 1960
323 pages — 4.27 on Goodreads
Southern Gothic is a common subgenre found amongst Great American Novels, from Tennessee Williams to William Faulkner. Harper Lee joined the club in 1960 with To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird challenged racial inequality at the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. The sensitive, heartbreaking story is told from a child's perspective, who awakens to the incomprehensible reality of prejudice during the Great Depression.
A movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was made in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan, who crafted the film so well that the Library of Congress preserved it in the National Film Registry in 1995.