The Best American Literature


Illustration by Wojtek Kozak,

Marianne Wiggins, author most recently of Evidence of Things Unseen and The Shadow Catcher and professor at USC, recently compiled a list of the best American Literature.  She made the list at the request of an attendee at one of her recent public lectures with the caveat that while she wouldn’t take any work off the list, there are certainly some works that she would add with more thought.  Here are the books that she advocates are the best in our history:

  • James Agee – A Death in the Family
  • Louisa May Alcott – Little Women
  • Sherwood Anderson – Winesburg, Ohio
  • Willa Cather – The Song of the Lark
  • Truman Capote – In Cold Blood
  • Raymond Carver – Collected Stories
  • Stephen Crane – The Red Badge of Courage
  • EL Doctorow – Ragtime and The Book of Daniel
  • Ralph Ellison – The Invisible Man (Agree?  Vote for The Invisible Man to win the Best National Book Awards Fiction)
  • Ernest  Hemingway- Men Without Women, In Our Time, and A Moveable Feast
  • Henry James – What Maise Knew
  • Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son
  • William Kennedy – The Albany Series (Ironweed)
  • Elmore Leonard – Get Shorty
  • Cormac McCarthy – The Cities of the Plain Trilogy, Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, The Road
  • Herman Melville – Moby Dick and The Confidence Man
  • Joyce Carol Oates – Collected Stories
  • Flannery O’Connor – Collected Stories (another one of the six finalists for the Best of the National Book Awards Fiction)
  • John O’Hara – Collected Stories
  • Annie Proulx – The Shipping News
  • JD Salinger – Nine Stories
  • Gertrude Stein – The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
  • John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath and Travels with Charlie
  • Mark Twain – Collected Works
  • John Updike – The “Rabbit” Works
  • Tobias Wolfe – Collected Stories

Although she didn’t list Phillip Roth, I have heard her describe Roth and McCarthy as the best living American writers.  Regarding Roth, she recommended reading The Counterlife, American Pastoral and then everything he wrote after American Pastoral.

I find her list interesting, especially the works she did and didn’t pick for Cather, James, Hemingway and Steinbeck.   I would have assumed From Whom the Bell Tolls for Hemingway, but I’ve never read In Our Time. Now, I’m curious about In Our Time and otherwise wouldn’t have given it a thought.

I noticed that Edith Wharton isn’t on the list, and maybe Prof. Wiggins didn’t think of her; the next time I see her, that’s the author I’m going to ask about.  Which books would you add to the list?

18 thoughts on “The Best American Literature

  1. I was wondering if anyone would notice it isn’t on the list! My impression from Prof Wiggens is that while she appreciated The Great Gatsby, she wasn’t always crazy about some of the ways Fitzgerald used Nick as the narrator. That may be why Gatsby isn’t on her list, but it certainly makes many other lists.


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  3. Thank you for the suggestion! Malamud is new to me, I’ve added his Collected Works to my used book store list.

    And congrats to you for the making the shortlist for the Sean O Faolain Short Story Competition!


  4. William Faulkner, of course! I appreciate his work, but honestly don’t love it, so he didn’t occur to me. But, he also makes every other Amer. Lit list I’ve ever seen.

    Charles McCarry is an interesting addition. I loved Tears of Autumn and have recommended it numerous times. I haven’t read anything else of his, but will add The Last Supper to my list.


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  6. I think Proulx will look like a bad choice in retrospect.

    I like McCarthy, but that’s way too much of him — the first two books of the Border Trilogy would suffice.

    Including only What Maisie Knew for James is perverse, almost like it has to be a blatant provocation.

    Elmore Leonard seems like too conspicuous a stab at populism. (And why not something by Raymond Chandler instead?)


  7. Not a huge Proulx fan myself, but I think I’m in a slim minority. I wondered about Chandler myself, but thought possibly the Hollywood “genre” was covered by Get Shorty.

    Thank you for you insights!


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  9. The Scarlett Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
    Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
    Native Son, Richard Wright
    Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs
    The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
    Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
    The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
    Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser
    The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
    The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
    The Color Purple, Alice Walker
    The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
    The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty


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  11. “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller seems like a glaring omission to me. Most brilliant use of satire ever to drive home a point – the insanity of war.


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