Louisa May Alcott
This classic book bring us into the lives of sisters living in New England around the time of the Civil War, bringing to life the trials and tribulations of the time when America was still a new country fighting to become a stronger nation. The characters of the March sisters are beloved by readers of this novel, based on the author’s own childhood.
Songs of America
Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, pairs up with country music powerhouse Tim McGraw for a completely original history of the songs and performers that have shaped America. Starting with battle hymns from the revolution and exploring lyrics both infamous and unknown—as well as highlighting the music that inspired some of our greatest leaders and activists—Songs of America is its own exquisite anthem.
This book is a milestone in American literature. It follows the life of an African American man growing up in the South, going to college, and eventually moving to New York City to join “the Brotherhood.” Filled with passion, the story is illuminating and powerful.
In 1868, Congress first exercised their power to impeach a sitting U.S. president: Andrew Johnson, who rose to power after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. It was a chaotic time in the country: many white Southerners wanted to resume the pre-Civil War status quo, and President Johnson—who wielded executive orders and promoted white supremacy—seemed to support them. Brenda Wineapple not only recounts that tumultuous time and the patriotic efforts to remove Johnson from office, but considers timely questions about the standards for impeachment.
American Indian Stories
In 1884, when Zitkála-Šá was a girl living with her mother on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Quaker missionaries recruited several of the children to attend school in Indiana. There, Zitkála-Šá was expected to part with her cultural roots and assimilate into white culture, a struggle the author and activist would encounter across her lifetime. American Indian Stories collects Zitkála-Šá’s memories, short stories, and poetry for a crucial portrait of Native American life in the 19th century.
Toni Morrison’s novel about one woman’s horrific experience with slavery uses rich prose and imaginative narrative elements to telegraph the cruel realities of American history.
Spying on the South
A two-part narrative from the bestselling author of Confederates in the Attic, Spying on the South tells the story of Frederick Law Olmsted, a Connecticut Yankee who became an undercover correspondent in the South for the then-fledgling New York Times, and Tony Horowitz’s tracing of Olmsted’s footsteps while considering our country’s polarization. At turns revelatory and amusing, it’s a must-read for understanding our present chapter in history.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth examines a crucial and much-disputed decade in America’s history—the ’60s—through the lens of a successful businessman, one who feels that his life has been derailed by what he calls the “indigenous American berserk.”
The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James’s novel follows the career of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who travels to Europe and is subsequently manipulated by a duo of corrupt expats. In addition to capturing timeless features of the American soul—optimism, restlessness, and a lust for experience, among others—the novel also gestures at the problems of female power and self-determination that would become central to the American feminist movement in later decades.
The House on Mango Street
Written from the perspective of a young woman growing up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago, The House on Mango Street gives the reader a peek inside one of the many diverse communities that make up American cities. The story is told in poetic vignettes, and the unusual format suits the story.
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Stowe’s novel, as controversial now as when it was first published in the 1860s, remains required reading for anyone seeking to understand America’s legacy of intolerance and its ongoing racial strife.
For many, the American West looms almost mythically in our imaginations, but journalist Christopher Ketcham brings the stark reality to the page. The public lands of the western U.S.—450 million acres of biodiverse ecosystems—is facing destruction from multiple profit-driven fronts, including the livestock industry. After studying the region for over a decade and speaking to ecologists, biologists, and environmentalists, Ketcham presents us with This Land, an intricate and impassioned work reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
The Joy Luck Club
Amy Tan’s acclaimed novel follows four immigrant Chinese women living in San Francisco. They share their stories with one another while playing mahjong and reveal to the reader the inconceivable hardships of their lives—but more importantly, their indelible spirit and hope for the future.
The Scarlet Letter
Puritanism, once an animating feature of American life, may seem like a thing of the past. But it could be argued (and has been, by many) that our obsession with youth, innocence, and goodness—along with our tendency to shame those who don’t subscribe to our worldviews—can be traced to the ethos of that belief system. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel about an adulteress in Puritan Boston lays bare a troubling current in American culture.
The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton’s classic dark comedy is a biting examination of the wealthiest class, as told through 29-year-old Lily Bart, who must find a husband if she wants to continue her life of comfort rather than wind up destitute. “Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape,” Lily asks, “on the bare chance that he might ultimately do her the honor of boring her for life?”
This Fourth of July, celebrate American history by digging into classic novels and new works of nonfiction that explore the mythos and realities of our country. From the March sisters to Bruce Springsteen, these books inspire reflection and appreciation for our country by exploring its past and giving voice to the cultures that call it home.
Featured Image: @criene/Twenty20