This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth examines a crucial and much-disputed decade in America’s history—the sixties—through the lens of a successful businessman, one who feels that his life has been derailed by what he calls the “indigenous American berserk.”
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.
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.
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.
The House of Mirth
More than one critic has asserted that Lily Bart, the social-climbing heroine of Edith Wharton’s classic novel, is a kind of early-twentieth-century corollary of today’s reality TV stars (think the Kardashians, or any of the various “real” housewives). Bart’s disastrous pursuit of love and comfort (two distinct things that she has a tragic tendency to conflate) resonates as much today as it did when the book was first published in 1905.
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.
The House on Mango Street
America prides itself on being on a melting pot. This beautiful book written from the perspective of a young woman growing up in a neighborhood of Puerto Ricans in Chicago gives the reader a peek inside on of the many many communities that make up American cities. The story is told in poetic vignettes and the unusual format suits the story.
The Joy Luck Club
The story of Amy Tan’s amazing book 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.
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 much beloved by all who read this novel, based on the author’s own childhood.
This Fourth of July, celebrate American history by digging into these classic and contemporary novels. From The Grapes of Wrath to American Pastoral, these books inspire appreciation for our country by exploring its past and giving voice to the variety of communities and cultures that call it home. Happy Birthday, America!
List curated by E. Crane. (Image Credit: shutterstock.com/Nature Art)