100 Best American Novels Before 1985?

It is probably impossible to come up with an objective list of the 100 best novels from any country.  Nonetheless, people try, and these lists can be helpful for people  looking for new works to read or a way to fill in the gaps of their undergraduate English literature degree.

This particular list comes from David Handlin, who describes himself as an “enthusiast” rather than a scholar.  He published this list in The American Scholar recently.  For the complete article, including his definition of what he means by “Best American Novels,” click here..  He places in bold-face the novels that are his personal favorites.

If your goal is to better understand the American literary tradition, I think this is a reasonably good list.  I teach American literature in a university, and if I could teach 100 novels, I think my list would not be dramatically different from this one.

What do you think?  Are there novels you think should be on this list?  Are there some that should definitely be removed?


1. Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Modern Chivalry (1792–1815)

2. Hannah W. Foster, The Coquette (1797)

3. Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland (1798)

4. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie (1827)

5. James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie (1827)

6. John Pendleton Kennedy, Swallow Barn (1832)

7. Robert Montgomery Bird, Sheppard Lee (1836)

8. Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)

9. Johnson Jones Hooper, Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845)

10. George Lippard, The Quaker City, the Monks of Monk Hall (1845)

11. James Fenimore Cooper, The Crater (1847)

12. Herman Melville, Redburn (1849)

13. Ik Marvel (Donald G. Mitchell), Reveries of a Bachelor (1850)

14. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)

15. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

16. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or The Whale (1851)

17. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

18. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

19. Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man (1857)

20. John W. DeForest, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion (1867)

21. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868–1869)

22. Albion Tourgée, A Fool’s Errand (1879)

23. George Washington Cable, The Grandissimes (1880)

24. Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

25. Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

26. Henry James, The Bostonians (1886)

27. Henry James, The Princess Casamassima (1886)

28. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000–1887 (1888)

29. Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)

30. William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890)

31. Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)

32. Henry Blake Fuller, The Cliff-Dwellers (1893)

33. Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)

34. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

35. Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896)

36. Frank Norris, McTeague (1899)

37. Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1899)

38. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)

39. Frank Norris, The Octopus (1901)

40. Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902)

41. Owen Wister, The Virginian (1902)

42. Henry James, The Ambassadors (1903)

 43. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)

44. Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913)

45. Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

46. Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)

47. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (1920)

48. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

49. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

50. John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (1925)

51. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

52. Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

53. Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928)

54. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

55. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

56. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930)

57. Willa Cather, Shadows on the Rock (1931)

58. William Faulkner, Light in August (1932)

59. Daniel Fuchs, Summer in Williamsburg (1934)

60. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood (1936)

61. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

62. John Dos Passos, U.S.A. (1930–1936)

63. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

64. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

65. Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (1939)

66. Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

67. Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)

68. Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

69. Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

70. James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce (1941)

71. Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946)

72. Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead (1948)

73. Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (1949)

74. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)

75. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

76. Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

77. James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

78. Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)

79. William Gaddis, The Recognitions (1955)

80. John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957)

81. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1958)

82. Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958)

83. John Updike, Rabbit, Run (1960)

84. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)

85. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

86. Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961)

87. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)

88. William Faulkner, The Reivers (1962)

89. Peter Matthiessen, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965)

90. William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)

91. Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

92. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)

93. Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (1971)

94. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies, A Love Story (1972)

95. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

96. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977)

97. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)

98. William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

99. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985)

100. Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “100 Best American Novels Before 1985?

  1. Oh, boy. I have such a hard time when people ask me about favorites. There are so many, and it all sort of depends. For example, I have a hard time reading James Fenimore Cooper without rolling my eyes, so I particularly appreciate Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s “Hope Leslie” as a counterpoint. (She wrote at about the same time as Cooper did and also wrote about Indians, but in a much more sympathetic way). I also tend to be drawn more towards women and minority writers in general. Having said that, I was rather surprised that I agreed with many of Handlin’s favorites, especially “The Scarlet Letter,” “Moby Dick,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Heart is a Lonely Hunter” and “Invisible Man.” I agree with some of the other writers he chose, but I might have chosen different works. For example, I prefer Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury” and James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady.

    I did my doctoral dissertation on writers from the American South from the 1920s and 1930s. That region and that period are among my favorites. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are amazing (she is later than that period, though.) . I also love Zora Neale Hurston, Katharine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Ellen Glasgow, Frances Newman, Carson McCullers, Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, etc. etc.

    I could go on and on.

    But here’s another list for you, this one compiled by a prominent critic of women’s literature. It has a lot more women writers than does the list above.

    http://theamericanscholar.org/list-list-o-list/

    Thanks for asking!

      • I am not as well-versed in the recent “crop” as perhaps I should be, but here are a few I like:

        Ellen Douglas, Alice Walker, Dorothy Allison, Pat Conroy, Lee Smith, Ernest Gaines, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Kaye Gibbons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s