Best American Books of the 20th Century
No one reads anymore. That’s what they say. But I know and I believe that there are still good people in this world who appreciate good literature — but who don’t always know where to start.
As an avid reader, let me tell you that the classics are the perfect place to start. That’s why I pieced together this list of the best American books of the 20th century — classics from our country that you can read and appreciate and grow to love.
I can say from experience that reading these iconic titles is utterly fulfilling. Take a look at the list below, and decide which one you want to read first.
In modern America, workers have all sorts of protections against abuse, and companies are held liable for on-the-job injuries and other things that can happen in the workplace. But this wasn’t always the case.
Workers once toiled in unspeakable conditions, putting their limbs and their very lives at risk in exchange for a meager paycheck. Companies preyed on the poor, the uneducated and those who had immigrated to the United States from other countries — many who didn’t speak a word of English. Workdays were long, and weekends lasted only 24 hours, if that. Having a job was survival. The concept of job satisfaction that we have today was nothing to blue-collar laborers of the early 20th century.
Upton Sinclair sought to bring attention to the plight of workers when he published The Jungle, a depiction of life as an employee in the meatpacking industry. As a muckraking journalist, he actually went undercover in the stockyards of Chicago to experience what the working poor experienced. It was horrific, and Sinclair details it in each page of the The Jungle.
The Jungle is fiction but it is so firmly based on reality as to come alive on the pages, even more than 100 years later. This was an era of reform and change, though it came in fits and starts. Progressive Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House bringing about changes that needed to be made, and journalists like Sinclair were in the field doing their part to arouse public interest in and sympathy for the plight of those who hadn’t the power to stand up for themselves.
Is The Jungle right for you?
This book may be the platonic ideal of the Great American Novel, a title so often distributed but so rarely deserved. The Great Gatsby’s story unfolds on Long Island in the Roaring ’20s. It involves a man of mystery (Gatsby), his former love (Daisy), her current husband (Tom) and a third party who gets drawn into the fray and who serves as narrator (Nick).
Oh, there are other characters, including a bespectacled billboard that watches as Gatsby, Daisy, Tom and other traverse from Long Island to Manhattan, keeping watch over the misdeeds. But this is a classic tale of love and loss, and the great lengths a lover rejected will go to in order to win back the object of his affection.
There’s a beautiful innocence to The Great Gatsby, a story told in a time that seems free from worry and fear. There are loud parties that extend well past midnight and into the wee hours. There are hot summer days passed by all manner of leisure activities. There’s time spent in the New York City of old, a place that seems all success and no failure.
But there’s also tragedy and death. And it all unfolds in a book you could finish in a day. If you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, you’re missing out on a story that’s so universally read, understood and beloved in America that you’ll find yourself locked out of many a conversation, many a joke, and many an obscure reference throughout your lifetime. Read it and discover what all the fuss is about.
Is The Great Gatsby right for you?
OK, so this is one of those stories that some readers just don’t “get,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a novel about a journey, one from Paris to Pamplona, and one that’s largely devoid of a narrative. Reading The Sun Also Rises is more like watching a reality show: You get to see the lives of British and American expats as they explore the Europe of the 1920s, a place that had just survived one world war and that would soon have another.
But here’s what I like about The Sun Also Rises: It transports you back to that place and time, and it provides a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of the people who called that place and time home. They drink, they love, they look, they enjoy, they sleep, and so on and so forth. And you get to go along for the ride.
And then there’s Ernest Hemingway’s trademark writing style or carrying on and on, taking a sentence this and then that way, and adding on one more thought and one more modifier, as if he has so much to say about a certain subject or place that he just can’t help himself from saying it.
The Sun Also Rises is a series of life snapshots, which I love. But not everyone loves it. I will say, though, if you’ve never read Hemingway, his is a beautiful and informative place to start, for the writing if not for the story itself.
Is The Sun Also Rises right for you?
After you read The Great Gatsby and after you read The Sun Also Rises, you may get the sense that people in the early 20th century did little other than drink and enjoy life. But then you pick up Of Mice and Men, and you realize just how quickly the fortunes of Americans and expats changed during the course of the 1900s.
Of Mice and Men takes place in the heart of the Great Depression, and it follows two ranch workers wandering through California searching for the next job. One is smart (George) and one is not so smart (Lennie). They land jobs on a farm, and the plot slowly starts to unfold, full of hope but drifting toward tragedy.
Lennie is a huge, strong man, but he’s also mentally disabled. All he wants to do in the world is raising rabbits, though he has a tendency to pet them so hard that they die — seriously. George is Lennie’s constant companion and his shield from the world, doing whatever he can to protect them. Together, they want to find their own piece of land and settle down.
I don’t want to ruin it for you, but the rest of the story from the moment they arrive on the farm is compelling and indescribably sad. This is one book that matches virtuoso writing with a can’t-put-it-down plot.
Is Of Mice and Men right for you?
The Catcher in the Rye was emo before emo was a thing. If The Great Gatsby is a fairy tale and mystery that unfolds in the voice of Nick Carraway, a passive bystander, The Catcher in the Rye is an angst-ridden walk-sprint through Pennsylvania boarding school life and New York City of the 1950s as shared by a teenage malcontent named Holden Caulfield.
When you start reading The Catcher in the Rye, you’re struck by how different it is. There’s no wading into a plot. There’s no subtle introduction of new characters. There’s little to now dialogue. There’s just Holden Caulfield doing this and then doing that, all the while sharing his very opinionated and pointed thoughts with the reader.
It’s a masterpiece. The notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger has taken the concept of a misfit teenager and brought it to life through Holden Caulfield. I read the first few pages of this book years ago, and I wondered if it was something I really wanted to read. But I was only questioning my ability to go forward because of how different it was. It’s that difference and that uniqueness that makes it worth the read.
There’s not much of a big reveal in the end. This story is more about the journey that you go on, and the view you have into the mind and soul of Holden Caulfield.
Is The Catcher in the Rye right for you?
Fahrenheit 451 imagines a dark future — a future in which books are outlawed. In this story, teams of firemen are called in to burn books whenever they are found. The pages of a book are known to burn at a certain temperature, 451 degrees Fahrenheit, which is where the book gets its name.
The main character is Guy Montag, how works as a fireman on one of these book-burning teams. A chance meeting with a teenage neighbor and the near death of his wife leading Guy Montag to take an interest in books. This interest (and a number of plot twists and turns) leads him to discover a rural community of book lovers. Each member of the community has memorized every word of different books so that someday they can share them with a new society, one that will emerge after the current society has been destroyed.
It all sounds ridiculous, I know, but it all makes sense when you read the book. Bradbury wrote it partially in response to the proliferation of mass media during the 20th century, one that reduced the amount of time people spent reading. It was also the time of the Red Scare and the McCarthy hearings, and there was a greater concern over censorship.
I’ll be honest: This would be No. 1 on my list. I love dystopian novels like this one and Brave New World and 1984. And I love books, which provides another point of relevance for me. I would highly recommend it, but I fully recognize this title won’t be for everyone.
Is Fahrenheit 451 right for you?
Court cases have long been the centerpiece of compelling books and movies. There’s 12 Angry Men and Inherit the Wind, not to mention the more modern A Time to Kill and Philadelphia. There’s something that can’t be ignored when books and movies provide a glimpse into the American justice system. And To Kill a Mockingbird is the greatest of all books and movies built around a courtroom.
The story focused on the work of small town attorney Atticus Finch, a widow who is appointed to defend a black man by the name of Tom Robinson. Robinson stands accused of raping a white woman, and the town wants to see him hang from a tree. That want it so badly that a mob storms the jail to take Tom Robinson and deliver its own version of justice — though Atticus Finch stops the mob in one of the book’s most memorable scenes.
Of course, as you can imagine, against all odds Atticus Finch proves Tom Robinson’s innocence. But what makes To Kill a Mockingbird such a classic isn’t just this plot, one that would be perfectly shared through a third-person narrative, but that the story unfolds through the eyes of Scout — Atticus Finch’s 6-year-old daughter. Not only do we see justice delivered in a place where too few black people could count on justice, we also see Scout’s coming of age and loss of innocence.
I’m guessing you were assigned to read this at some point in high school. If you didn’t for some reason read it, or even if you did and have now forgotten it, this title is well worth your attention today. You can even read Harper Lee’s sequel that was published shortly before her death.
Is To Kill a Mockingbird right for you?
It seems like one of the biggest challenges we have in race relations is a lack of empathy. No matter how hard someone tries, it’s impossible to truly understand and experience what a member of a different people group has experienced or will experience. That’s one reason I think The Color Purple should be required reading: It helps provide empathy where previously there was none.
The book takes place in the South in the 1930s. A young, uneducated girl named Celie is beaten and raped by her father, and how is then married off to an older man. The plot follows Celie’s life as she lives and survives and hopes and dreams. It’s mostly heartbreaking, though at times it’s heartwarming and hopeful.
The Color Purple isn’t one of those books that you say you “love,” because the content is so devastating. But it’s a book that makes you think and that makes you feel, and it’s one that makes me want to search the world for people I can help and things I can do to make this planet a better place. Perhaps that’s overly idealistic of me, but what good is a novel like The Color Purple if it doesn’t bring about change and the desire to make things better in each person that reads it.
Is The Color Purple right for you?
This book is at once fascinating and heartbreaking. It delivers a real glimpse of what it may have been like to live as a runaway slave in America, as well as the scars and long-term damage that living as a slave created, ever years after reaching freedom.
One of the most interesting aspects of Beloved is the supernatural and the fantastical element that’s present. It’s almost too complicated and convoluted to explain this in this space, but know that this novel includes hauntings and symbolism and other powerful elements that will make your skin tingle.
Much like The Color Purple, Beloved isn’t a title that I can say I “love.” But I was moved by it, and I think it’s an incredible work of literature that demands serious consideration if you’re looking to read the best American books of the 20th century.
Is Beloved right for you?
War and books about war are central to the American experience of the 20th century. Our nation endured a portion of World War I, most of World War II and the full extent of years and years spent in conflict in Vietnam.
Vietnam is the setting for Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories that is part fiction and part non-fiction. O’Brien writes from his own perspective, including himself as a character in the stories, but many of the other characters are fictional, though they may be based on real people.
This collection brings to life the Vietnam War and all that its participants experienced. It includes themes of love, tragedy, loneliness, teamwork, longing, hopes and dreams. You see the characters both as warriors and as human beings missing out on their lives to be led back home.
The Vietnam War is such a polarizing event in history, one that is often painted in broad strokes that put people of differing opinions into large group. This collection of short stories paints those who lived the war as people worthy of our gratitude and our sympathy.
Is The Things They Carried right for you?
Final Thoughts on the Best American Books of the 20th Century
I had an opportunity to read many of these books in high school. But, in the infinite wisdom of a teenager, I decided I could get by with skimming them or just reading the Cliff’s Notes. I really passed on a huge opportunity.
So, years later, I committed myself to reading the classics. Most of them are fairly short and easy to get through. And most of them are available at inexpensive prices or for free at the public library. An understanding of literature is a gift that’s available to anyone who wants it — anyone who’s willing to put in the time and effort to read and appreciate the pages of these great works. If you’re looking for a place to start in gaining a better understanding of literature, this list of the best American books of the 20th century is a great place to start.
Which title do you think should be included on this list (and which one do you think it should replace)? Let us know in the comments section, or send us a message directly using our contact page.
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