One Hundred Best American Novels, 1770 to 1985 (a Draft)Print
A reading enthusiast’s list
By David Handlin
July 16, 2014
About a year ago I put an end to my indiscriminate reading habits. I resolved to read, at least for the time being, only American novels. But I quickly understood that, even within that limited scope, I could be almost as indiscriminate as before. Therefore, to give my reading purpose and focus, I decided to make a project of it. I would compile a list of the 100 Best American Novels, 1770–1985.
A month into this exercise, I suddenly understood what I was doing. I was filling some of the gaps in my undergraduate education. Since college I have been a devoted reader, but for almost five decades my primary focus has been architecture—studying it, teaching it, writing about it, and practicing it.
I write, then, as an enthusiast, not as a scholar. I know something of the difference. I took courses with two preeminent scholars of American literature, Perry Miller and Alan Heimert. Perhaps more consequentially, I was fortunate to be considered a friend by the late Michael Davitt Bell, one of the major scholars of American literature of his generation. While compiling this list I reread his books, filled with wisdom and humor, and was delighted to discover that in 1975 he edited and wrote the introduction to an edition of the improbably titled Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca (1770), the first American novel. I see Bell smiling now at the preposterous nature of my undertaking, while also urging me on and wanting to join in.
Since I can already hear your questions and even protests, I will address them by following my list with a brief discussion of each of the words in my title. (I have rendered in bold the 10 novels I like best.)
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)
One hundred is small enough to force some tough choices. It kills me to leave off the list Herman Melville’s Typee (1846), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and many others. Yet 100 is also large enough to include a few eccentric enthusiasms, for example, Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) and Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), two works of high comedy.
One question inherent in any list of the best novels is how to distribute them over time. Given the country’s ever-growing population, it stands to reason that the list should be much more heavily weighted toward the present than the distant past. But not so quick. Perhaps the reading public of, say, the 1850s was much more dependent on and attuned to novels than it is now, when we are so preoccupied by other sources of information and entertainment. My list thus tries to have it both ways. I divide it into four sections. The first, from 1770 to 1860, has 19 novels. The second, from 1861 to 1904, has 23. The third, from 1905 to 1944, has 27. The fourth, from 1945 to 1985, has 31.
Scholars of literature today often shy away from or even disdain issues of quality. I have a problem with that. In my professional life I am always thinking about quality. If that is true with architecture, why should it not also be true with literature? So here are the three attributes of Best.
Writing. I admire novelists who have a way with words, who create telling phrases, paragraphs, and chapters, and who carry a story from cover to cover with a consistent and unique voice that (dare I say it?) rings true. It’s that simple. But few writers achieve it. Most never get much beyond the workmanlike.
People and Places. It is possible for a writer to be a virtuoso stylist but have nothing to say. I read novels because they tell me about people. I am interested in the complexity of their thoughts and feelings and what propels them to action, especially in their relationships with other people. Novels that offer true insights about these matters will always be worth reading, no matter when they were written. Secondarily, since all architects are, however covertly, environmental determinists, I am also interested in how novelists describe places, natural and manmade, and their effects on people.
Our country and culture. Many of the most memorable characters in the novels on the list are not only striking individuals, they are also American types and even archetypes. I do not like the phrase The American Experience. It’s too inclusive and undiscriminating. The American Experiment is much more resonant. Inherent in that phrase is the recognition that certain ideas, issues, and events are at the core of our country’s history and culture. Novels can connect us to what these were at a specific time and for all time.
No issue has perplexed me more than how to weigh these three criteria in selecting the One Hundred Best American Novels. The temptation is enormous to be somehow representative—of groups, regions, literary movements, tendencies, and so forth. I have tried to resist all of that because writing ultimately and unequivocally comes first. Thus, if I were to be asked why I have included five novels each by Henry James and William Faulkner, my response would be, “Why not 10?” In each period there are really no more than two or three writers of the first rank. I am so in awe of them that I am tempted to include even their secondary and tertiary works. But with reluctance I have restrained myself.
In principle any novel by an American, set in America, or about America potentially qualifies. In practice there are difficulties.
A few novelists were not born in the United States. Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example, was born in 1902 near Warsaw and emigrated to the United States in 1935. He wrote exclusively in Yiddish, and his works were then translated into English. Most of his 17 novels are set in the old country, but toward the end of his career his subject matter increasingly was the transition to the new world. These are American novels.
Another group of writers periodically lived and wrote abroad, chief among them Henry James. He left the United States in 1875 and lived almost exclusively in Europe, mainly England, till his death in 1916. Shortly before he died he became a British subject. But he did that as a gesture of solidarity in support of England’s war effort, not as a commentary on his country of birth. A few of James’s novels are set in Europe and have only European characters.
The most problematical novelist in these terms is Vladimir Nabokov. Born in Russia in 1899, he was brought up trilingual, in Russian, French, and English. He settled in the United States in 1940. The income from Lolita (1955) allowed him to focus solely on his writing and to move back to Europe in the fall of 1961. While he was in the United States, Nabokov published The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), and Pnin (1957). Lolita and Pnin are set in the United States and are distinctly American, as is Pale Fire (1962).
I am sure there are many dictionary and encyclopedia definitions of a novel. Scholars also discuss how novel took primacy over tale and romance. I will bypass all of that. Here’s what I think novels are not: epic poems, plays, autobiographies, or collections of short stories. However, I have included an early work of collected and connected short pieces about a single person: Johnson Jones Hooper’s Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845). Simon Suggs, like Tom Ripley of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), is a confidence man bordering on sociopath, certainly a distinctive American type.
I can find no clear demarcation between a novella and a novel. Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951) is classified (by the Library of America) as a novel, but it is only 58 pages long.
1770 to 1985
Until recently there were five contenders for the first American novel: Francis Hopkinson’s A Pretty Story (1774); Thomas Atwood Digges’s Adventures of Alonso … By a Native of Maryland (1775); Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1794, but first published in England in 1791 as Charlotte); Hannah W. Foster’s The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797); and William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789). Francis Hopkinson was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His novel is a political satire about King George. Digges’s book is not set in America. Charlotte Temple was tremendously popular in the first half of the 19th century and may be of interest because of that. But as writing, it is a sentimental piece of fluff. The Coquette is more substantial and has had more staying power. The epistolary novel The Power of Sympathy is not just Clarissa Light, it is Clarissa Extremely Light. Are any of these authors an American Defoe, Swift, Smollett, Fielding, Austen, or Richardson?
Not even close.
The novel that now has chronological primacy, Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, is an interesting case. A full manuscript was discovered only in the 1950s, two centuries after it was written. Turned out in 1770 by college undergraduates, the novel is sophomoric. So 1770 is the starting point of the American novel, even though Father Bombo does not make the list and even though the first substantial novel did not appear for more than two decades after that.
I graduated from college in 1965. At that time, because the recent past was considered too murky to penetrate intelligently, American History and Literature, my field of concentration, stopped at 1945. I continue to share that skepticism about the study of the recent past. Thus my cutoff date is 1985. That is not tied to a historically significant event like 1865 or 1945. I cannot defend it against, for example, 1990, except to say that there are already enough issues of perspective that bear upon the novels from 1945 to 1985. They would be magnified the closer the end date is to the present.
I have read many novels by authors not on the list as well as many, but not all, works by authors on the list. James Fenimore Cooper, for example, wrote 32 works of fiction (many of which he called tales). Most of these weigh in at more than 400 pages each. In the face of such productivity, I found that the best way to prioritize reading is to rely on the opinions of others. But questions about those opinions inevitably arise. Consider the case of Willa Cather. Do we prefer O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918) because they are about the pioneering phase of the settlement of the Great Plains and thus confirm the residual Turnerian myth we still want to believe? Are they really better novels than, for example, One of Ours (1922) and A Lost Lady (1923), which tell of later, more settled, more prosperous, but more aimless generations in the Midwest—subjects equally important to Cather? And is Shadows on the Rock (1931), which is now rarely read, less deserving than Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)?
Many such questions remain to be answered. But this is a start.
Read feminist scholar Sandra Gilbert’s response to this list
David Handlin is the founding partner of Handlin, Garrahan and Associates, an architecture firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of The American Home, Architecture and Society, 1815-1915 and American Architecture.