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Must haves for American Literature

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Luna Lee, I just remembered this list as it's a different way of choosing, via "most important" or "most frequent" authors. Hope it helps, and doesn't add to the overwhelming great lists posted on this thread! :)


classic, must-read American titles:

- To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)

- The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)

the "pick one" American authors:

pick one by Nathaniel Hawthorne:

- The Scarlett Letter (novel)

- The House of Seven Gables (novel)

- The Minister's Black Veil (short story)

- Young Goodman Brown (short story)

- Rappaccini's Daughter (short story)

- My Kinsman, Major Molieneux (short story)

pick one by Herman Melville

- Moby Dick (long novel)

- Billy Budd (novella)

- Bartleby the Scrivner (short story)

pick one by Jack London:

- White Fang (novel)

- The Call of the Wild (novel)

- The Sea Wolf (novel)

- To Build a Fire (short story)

pick one by Mark Twain:

- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (novel)

- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (novel)

- The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (short story)

- Story without an End (short story)

pick one by Stephen Crane:

- The Red Badge of Courage (Crane) -- novella; coming of age storie set in the Civil War

- Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (Crane) -- short story; comedic, yet poignant

- The Open Boat (Crane) -- short story; semi-autobiographical tale of survival

- The Monster (Crane) -- short story; in saving a child from a burning house a man is terribly scarred

pick one by Edgar Allen Poe

- The Raven (poem)

- Fall of the House of Usher (short story)

- The Cask of Almontilado (short story)

- The Black Cat (short story)

- The Masque of the Red Death (short story)

- The Tell-Tale Heart (short story)

- The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Poe) -- short story

pick one by O. Henry

- Gift of the Magi (Henry) -- short story

- The Ransom of Red Chief (Henry) -- short story

- The Last Leaf (Henry) -- short story

pick one by Ernest Hemingway

- Farewell to Arms (novel)

- The Old Man and the Sea (novella)

- Snows of Kilimanjaro (short story)

- For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel)

pick one by John Steinbeck

- The Pearl (novella)

- The Red Pony (short story)

- The Grapes of Wrath (novel)

- Of Mice and Men (play)

pick one by Ray Bradbury

- Farenheit 451 (novel)

- The Martian Chronicles (short story collection)

- There Will Come Soft Rains (short story)

- Something Wicked This Way Comes (novel)

pick one biography:

- Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography - Colonial times

- Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass - Colonial times

- Black Like Me (Griffin) -- the author's experiences in 1960s rural South disguised as an African American

pick poems by classic American poets

- Emily Dickinson

- Robert Frost

- Langston Huges

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

- Walt Whitman

- William Carlos Williams

pick one classic American play to read or watch:

- Raisin in the Sun (Hansberry)

- Our Town (Wilder)

- Death of a Salesman (Miller)

- The Crucible (Miller)

- Ah, Wilderness! (O'Neill)

- The Glass Menagerie (Williams)

pick from other classic short stories

- The Most Dangerous Game (Connell)

- The Lady or the Tiger (Stockton)

- The Lottery (Jackson)

- Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge (Bierce)

- Story of an Hour (Chopin)

- The Luck of Roaring Camp (Harte)

- Rip Van Winkle (short story)

- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (short story)

- Thank You Ma'am (Hughes)

- The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas (Le Guin)

- A Jury of Her Peers (Glaspell)

- A Good Man is Hard to Find (O'Connor)

- a short story by choice of other author:

Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Katherine Porter, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner...

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I actually found (completely accidentally) Classics of American Literature by the Teaching Company. I am listening to the lectures myself right now and plan on using many in the fall for our study. I created a plan for us based on Classics of American Literature in conjunction with the Welltrained Mind way of studying literature. We won't get around to studying all of the works but the TC lectures make for a great outline.


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In anticipation of choosing and reading some American lit with my boys and daughter this coming year, I just started reading Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Shaped Our National Identity by Thomas Foster. Foster is also the author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor. So far, it's been an easy, interesting, and fun read.

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I actually found (completely accidentally) Classics of American Literature by the Teaching Company. I am listening to the lectures myself right now and plan on using many in the fall for our study. I created a plan for us based on Classics of American Literature in conjunction with the Welltrained Mind way of studying literature. We won't get around to studying all of the works but the TC lectures make for a great outline.


Good recommendation, Susie! :) In case anyone is interested in who / what the series covers, here's what I could glean from the lecture titles and descriptions:


- Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography

- Washington Irving

- Ralph Waldo Emerson — Self Reliance

- Henry David Thoreau — Walden

- Edgar Allan Poe — Fall of the House of Usher; Cask of Amontillado; Black Cat; Tell Tale Heart; Pit & Pendulum

- Nathaniel Hawthorne —The Scarlet Letter

- Herman Melville — Making of Moby-Dick; Benito Cereno

- Walt Whitman — Leaves of Grass; Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

- Harriet Beecher Stowe — Uncle Tom's Cabin

- Emily Dickinson

- Mark Twain — The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Huckleberry Finn; Pudd'nhead Wilson

- Henry James — The Ambassadors; The Turn of the Screw

- Stephen Crane — The Red Badge of Courage; The Open Boat; The Blue Hotel

- Charlotte Perkins Gilman — The Yellow Wallpaper

- Robert Frost

- T.S. Eliot — The Waste Land

- F. Scott Fitzgerald — The Great Gatsby

- Ernest Hemingway — The Sun Also Rises

- William Faulkner — The Sound and the Fury; Absalom, Absalom!

- John Steinbeck — The Grapes of Wrath

- Ralph Ellison — Invisible Man

- Eugene O'Neill— Long Day's Journey Into Night

- Tennessee Williams— A Streetcar Named Desire

- Arthur Miller — Death of a Salesman

- Toni Morrison — Beloved

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One if the really interesting things that came out of my college American Lit class was the idea that we should not stop reading literature in 1960. The list should contain newer books as well, because we have changed the way we write about ourselves since the Cold War. I hadn't thought of this previously, but since have added a few titles for when my son studies and for my high school independent contract kids.


The Help by Katheryn Stockett

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer


Though I dislike the designation between "boy books" and "girl books", it is equally stupid to force kids to read literature that they are not interested in. For that reason Cane River by Lalita Tademy and Poisonwood Bible by Barabra Kingsoliver are very well done books solely chronicling generations of females. Fantastic literature. Very good, strong American Lit. Many boys might honestly mutiny due to not finding anything for themselves within the pages. I argue the best way for them to learn how women think is to read the lives of women, but many just find it boring.

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For others trying to build their list, all but a handful of the short stories listed here (and plenty more) can be found in The American Short Story by Thomas K. Parkes. You can find it used on Amazon for a penny + shipping.

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I don't know if it's a favorite or not, but I do have a 1950 edition of Poems of American History by Burton Egbert Stevenson I'll select pieces from. :)

After checking the index, it only has Longfellow and Whitman from the above list. I'll still use pieces of it.


Dickinson and Poe have audiobooks at that Lit2go link though, as do half a dozen authors on my list. Thanks, Susie in CA!


I am getting there with DD's list and syllabus. We started with the fundafunda schedule (TC course, History of the American People, DVDs, etc), replaced Critical Thinking with parts of a textbook, and added Mammoth Book of Eyewitness America for original source documents. Last night I keyed in our lit choices to it. Short stories and poetry are on today's to-do list. I think I'll have DD do Trail Guide to U.S. Geography over the summer before 9th instead of keying it into the history/lit syllabus. TG was her choice, but this is already meaty enough.

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Works/Authors that would be on my personal "really try to get to it" American Lit list, because these are classics, but also are really capturing some aspect of American culture or thought:


- Scarlet Letter -- OR -- other (Hawthorne)

- "The Raven" and a short story (Poe)

- Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Twain)

- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)

- "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (Bierce)

- Call of the Wild (London)

- The Red Badge of Courage -- OR -- "The Open Boat" (Crane)

- something by O. Henry

- The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)

- something by Hemingway

- something by Steinbeck

- Farenheit 451 (Bradbury)

- To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)

- A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller)

- something by Flannery O'Connor

- something by Le Guin


Other American works to consider:



Their Eyes Were Watching God (Hurston) 



The Chosen (Potok) -- other culture: Jewish/coming of age (confession: I found it dull and "so what?"  :blushing:)



A Separate Peace (Knowles) -- coming of age (confession: I found it dull and "so what?"  :blushing: )

The Martian Chronicles (Bradbury) -- sci-fi; short story collection, loosely connected

Black Like Me (Griffiths) -- autobiography; white, living as black, in the Deep South, during Civil Rights



A Canticle for Lebowitz (Miller) -- sci-fi (can read for comparison: Neal Stephenson's 2009 Anathem)

I Heard the Owl Call My Name (Craven) -- other culture: Native Canadian peoples/realistic



Earthsea trilogy: Wizard of Earthsea, Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore (Le Guin) -- fantasy



The Joy Luck Club (Tan) -- Chinese immigrant/coming to terms/realistic

The River Why (Duncan) -- coming of age/philosophical

A Prayer for Owen Meany (Irving)*** -- realistic (VERY like A Separate Peace)



Peace Like a River (Enger) -- coming of age/realistic

Gilead (Robison) -- probably not a teen choice, but a lovely message of the beauty of ordinary life

The Road (McCarthy) -- PREVIEW (no personal experience yet)

The Help (Stockett)  -- PREVIEW (no personal experience yet)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Foer)  -- PREVIEW (no personal experience yet)

The Hunger Games (Collins) -- trilogy; sci-fi/dystopia

(The first book of the trilogy is only adequate in the writing, but worthwhile for discussion of the themes; the next two books are way to rushed and sketchy to be worthwhile for Lit.; new lit guides out for these from Garlic Press Discovering Literature series)


*** = also author of World According to Garp and Cider House Rules -- PREVIEW those, as I have no personal experience


More American poets who are accessible (NOTE: ** = more contemporary, i.e., post 1950)

- Robert Lowell

- Ogden Nash

- Donald Justice **

- Jane Kenyon **

- Phillip Levine **

- Billy Collins **

- WS Merwin **


More American plays that are accessible (NOTE: ** = more contemporary, i.e. post 1985):

- Arsenic and Old Lace

- You Can't Take It With You

- The Front Page

- Ah, Wilderness!

- Harvey

- Twelve Angry Men

- The Caine Mutiny

- West Side Story (great to pair this with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet)

- Driving Miss Daisy **

- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead ** (best to pair this one with Shakespeare's Hamlet)

- Into the Woods **

- Sunday in the Park With George **

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