Last week I did a post on classic British literature that doesn’t suck, so this week it’s classic American literature that doesn’t suck. Once again, this isn’t a complete list. I tried to pick books that are not too difficult to understand, had an impact on modern culture, and influenced many modern writers. I borrowed the book summaries from Goodreads. I also picked a few short story collections because there are so many talented American short story writers. Someday, I’ll make a post about short story collections that don’t suck.
My Antonia – Willa Cather – First published in 1918.
The story of Antonia Shimerda is told by one of her friends from childhood, Jim Burden, an orphaned boy from Virginia. Though he leaves the prairie, Jim never forgets the Bohemian girl who so profoundly influenced his life. An immigrant child of immigrant parents, Antonia's girlhood is spent working to help her parents wrest a living from the untamed land. Though in later years she suffers betrayal and desertion, through all the hardships of her life she preserves a valor of spirit that no hardship can daunt or break. When Jim Burden sees her again after many years, he finds her "a rich mine of life," a figure who has turned adversity into a particular kind of triumph in the true spirit of the pioneer.
Why I don’t think it sucks: realistic characters and vivid settings.
In Our Time – Ernest Hemingway – First published in 1925.
When In Our Time was published in 1925, it was praised by Ford Madox Ford, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald for its simple and precise use of language to convey a wide range of complex emotions, and it earned Hemingway a place beside Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein among the most promising American writers of that period. In Our Time contains several early Hemingway classics, including the famous Nick Adams stories "Indian Camp," "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," "The Three Day Blow," and "The Battler," and introduces readers to the hallmarks of the Hemingway style: a lean, tough prose -- enlivened by an ear for the colloquial and an eye for the realistic that suggests, through the simplest of statements, a sense of moral value and a clarity of heart.
Now recognized as one of the most original short story collections in twentieth-century literature, In Our Time provides a key to Hemingway's later works.
Why I don’t think it sucks: Hemingway can say a lot with very few words. This is one of my favorite books ever.
The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe – Edgar Allan Poe – First published in 1927.
This single volume brings together all of Poe's stories and poems, and illuminates the diverse and multifaceted genius of one of the greatest and most influential figures in American literary history.
Why I don’t think it sucks: creepiness.
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck – First published in 1937.
The tragic story of the complex bond between two migrant laborers in Central California. They are George Milton and Lennie Small, itinerant ranch hands who dream of one day owning a small farm. George acts as a father figure to Lennie, who is a very large, simple-minded man, calming him and helping to rein in his immense physical strength.
Why I don’t think it sucks: memorable characters and a memorable ending. Even if you’ve never read the book, you might recognize the characters. They’ve almost become stereotypes, especially in children’s cartoons.
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole – First published in 1980.
A Confederacy of Dunces is an American comic masterpiece. John Kennedy Toole's hero is one Ignatius J. Reilly, "huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans' lower depths, incredibly true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures."
Why I don’t think it sucks: I know that a lot of people wouldn’t consider a book from 1980 a classic, but this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t make this list without including it.