Features

The 100 Greatest American Novels, 1893 – 1993

A couple of years ago, one of my brightest, most driven students asked me a simple question for which I had no ready answer: “Do you know where I could find a list of the 100 or so most important works of American fiction from the 20th Century?” I didn’t. I knew of more general lists (The Modern Library‘s 100 Best Novels) and Times 100 Best All Time Novels). I also had several major anthologies of American literature, but I had no link, article, book, or other resource to offer, nothing really that might guide his curiosity.

I was frustrated; this is my field after all, and I like to be able to answer questions like this. But I also knew exactly what he was feeling: the 20th Century in American letters is so diverse, weird, confusing, fragmented, and fascinating that it’s difficult to know where to start. College survey courses try to give students an overview of some of the trends and major works, but they are pieced together and incomplete by necessity.

So I decided to draw up a list–a list of major works that would serve as a starting point and overview of 20th Century American fiction. And then the trouble began. As you might imagine, there are all sorts of problems with any such list: what does important mean? are only American authors included? Are 1900 and 2000 meaningful start and end dates? Do you list multiple works from authors? Single short stories? How do you judge the later works, which haven’t had enough time to simmer in history? Unlike other top 100 novel lists, this one was to be about coverage rather than judgment or ranking.

The end result of my puzzlement were these decisions, which say as much about how I understand literature as they chart any real course.

  • I’d rather have just one Faulkner under my belt if that means I can read another author. So each author only gets one slot.
  • We need 20 years of perspective before we can have any sense of a given work’s longevity. So the latest works we can reasonably include have to have been published in 1993 or before. Mark back 100 years from there and you have 1893, which is good because it falls just after Twain’s high period and catches some late 19th Century work that has more to do with 20th century fiction than 19th.
  • “Important” means that a work is important to readers, writers, critics, and scholars. Not every work will do all three, but the final list should be sufficiently multi-purpose to speak to these groups.
  • This isn’t a judgment but a tool. There’s nothing that says that these will be the works that people who care about literature will care about in another 100 years, but they do need to represent our current sensibilities. “Merit” matters less than influence and reach.
  • While I think the selected work for each author is important, there is some interchangeability.  For example, if you’ve read Song of Solomon, but not Beloved, you have a sense of Morrison.

So here’s what I came up with. You’ll notice that as you approach 1993, there are more texts per decade; this is because we haven’t had time to winnow the field, so there are more, albeit less certain, candidates. I did my best to put my own reading taste to the side: there are many works here that I actively dislike, but the goal isn’t pleasure here but knowledge of the major voices, concerns, movements, innovations, and ideas of the era. You’ll also notice that I use “novel” to mean book-length work of fiction rather than a genre. This is inaccurate, but “book-length work of fiction” is unwieldy.

(I first did a version of this list two years ago, covering 1891-1991. Now that the last hundred years has moved up a couple of years, The Yellow Wallpaper moves off the list on the backend, and Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison gets added on the frontend. Seems to me a fitting substitution somehow)

The list, by year:

  • Maggie, Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane (1893)
  • The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (1896)
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)
  • The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)
  • Three Lives by Gertrude Stein (1909)
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918)
  • The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (1918)
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919)
  • Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (1920)
  • Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson (1921)
  • Cane by Jean Toomer (1923)
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dresier (1925)
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926)
  • The Bridge of the San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1927)
  • Home to Harlem by Claude McKay (1928)
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
  • Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe (1929)
  • The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)
  • Flowering Judas and Other Stories by Katherine Porter (1930)
  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931)
  • Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (1934)
  • The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934)
  • Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (1934)
  • The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos (1936)
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
  • Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West (1939)
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
  • Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)
  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
  • Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener (1947)
  • The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (1948)
  • The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1948)
  • The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1949)
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
  • Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953)
  • The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
  • Andersonville by MacKinley Kantor (1955)
  • On the Road by Jack Keroauc (1957)
  • Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer  (1957)
  • The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever (1957)
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1958)
  • The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud (1958)
  • Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1959)
  • Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (1959)
  • The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley (1959)
  • Browngirl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall (1959)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
  • The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth (1960)
  • The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
  • A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter (1967)
  • The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (1967)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick (1968)
  • Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1969)
  • them by Joyce Carol Oates (1969)
  • The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1969)
  • Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion (1970)
  • The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (1971)
  • Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed (1972)
  • Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (1972)
  • Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973)
  • Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1975)
  • JR by William Gaddis (1976)
  • Roots by Alex Haley (1976)
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977)
  • The World According to Garp by John Irving (1978)
  • Airships by Barry Hannah (1978)
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980)
  • The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1982)
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
  • Cathedral by Raymond Carver (1983)
  • Love Medicine by Lousie Erdrich (1984)
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
  • White Noise by Don Delillo (1985)
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985)
  • City of Glass by Paul Auster (1985)
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989)
  • The Shawl  by Cynthia Ozick (1989)
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990)
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez (1991)
  • Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (1992)

 

What would you change? Also remember the rules of the game: to add something you have to take something off. 

 

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