Short sentences. Straightforward style. And everything that makes America so majestic, so monstrous. So complex.
My passion for literature exploded when I started reading the great American authors. I had the impression of discovering a breath that was mine.
During my late twenties, the majority of the books I read were the work of a novelist or a novelist from the United States. The American novel is still today what speaks to me the most.
I decided to take the time to create my personal little list of essentials in Uncle Sam’s literature.
The list is obviously colored by my tastes and my readings. I wouldn’t be able to be subjective, I go with my heart. That said, I have tried to provide some historical context.
Some Exclusions of Important American Authors
We had to give ourselves a few rules, otherwise this article would have become a dictionary. Here they are :
This ranking represents the greatest novelists and novelists.
So Bob Dylan, for example, Nobel Prize for Literature, better known for his songs than for his novels (you will read Tarantula , see, I dare you) will not be there.
The 12 Greatest American Writers
Jack London (1876–1916)
The Wild Life Novelist
Jack London‘s work depicts the reality of journeys where man sets out to ensure his survival. His best novels are often read in one go. We are caught up in exciting stories: he describes voyages and storms at sea, the search for gold in the Canadian Far North… Epics that he himself experienced. To read Jack London is to discover a life like no other. That of the adventurer.
He is on this list because | His novels, including L’appel de la forêt (The Call of the Wild), Croc-blanc (White Fang) and Martin Eden , place London among the most popular American authors of his time. He published more than 50 books during his life, many of which were brought to the screen or adapted into children’s literature. He is the most important figure in the adventure novel and one of the first American authors to make a fortune with his pen. He influenced dozens of authors, including Kerouac and Hemingway, who are also on this list.
We read Jack London if: we crave the great outdoors and adventure.
We start with: The call of the forest or Martin Eden
Henry Miller (1891–1980)
The master of indecency
Henry Miller has constructed a radical and subversive autobiographical work. Stories told in the first person, often cries of revolt. He takes issue with the ordinary world he calls “the air-conditioned nightmare”. His novels are imbued with mysticism and sexuality. His pen is so raw that his books were banned for obscenity until the 1960s. His work is an Ode to personal fulfillment, long before the term became a type of book found in pharmacies. The author also said: “The subject of my books is not sex, it is self-liberation. “.
He is on this list because | His style marks a break with existing literary forms. He developed a new form, the semi-autobiographical novel. The novels are often long, the paragraphs too, but the style is free. He has a gift for expressing feelings that others hide at all costs. Miller introduces us to the new currents of consciousness that will explode 15 or 20 years later, during the emergence of the counter-culture. He remains the figure of artistic righteousness.
We read Henry Miller if : we want to taste the revolt of a youth that refuses a functional life.
We start with: Tropic of Cancer
William Faulkner (1897–1962)
The Southern Novelist
William Faulkner is the author who has best described the reality of the southern United States. He created a fictional county, Yoknapatawpha County . Each of his works contributes to the construction of a whole. His novels are epic tales that unfold over nearly half a century. They intertwine the imagination, history and the great questions specific to human beings. Faulkner is also books with a complex narrative structure. He uses ellipses, backtracking, omissions, traps. He seems to like to confuse the reader. It seeks to “depict the multiple thoughts and feelings that run through a narrator’s mind”. Yeah, seriously.
He is on this list because | He is one of the most famous writers in American literature. He is the master of modern storytelling and interior monologue. It depicts social issues related to race, class and gender…issues still relevant almost 100 years later. He won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.
We read William Faulkner if : we want to discover the South of the United States: its rise to power and its decline.
We start with: The Sound and the Fury
Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)
The strong man of understatement
It was while working as a reporter for the Kansas City Star that he learned the basics of his literary approach: short sentences, short paragraphs and vigorous English. He worked as a healer during the First World War, then moved to Paris. He meets important artists there (James Joyce, Picasso…) and decides to write a first novel. He then moved to Key West, Florida, then to Cuba. He will continue to work as a journalist and will cover several major world conflicts. Each of his works deals with different universes and characters, inspired by his experience. He taught us that novel writing isn’t that complicated: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.
He is on this list because | He changed the nature of American writing, uninhibited it. Its minimalist style is surprisingly powerful. His theory of omission, where the author focuses on immediate events, with very little context or interpretation, had a major influence on his contemporaries. The seven novels he published during his lifetime are major works. His personality as an alpha male and bar mainstay, his constant search for adventure are almost as important today as his work. You only have to take a trip to Havana to realize it. PS – You will have a drink at La Floridita , (best daiquiri of my life).
We read Ernest Hemingway if : we want to discover American literature in its iconic style.
We start with: The sun also rises
Raymond Chandler (1888–1959)
The boss of the noir novel
Chandler is the father of the popular investigation novel as we know it: a sordid crime, a lead, a few clues and a private detective who has seen others. It was when he lost his job, aged 44, that Raymond Chandler decided to write detective novels, hoping to earn a living. He created the character of Philip Marlowe, a cynical private detective, always a little after the day before. An honest man who spawns in a corrupt Los Angeles.
Humphrey Bogart in Philip Marlow – The Big Sleep
He is on this list because | It transformed 20th century detective fiction. He influenced modern detective literature, defined the bases of the noir novel. Chandler’s novels devour each other. He keeps our attention, is gifted for the action scene and for the suspense. But what sets him apart as an author is his talent for dialogue. He has a sense of punch, a taste for strong images and inventive figures of speech that make you smile. His style is now imitated by several authors.
We read Raymond Chandler if : we want to have fun, be entertained with timeless crime novels.
We start with: The Great Sleep
John Steinbeck (1902–1968)
The author of discontent
A committed author, Steinbeck has built a work set in the rural landscapes of the American West. He depicts the plight of the working class during the 1930s. After his first major work, Mice and Men, most of his novels became bestsellers. Steinbeck’s naturalistic novels can all be classified as social books dealing with economic problems and the bitterness of the Great Depression. His ability to build larger-than-life characters is perhaps his biggest strength. One feels in his work a great empathy, in particular for the migrant agricultural workers.
He is on this list because | Steinbeck is considered the main figure in American literature of the interwar period. He forever forged the social novel, gave a voice to a social class that had none. He is said to be “a giant of American letters” and many of his novels are classics of Western literature. He was the recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.
We read John Steinbeck if : we want to discover the lives of workers in the West during the Great Depression.
We start with: The grapes of wrath
Jack Kerouac (1922–1969)
The Wanderer of American Literature
Kerouac is a spontaneous pen. Novels deliberately left raw and largely autobiographical. It recounts the desires of the post-war generation in search of freedom. His novels present themes such as travel, spiritual quest, poverty, drugs and sex.
He is on this list because | On the road captured the spirit of its time and remains a classic of American literature. Kerouac’s contribution marked many cultural icons of the 60s and his influence on popular music is undeniable. Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and the Doors claim to have been influenced by the author.
Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player of The Doors had also said on this subject: “I suppose that if Jack Kerouac had not written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed. »
We read Jack Kerouac if : we want to discover the Beat generation .
We start with: On the road
Toni Morrison (1931–2019)
America’s Memory Keeper
I discovered Toni Morrison while reading Beloved and I was blown away. The novel presents to us, in rare literary beauty, the horrors of slavery. Toni Morrison is a novelist, essayist and professor of literature. She explored black identity in America, particularly the experience of black women. She said: “The story of slavery is that of a black man who wants to free himself from his chains. The women were missing in this narration”.
Toni Morrison is the author who has best described the experience of African Americans in the history of the United States. His novels were regularly on the New York Times bestseller list and have been the subject of several critical studies. A poll of authors and literary critics ranked Beloved as the best work of American fiction of the late 20th century. She is the first African-American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
We read Toni Morrison if : we want to discover black identity in America, told by a woman.
We start with: Beloved
Philip Roth (1933–2018)
The Giant of Lust
Thanks to the creation of his alter ego (Ex.: Nathan Zuckerman, present in nine novels), Philip Roth manages to blur the distinction between reality and fiction. It explores American identity from a personal perspective: what it means to be a Jew, a writer, a man…
It offers a sensitive window on the romantic relationships, the joy and the suffering that punctuate our journey. He explores the intricacies of male sexuality like no author before him. His stories are often set in significant moments in United States history. Philip Roth, it’s the total!
He is on this list because | He is one of the most important American writers of his generation. Prolific (26 novels), he created perhaps his best works when he was in his sixties. His influence on literature and on art in general is undeniable.
“I’ll tell you, those three recent books ( American Pastoral, I Married a Communist , The Stain ) by Philip Roth really pissed me off… Being in your 60s, doing such a strong work, so full of revelations about love and emotional pain, that’s the way to live your artistic life. »
– Bruce Springsteen
One reads Philip Roth if: One wants to discover the experience of the Jewish and white baby-boomer of America.
We start with: American Pastoral
The Prince of Darkness
McCarthy devoted himself to full-time writing at an early age, choosing not to pursue other jobs to support his career. He said, in one of his only television interviews: “I always knew that I didn’t want to work. It was the number one priority.”
He knew how to stay the course, working at the rate of 6 to 8 hours of writing per day. After 20 years of this regime, he obtains success and recognition during the publication of his 6th novel. He is known for his extensive historical research. He camped his first works in the state of Tennessee then became interested in the idea of the West with his historical Western Blood Meridian, a hypnotic and bloodthirsty masterpiece.
His post-apocalyptic science fiction novel La route (The road), published in 2006 and brought to the screen a few years later, became an instant classic.
He is on this list because | As of this writing, McCarthy is 87 years old. He is considered by many to be the greatest living American writer. His novels are of great depth and terrible beauty. His style is inventive, close to the poem, both serious and musical. Grand and minimalist.
“I believe in periods, capital letters, the occasional comma, and that’s it.” This is the author of overcoming, hard work.
Cormac McCarthy on his creative process.
He revisited the literary genre of the American western novel several times, infusing it with a modern aspect, thanks to his unique pen and his use of symbols.
We read Cormac McCarthy if : we want to discover the darkness of America, in a poetic language with biblical overtones.
We start with: The road
Some would say it’s not literature, that the horror style is a subgenre. I do not agree. You can like the style or not, but Stephen King is a true master. His stories are gripping and well written. Nothing to do with other successful authors whose novels are designed for quick consumption. We only have to read Ça (It), Carrie , or her pandemic novel Le Fléau (The Stand) to realize that we are dealing with a great person.
He is on this list because | His books revived the genre of horror fiction in the late 20th century. He has written over 112 books, has been translated over 3000 times, has sold over 350 million copies of his novels. We recognize in him a skillful prose, a talent for dialogue, a fluid and frank style, as well as a fierce denunciation of human cruelty. He is ranked among the most distinguished popular writers.
We read Stephen King if : we want to discover the horror novel, by the best of all.
We start with: Carrie
The austere mystery (…sorry for that, it was stronger than me)
It was necessary to end this list with an author who makes the transition between the 20th and 21st centuries and who opens the way for contemporary authors. If John Irving seemed to be on parents’ bedside tables, Auster was in the library of young students. His novels are complex, mysterious. They are often about the search for identity and the search for meaning, coincidence, loss, absence. With his New York trilogy, Auster perfected a limpid, confessional style. It presents us with disoriented heroes gradually imbued with a growing unease, a vague threat and possible hallucinations. His intrigues combine the thriller, the existential story and the autobiography.
He is on this list because | His works are a success with both the press and the public. He has received more than twenty prestigious literary prizes. His work has been translated into 35 languages. Critic Michael Dirda wrote of him in The New York Review of Books in 2008: “Over the past twenty-five years, Paul Auster has established one of the most distinctive niches in contemporary literature.”