The Top Books of 2015 - The

Best American Books

By David Handlin

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)

Source: theamericanscholar.org
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