Must-read American Literature
If you've read On the Road, you're one up on me - I never could get through it, despite many attempts. Maybe the next time will be the charm. Nonetheless, it is (with Allen Ginsberg's epic poem Howl) one of the founding documents of the Beat Generation, so you can't say it didn't have an impact.
It would not be difficult to list other books which have similarly sent shock-waves through the American system. A few which come to mind would be Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which opened more eyes to the crime of slavery than any other book; Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, whose rebellious free verse style revolutionized American writing and paved the way for the Beats; John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which immortalized the struggle of ordinary Americans during the Depression, Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which sparked the environmental movement, and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which was the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the Civil Rights Movement.
That is not the part of your question that most interests me, however. The phrase "fascinating studies of the American soul" inclined me to think of novels that were not just influential, but which defined some essential characteristic of American life.
I'll just focus on ten, arranged in historical order.
The Scarlet Letter Nathanael Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece was about the forbidden love in Puritan American between a young woman and a minister; she suffers the scorn of the community, while he gets to stand on the scaffold and accuse her. Sound familiar? It sure sprang to mind for a lot of Americans during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, for a variety of reasons. In fact, it still comes to mind whenever some well-respected, holier-than-thou role model gets caught doing what he tells everyone else not to do. Hawthorne perfectly captured the American tendency toward judgmental moralism and hypocrisy, which is why the book has never been irrelevant
Moby-Dick Herman Melville's 1851 novel was so far ahead of its time that no one recognized the author's genius until decades after his death. This dense, encyclopedic novel of an ill-fated whale hunt is open to a variety of interpretations that have nothing to do with America, but the driving spirit of the journey of the Pequod is also deeply reflective of the country's win-at-all-costs conquering spirit, which can be as much a force for evil as it can for good.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. On a purely social level, Mark Twain's 1885 novel reveals the moral shame of slavery; more than that, it creates in the protagonist a truly American type: the outcast, the rebel, the hippie, the punk - the one questioning authority, living and working against the grain of his native society.
The Ambassadors by Henry James (1903). Here is a fine example of what might be called American exceptionalism; of a sort, anyway. Middle-aged loser Lambert Strether is sent to France by his rich employer, who is convinced her immature son has been seduced by a shady European dame; his mission is to bring the boy back so that he can take his proper role in the family business. Once Strether arrives, however, Paris proves quite the revelation: he sees how much of his own life has been frittered away - and that maybe there is something to be said for not getting sucked into the machine of duty and obligation.
"Live all you can; it's a mistake not to, " Strether winds up saying. "It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had?"
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920). Gilded Age, Gilded Cage: rich heir Newline Archer's life is mapped out for him from birth. You marry the right girl, you have children, you look after the family's interests and you lead an easy and comfortable life. If you fall passionately in love with another woman, a woman who has everything in common with you, your veritable soulmate, well ... do everything you can to smother it.
The Great Gatsby. F Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel is, of course, about a young man who would have considered Newland Archer as a role model: Jay Gatz, a poor kid who just wanted to be rich, and knew that making it in high society has a lot to do with acting the part.
Absalom, Absalom. William Faulkner's towering 1936 magnum opus is about another type of Gatsby: Thomas Sutpen, a dirt poor kid who also has big dreams about the house on the hill, not so he can throw lavish parties but so he can build a white dynasty. It's also about how history gets written, and how people sentimentalize the past, as a descendant of Sutpen's comes to grips with their family legacy.
Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov's perfectly magical, wickedly inventive 1959 novel of the pedophile Humbert Humbert pursuing the titular nymphet may have been written by an expatriate European sophisticate, but it's also a joyously American book. Nabokov loved his adopted country; he took notes for this book during a cross-country butterfly-hunting expedition, and he fully captured the flavor of domestic life, roadside motels, and cheap amusements. He also couldn't get enough of the natives; you can see it in both the charm and sprightliness of his doomed heroine and the arch-vulgarity of her mother.
Rabbit Tetralogy. John Updike's four-and-a-half novel, roughly spanning 1960-2000, is a decade by decade chronicle of a man's rise and fall, and a near perfect portrait of its times. The details of each of the book are extremely topical; we see Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom watching an episode of The Mickey Mouse Club in the first book, and we're with him watching Roseanne in one of the last ones. The books never once feel dated, however; Updike wrote as if it were his mission to capture the moral and social shifts of his times, to show how all the issues that rocked America played out on the homefront, and he succeeds brilliantly.