In college, in Spain, I took a two year course in American English literature. Here is a list of some of those books that deserved to be there, some that deserved but were not there, and some that were there but did not deserve it.
I'll try to make it chronologically, but I won't try too hard. To begin with, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his two great stories: 'The Scarlet Letter' and 'The House of the Seven Gables'. Nathaniel Hawthorne : Collected Novels: Fanshawe, The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, The Marble Faun (Library of America) I recommend the Library of America edition because it's beautiful and includes more of his tales like 'The Marble Faun'. Of course Hawthorne is not important just for his writing abilities, which are just fine, but for the reflections on the social issues of the times. That is, he was a man of his time.
Next: Thoreau's Walden in the same publishing company Henry David Thoreau : A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers / Walden; Or, Life in the Woods / The Maine Woods / Cape Cod (Library of America). I am interested in reading his other works, I only read so far Walden -and in Spanish, not at college-, which is a masterpiece of literature, simple as that. And I don't even care if it's a declaration of independence or whatever, as some critics say. You see, when somebody can write this well the story itself doesn't really matter, one just reads it and enjoys it. Just like when we eat at home: if the meal is good, everybody shuts up. Makes sense?
Yes, you're going to have to read all this 'blabbing' if you want to get some information from this list. Do you think I'm writing it for philanthropy?
Now here comes Melville. Moby Dick is mandatory in all courses, and so is in this one. Yes, it's full of symbolism, dark images and what have you, but don't get crazy: the main thing is it's fun to read and you learn quite a lot about ships. But I like his short story 'Bartleby' best. It's fantastic. And that's all I have read from him; but as with Thoreau, I want to read more. The penguin edition, Billy Budd and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) looks like a pretty nice book to read. The Penguin edition of Moby-Dick or, The Whale (Penguin Classics) looks gorgeous too.
Mark Twain's 'Huck Finn' can't fail to be in any list either. The younger you are when you read this, the better you'll like it. Why? Because it takes some innocence to appreciate it (innocence meaning ignorance of evil). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Bantam Classic)
Stephen Crane died young, otherwise he would have been one of the most important writers in English, of the size of Hemingway himself. His two short novels, both great, are included here: Great Short Works of Stephen Crane (Perennial Classics).
Henry James had to be here too. In his case practically all his books could be included. But I like best two of them: 'Daisy Miller' and 'Portrait of a Lady'.
Daisy Miller (Penguin Classics), The Portrait of a Lady (Penguin Classics). The first one specially because it has all the ingredients of the rest in less pages.
Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (Penguin Classics) I remember was pretty good, and with a feminine touch (which made for a change). I loved Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which should be mentioned much later, chronologywise; and because it's a play. I also loved Kate Chopin's short book The Awakening, a good psychological portrait of a woman of that era. Ralph Ellison's 'The Invisible Man' was not an easy to read book, but I consider it passionately written and wants to be read carefully (slowly). Invisible Man. Read also William Dean Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham (Nonsuch Classics), it's a fine read. I had to read 'The Last of the Mohicans', but I managed to skip it in college: I thought that such an apparently enjoyable read had to have some PC motivation. Was I right?
I must admit without shame that I slept through Emily Dickinson, even while my lovely female professor's eyes were watery with emotion. Oh, Walt Witman's 'Leaves of Grass' didn't quite wake me up either.
Faulkner deserves a paragraph by himself. My recommendation is that you read at least two books. One has to be The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text, and the other any one you lke. 'The Sound' is a completely different book, different from any other book by any auther. Now, my experience was the following: I didn't like it in the first reading, because I didn't understand it, due to my poor English at the time. Somebody gave me a few clues, I read it again, and boy it is something! Try for yourself.
A book that I specially enjoyed was Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (Signet Classics). Find a good edition because it's a pretty thick book and it will make your day for quite a while. The story is one of those you have to know what happens next, and you can't help getting involved in the turmoil of emotions.
Scott Fitzgerald is, to me, an overated author. He sure knew how to write, but it's not that he developed a genuine style, or conveys a special emotion in his stories. His case is more like Hemingwway's: he just writes perfectly and doesn't need to put his heart into it (though Hemingway does put his heart into his books). I have to recommend, therefore, his greatest novel, The Great Gatsby (Penguin Popular Classics). Probably what is more interesting is the author (and his wife's) life.
I have only read Steinbeck's East of Eden. And I completely loved it. I was supposed to read in college 'The Grapes of Wrath', but I read this one instead. I can't remember why. There are a lot of family 'disorders' (an euphemism that Americans like to use) here.
A book that is a masterful depiction of an era, and a portrait of the human soul like no other is Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts & the Day of the Locust A very important read, and entertaining as well.
Raymond Chandler was not included in my college list of authors to read. Bad, that was not a wise decision, because you are missing a heck of a thrill if you don't read this tough guy. If you do, besides being a good boy, you should get his masterpiece and avoid any chance of disappointments: The Long Goodbye. By the way, this is another case where the life of the author deserves a read too. Find yourself a good biography and you'll get all the ingredients of a very interesting story.
By Dashiell Hammett, the other great classic author of the detective genre, you are allowed to choose your pick. All his books are superbly written, but I prefer his 'Red Harvest'. Of the two (Chandler and him) he is the better writer, the better stylist, the purist. But if I had to choose one novel I'd pick Chandler's above mentioned title. See his Dashiell Hammett Complete Novels: Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man (Library of America #110).
Into the XXth century we go. John Dos Passos' life is another most interesting story to read, The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles along with his one-time friend Ernest. His trilogy U.S.A. marked a turning point in American literature. If that doesn't seem important to you -and there's no reason why it should- you can read it and you'll still like it. U.S.A.: The 42nd Parallel / 1919 / The Big Money (Library of America)
I can't understand why my professor made me read Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood'. I didn't like it. Then I read 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', because of the excellent movie. Well, that didn't hit the right key either. So it's up to you, pal.
I had to read Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood: A Novel and I didn't quite understand it at the time. Now, I know that this is truly a classic. It has much more meat than at first glance. Another case like O'Connor's is Walker Percy. But Percy is super-funny, if you follow him. His classics are 'The moviegoer' and his best work: Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.
Now for a little visit to the theater. Here, unquestionably, there are two great authors: Tennessee Williams (representing the South), Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937-1955 (Library of America) and Eugene O'Neill (representing the rest of the country, no pun intended), Eugene O'Neill : Complete Plays 1932-1943 (Library of America). Mr. O'Neill's best work (the critics say) is 'A Long Day's Journey into Night'. I personally like T. Williams better. Arthur Miller has already been mentioned.
Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a great narrative classic that deserves to be in our list. It also provides the Southern flavor, indispensable in any American list of anything.
Well, let's wrap this up folks. Hemingway. Read the following: A Farewell to Arms (Scribner Classics) and The Old Man and The Sea. They are very different in style. The last one is just awesome. This book tells you that Hemingway (however a villain he was as a man) was the best American writer ever. His style is so simple but so great that it makes you think that a two year old sucker can write like him!
I am not including Navokov's 'Lolita'. I just don't care for it; sounds like a lot of baloney to me.
I'd like to suggest the reading also of Willa Cather's excellent novels, with the inclusion of a short study on her, one of the best books on literary criticism~biography I've ever read, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. Read Cather's stories in Three Novels: O Pioneers!, the Song of the Lark, and My Antonia.
The most successful book for teenagers in the xxth century was The Catcher in the Rye. That's what it is, folks, just a book for teenagers, and not bad. Everybody reads it, regardless of being in any list or not, so there it is. I ommit 'Slaughterhouse Five', by Kurt Vonnegut: I let Salinger's pass, this one would be too much. I also ommit 'Catch 22', in the same category. I haven't read Cheever, Malamud, or Philip Roth, and they were neither part of my college course; so you tell me how they look.
Better writers than the last ones mentioned are Tom Wolfe with his The Bonfire of the Vanities; John Updike's masterful quartet on Rabbit, Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetrology: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit at Rest. To be honest, Updike should be the greatest living American author, but since this work he has declined considerably. Also: Saul Bellow's 'The Dangling Man' and, specially, his The Victim (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin).This author also declined very much since his first great classics.
After all these 'sacred' names, I would like to include only two more authors: First, Paul Auster. I've read only the following two books and both are excellent pieces of contemporary (to us) literature: Moon Palace (Contemporary American Fiction) and Leviathan. Thomas Pynchon was one of my must reads at college, but boy is he crazy! I mean, nobody in class figured out what on earth was the story about (I'm talking about his The Crying of Lot 49. However, most of us liked it. Don't ask me why, but the fact that we read it through, nobody understood it, and still... there was something in it. But what? This book is quite short, so I leave it up to you to read it or not.
Yes, the USA has come a long way since Washington Irving.