American classics have long held my interest. They bring into focus the eras in which they were written and capture moments in our nation’s diverse and unique history.
I’ve selected six of my favorites to recommend, ones that I enjoyed teaching as well. I’m not listing them in a specific order, rather I’m arranging them as they came to mind. Enjoy!
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne*
Hester Prynne who lives in Puritan New England is condemned by her peers as a scarlet women who must wear an A upon her bodice to proclaim her adultery to all. She skillfully creates this letter embroidered onto fine red cloth with elaborate style in gold thread. The book delves into the murky world of sin, punishment and retribution with the saving grace of love woven in.
Pearl, her daughter, comes into a world where she becomes the physical embodiment of sin. Hester’s partner in passion is the Reverend Dimmesdale who allows Hester to sacrifice and carry the punishment for their crime alone while he moves about their village as a veritable saint. Hester’s husband, Chillingworth who has long been absent, returns to see his wife with babe held in her arms pilloried in the town square for all to despise. A trap ensues by Chillingworth to snare Dimmesdale in a vicious web of lies and treachery. This is not an easy read but one that I find so complex and fascinating that my opinion about various characters changes each time I revisit it.
I do have one caution. The introduction titled “The Custom House” is tedious. It can easily be skipped without impacting your reading of the novel.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
This tale of George and Lenny who travel from ranch to ranch earning a subsistence living in the 1930s will break your heart, but you will love the novel and think about its implications long after you’ve read it.
Big and strong, Lenny is a sweet child in a man’s body. Smaller and smart, George is the classic tragic hero. He loves Lenny and has promised to care for and protect him. This slender 100 page volume packs emotion into every page. You’ll laugh, frown and cry over what occurs but you’ll love George and Lenny. The language will not challenge you but the sophistication of the plot will alter your concepts of what is or is not moral and what choices are right or wrong.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Flappers, crime, wild parties and love that knows no boundaries flavor the text with its Roaring Twenties theme. The beautiful and beguiling Daisy Buchanan whose voice conjured images of wealth and decadence owned Jay Gatsby’s heart. Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s newly found friend, tells the story of obsession and lost love bringing to life the self-indulgence of the newly rich of the era. The writing’s beautiful, at times poetic, yet it does not hide from the grime or ugliness of the era, nor does it shield you from the tragedy of blind love.
This one’s a story that will hold you from the first sentence to the final scene. It’s truly a page turner.
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Beautifully crafted and heartfelt, this story of Antonia an immigrant child who lives in the plains of Nebraska springs to life through the words of Jim Burden, her neighbor who was asked by her father to teach her English. Antonia who’s a few years older than Jim explores her new world in America with her newly found friend and teacher, Jim. Love and friendship flourish amid their shared adventures, yet their roads diverge. Jim, who lives a privileged life, goes away to college while Antonia stays behind to farm and to face the ravages of poverty and disdain for the choices she makes. Yet, it’s a triumphant life Antonia lives tied to the land and her family’s needs.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Written in 1960 as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum the book opens with the children of Atticus Finch, a lawyer from the Macomb, Georgia of 1932, behaving as kids filled with the fun and wonder of their childhood. The novel begins gently but soon slaps you hard into the heart of a town caught in the steely grip of bigotry. Told from the point of view of Scout whose father, Atticus, follows his moral imperative to defend Tom Robinson the plot soon folds into depth and complexity. Tom’s a black man accused of attempting to “force himself” upon a young white woman whose family’s poor, mean and on the lowest rung of white society. Worst of all the father, a single and vengeful person who hates everyone but no group more than blacks, spews his despicable hate upon Atticus who defends Tom and by extension the lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem. The many layers of meaning, social issues and characters in this novel make it one of the most gripping and mesmerizing novels in American literature.
This one’s a fantastic read, and I also highly recommend the much-acclaimed film adaption made in 1962 and starring Gregory Peck.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The odyssey of the Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California during The Dust Bowl is considered one the most authentic depictions of Depression Era life. Tom Joad who is the oldest child in the family shows his tough moral fiber, strength and love of family so that by the end of the book you know the ties that hold them together can never be severed. Steinbeck wrote from first hand knowledge since he travelled with the “Okies” as they were disparagingly labeled; he incorporated their stories and his experiences into this great American novel. It’s shocking in its realistic account of the era, yet uplifting with characters that win your heart and your admiration. The writing is beautiful, the characters realistic and the theme inspirational. It’s also been on the banned books list for a list of reasons. The main claim is that there is cursing, there are references to sex and objections about the characterization of the poor.
I also recommend the 1940 film version starring Henry Fonda and produced by John Ford. It is a masterful depiction of the novel filmed in black and white.
Do you have any favorite classic novels? Why did they stand out to you?
(By the way, if you’re looking for more classics love, check out our friends at The Readventurer’s awesome series, The Year of the Classics.)
*Note from Sarah: The Scarlet Letter always makes me think of this Tim Riggins moment -
Tami : What’s the Scarlet Letter all about Tim?
Tim : You know what it’s about.
Tami : I do know. What’s the Scarlet Letter about?
Tim : It’s about a gal name Scarlet, obviously.
(image via WWRD?)