While I am a huge fan of British Literature and have, in recent years, come to love many contemporary authors as well, this is a good representation of my favorites among American authors. I'd love to hear your favorites as well, so please comment below!
Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown
While I do quite enjoy The Scarlet Letter, my favorite work of Hawthorne's is this short story. The entire story is an allegory of good and evil, virtue and vice, as Young Goodman Brown journeys into the woods with the devil and spends the rest of his life wondering if what he found there was a dream or reality. If you can handle Romanticism and allegory, by all means, check it out.
“The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward, with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil”
Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie
I love Dreiser's take on the American Dream. In both Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, he takes characters who are striving for material success and shows how those desires lead to their destruction. A realist and a socialist, Dreiser criticized American society for being too bent on material gain while not providing equal opportunities for all. If you have the patience to delve through his slow-moving narrative, I recommend him.
“We see man far removed from the lairs of the jungles, his innate instincts dulled by too near an approach to freewill, his freewill not sufficiently developed to replace his instincts and afford him perfect guidance. He is becoming too wise to hearken always to instincts and desires; he is still too weak to always prevail against them.”
Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged
This is probably one of my favorite books of all time. It is about a fictional industrial America whose government is slowly socializing and destroying the free market economy. John Galt decides to 'stop the motor of the world,' and does so. I think it's really about the power of the individual to affect the entire world. Of course, Atlas Shrugged is over 1,000 pages, so you'd better be sure you're ready for it before diving in.
“If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose—because it contains all the others—the fact that they were the people who created the phrase 'to make money.' No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity—to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created."
Joseph Heller's Catch-22
This one quickly became a favorite. While very irreverent and ridiculous, the book serves to capture the desperation of one soldier trying as hard as he can to not get killed in World War II. The novel has some great comic characters, such as Major Major Major Major and Milo Minderbinder. While it is a hilarious satire, there are also serious elements because it's a story about war.
“History did not demand Yossarian's premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war."
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried
I discovered this author through my 'Gender and War' class my last semester of college. In the class, we read The Things They Carried, a half truth/half fiction collection of stories about O'Brien's experiences in the Vietnam War. I love this book. A word of warning, though: it is a book about war and includes all the gruesome details that some people like to avoid (and I generally like to avoid as well). But it is a great read despite all that because even if it's not all true, it's still honest.
“They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment."