This entry was curated by professor Andrew Scheiber of the St. Thomas English Department. Scheiber earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. from Michigan State University and has been at St. Thomas since 1990, where he currently teaches Critical Thinking: Literature and Writing, and American Authors I.

10. The Professor’s House, Willa Cather.

This novel begins as a small-scale drama about the frayed family relations of an aging history professor, but then unexpectedly opens onto a wider vista that stretches across the centuries and across the continent. Along the way we become immersed in profound questions about our relationship to our natural environment, to our own history, and to those who are by our sides in our personal joys and losses. Cather’s prose is deceptively simple and stately, allowing us to breathe the atmosphere of her ideas before we realize how they have changed us.

9. Beloved, Toni Morrison.

Ghost story, neo-slave narrative, testimony to the terrible ferocity of a mother’s love – this book is all that and more. No American novel has portrayed more vividly the horrible legacy of slavery, or the unreckoned costs of the quest for freedom. Morrison’s prose seems to speak directly from the soul of her characters, and Sethe, who would rather kill her children than have them returned to slavery, is one of Morrison’s most fearsome but admirable creations.

8. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren.

Probably the greatest novel written to date about American politics. The chronicle of Willie Stark, who evolves from idealistic nobody to cunning, ruthless master of the machinery of political power, has the sweep of an epic and the depth of a Greek tragedy. And Jack Burden, who tells the story from his not-quite-bystander perspective, ranks with Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway as one of the most compelling first-person narrators in American literature.

7. Quicksand, Nella Larsen.

A beautiful, talented, well-educated woman of half Danish and half African-American descent struggles to find her place in the world and suffers one of the most terrifying outcomes in all of American literature. Is it America’s troubled racial legacy that brings her down? Is it simply bad choices on her part, driven by some personal demons we can’t quite identify? I’ve read this novel a dozen times or more and it’s still fathomless, as its title implies.

6. Tracks, Louise Erdrich.

A poetic, powerful, irresistible novel, narrated through parallel storylines and populated by fierce, compelling characters who are determined to carry on in the face of devastating personal and cultural loss. My favorite of Erdrich’s many great books; Fleur Pillager, one of Tracks’ central protagonists, is a character for the ages, as much as any created by the Greek dramatists or Shakespeare.

5. The Bostonians, Henry James.

Seething North/South, red state/blue state antagonisms? Hotly pitched arguments over “tradition” vs. “progress”? Unholy witches’ brew of celebrity, politics and sexuality? It’s all right here, and it’s 1886, not 2016!

4. Daughter of Earth, Agnes Smedley; The Disinherited, Jack Conroy (tie).

I know I’m cheating by putting two titles in a single slot, but these are the two greatest novels in the American proletarian literary tradition. They both tell the same basic story – the rise of an individual from alienation and abject poverty to a political self-awareness and solidarity with others in struggle, but one is told from the female point of view and the other from the male. Both are powerful, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting.

3. The Awakening, Kate Chopin.

Edna Pontellier, a woman living a comfortable existence as a wife and mother, experiences an “awakening” that leads her to regard everything in her world – her husband, her children, her society, even her biology – as a barrier to her fulfillment as a person. This novel would have been shocking if published in 1999, let alone 1899, when it first appeared in print.

2. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Gatsby is a ruthless gangster pining for respectability and a lost love. No novel I know of comes closer to seducing us into an embrace of that uniquely American idea that you can rise above the vulgarity of money if only you have enough of it and know how to use it.

1. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison.

The epic journey of an educated but naive young black man through the hallucinatory labyrinth of American racism, this novel is as abject, profound, and as funny as the blues from which it takes its philosophy and plot structure.

Feel free to post in the comments section which books you agree with, which you think are missing and what your top 10 would be.

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7 Responses

  1. Bill Prada

    Hmm.. thanks for the list. There are a couple I haven’t read yet. Always on the lookout for my next read.

  2. Susan McMahon

    Thrilled to see The Awakening on this list. It’s a haunting, engaging novel that still moves me when I read it. Thank you.

  3. Merrie Davidson

    I am also delighted to see Daughter of Earth as one of the top novels. It hit me to the core when I was in college and I found all the Agnes Snedley material I could.

  4. Doug Hennes

    An excellent list, Andy. I would expand this to be a Top 12 to include “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, who needs to be on any such list because so many of his novels were incredibly perceptive representations of a critical time in U.S. history. Going “local,” it’s also hard to ignore “Main Street” and Sinclair Lewis!

    • Andrew Scheiber

      Doug, the one truth of such lists is that they prove there is more excellence out there than any one of them could ever contain! If you like Grapes of Wrath, give Conroy’s The Disinherited a shot!

  5. Carolyn

    Daughter of Earth is ALWAYS in my top 10 American novels – often in my top 5. I highly recommend it.