The thirteen writers on this list are, in my opinion, the finest American writers of the 20th century. They come from all over the United States, from Vermont to Pennsylvania, Georgia to Nebraska, New York to Indiana. Many lived abroad for much of their lives, while others stayed in their native states. These are their best, most fascinating and compelling works. In several cases, I singled out novels that are more obscure (i.e. Peony rather than the far better known The Good Earth).
Pearl S. Buck - Peony
Buck, daughter of American missionaries in China, wrote dozens of novels set in Asia and worked tirelessly to change negative Western perceptions of Asian countries and customs. Peony is set in K'aifeng in the 1850s, where there was a thriving Jewish community, which eventually assimilated entirely. The family of Ezra ben Israel takes Peony as a bondmaid, but conflicts arise when Peony falls in love with Ezra's only son. A fascinating depiction of cultural conflict and assimilation and a complex portrayal of the virtues and vagaries of love.
Dorothy Canfield - Seasoned Timber
This is one of Dorothy Canfield's finest novels. Set in Canfield's native Vermont, the story is about Timothy Hulme, headmaster of the Clifford Academy, his love for a schoolteacher twenty years his junior, and the conflict he must face when a trustee leaves a much needed gift to the academy that would require the school to exclude Jews and girls, as well as many of the local students. Both a passionate defense of human rights and a moving portrait of a man afraid of life passing him by, Seasoned Timber is an essential and unrecognized American novel.
Willa Cather - The Song of the Lark
Thea Kronberg is a minister's daughter from a small town in Colorado, determined to develop her musical talent into a career. The ambivalence of leaving behind one's town, family, and old loves is beautifully drawn and Thea's transformation from innocent child to strong, independent woman is a feminist affirmation. Cather's gorgeous descriptions of Colorado and Arizona are merely the icing on the cake.
Pietro di Donato - Christ in Concrete
Di Donato, the son of immigrants from Italy, provided us with one of the greatest American novels about the immigrant experience. Written in the rhythms of Italian-American English, the book narrates the bitter experiences of an Italian family that comes to America to work in construction. The conflict between national and spiritual identity and the demands of mere survival in capitalist America is brought to a crisis in a tragedy rich in religious symbolism. Older editions include an introduction by Dorothy Canfield.
Theodore Dreiser - An American Tragedy
This extraordinary novel is difficult to describe because it is much greater than the sum of its parts. Dreiser based his masterpiece partly on a notorious murder case, giving his protagonist the same initials as the defendant in the real case. Clyde Griffiths is deeply ambitious and desperate to leave behind the squalid poverty and Christian evangelism of his parents' home. Clyde works his way slowly up the social scale, but his passion for women (and his willingness to abandon them) proves his downfall.
Ernest Hemingway - A Farewell to Arms
This largely autobiographical novel is set in Italy during the first World War, where American Frederic Henry has enlisted in the Italian army as an ambulance driver. When he's wounded, he's cared for by English nurse Catherine Barkley with whom he falls in love. The novel was suppressed in Italy by the Fascist regime, both for its anti-militarism and its portrayal of the Italian army. The modern edition is still censored, missing Hemingway's original four letter words.
Henry James - The Wings of the Dove
All of James's characters and plots are developed with minute precision and subtle evolution, but The Wings of the Dove, one of his late masterpieces, is perhaps the most refined example of his technique. Kate and Merton are desperately in love and desperately poor. When they meet terminally ill and very wealthy Milly, they befriend her, though their motivation in doing so is murky and unscrupulous. In this novel James returns to some of his favorite themes, including the cultural clash between Americans and Europeans and the sticky entanglements of money and class.
Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
Lee's one and only published work to date is almost certainly the most widely read book that deals with racial prejudice in the US. Scout and her brother witness their father's defense of an African-American man accused of raping a white woman. The novel grapples with its incendiary subject with grace, courage, and compassion. There is also a strong feminist subtext - the characters that criticize Scout as unfeminine are also the most prejudiced about race and class.
Madeleine L'Engle - The Small Rain
L'Engle is better known for her many works for young adults, but her adult novels deserve equal recognition. The Small Rain was her first novel, started when she was still in college, though its sophistication makes it seem like a more mature work. It narrates the coming of age of Katherine Forrester, a gifted young pianist and actress, and her struggle to cultivate herself artistically. A real treat for readers who loved L'Engle's works as kids. There is also a sequel, A Severed Wasp.
Carson McCullers - The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
One of the most heart-rending depictions of small-town America, this novel follows John Singer, a deaf-mute who becomes the confidante of Mick, a troubled teenage girl, Dr. Copeland, an African-American physician, Jake, an alcoholic labor organizer, and other lonely people rejected and oppressed by the harsh injustices of their world. An unsparing and compassionate work, and McCullers's masterpiece.
John O'Hara - A Rage to Live
This novel set in small-town Pennsylvania tells the story of Grace Caldwell, an heiress whose rebellion against the rigid constraints imposed on the women of her time makes her notorious and involves her in numerous scandals. The graphic portrayal of Grace's sexual appetites was commonly interpreted as a depiction of nymphomania, a patriarchal reading that most women today will find simplistic and a bit paranoid.
Edith Wharton - The House of Mirth
Lily Bart is a poor socialite in 1890s New York determined to make a brilliant marriage and satisfy her desire for luxury, though she is tempted by the possibility of a love match with Lawrence Seldon, whose fortune isn't up to her standards. Like Louisa May Alcott's Work, this novel is a searing depiction of the crippling limitations women faced in a world in which their work was undervalued, underpaid, and under-respected and marriage their best chance at wealth. This 1905 novel was Wharton's first major work.
E. B. White - Charlotte's Web
Charlotte's Web may be a children's book, but it transcends the limits of its intended audience and can truly be considered one of the great American novels. Wilbur, a barnyard pig, and his beloved friend Charlotte, a large grey spider, hatch a plan to save Wilbur from being butchered. Though its protagonists are animals, the book has a startlingly realistic edge and its unsentimental compassion and dry sense of humor raise it far above the typical standards of children's literature. Only slightly less brilliant is White's Stuart Little.